Improbable Theatre creates ensemble-based theatrical experiments that thrive on improvisation, personal risk, humor, and a unique brand of stage magic. Representing the combined writing, directing, performance, and design talents of London-based Julian Crouch, Phelim McDermott, and Lee Simpson, the company devises innovative ways to tell stories while creating a balance between the formally experimental and refreshingly accessible.
The Walker Art Center has been involved with Improbable Theatre almost from the company’s start, helping to anchor its inaugural U.S. tour with 70 Hill Lane. The production opened the Walker’s 1999 Out There series and was perhaps also the high point of its Inanimate Objects: Adventures in New Puppetry series of that season. The piece already bore elements now considered Improbable trademarks: source material drawn from the lives of company members; dark humor; everyday objects brought to life; a fascination with death and childhood; an intentional casualness; and the regular breaking of theater’s “fourth wall.”
Crouch and McDermott’s over-the-top outlandishness was in fullest view in Shockheaded Peter, their collaboration with subversive cabaret trio the Tiger Lillies, which was presented at Minneapolis’ Theatre de la Jeune Lune in 2000. This large-scale, black-comic “junk opera” puppet show was inspired by Der Struwwelpeter (Slovenly Peter), the cautionary and grisly nineteenth century collection of children’s tales by Heinrich Hoffmann. The following year, they returned with Spirit, a piece in which interpersonal risk, surreal stagecraft, and autobiography reached new levels. Improvising and reenacting their real-life interactions interwoven with poignant storytelling, the actors took the kind of high-wire chances that left audiences wondering just how much further this company could go.
It was this history that led to the commission and coproduction of Improbable Theatre’s largest-scale work to date, The Hanging Man. While most of the company’s past work was developed and produced in London, its relationships with U.S. institutions such as the Walker and the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, were becoming increasingly central to the support of new productions. The three founders, along with American sound designer Daron West (SITI Company), were invited to the Walker for a developmental residency to conceptualize the piece’s early stages.
Like all of Improbable Theatre’s work, The Hanging Man did not start with a script but in a rehearsal room with the threads of several ideas—in this instance, the concept of a man so rigid he cannot die when he tries to hang himself—and visual inspiration from seventeenth century paintings of Punchinellos in masks. Theater and improv exercises, paintings, puppetry, company members’ own existential musings on modern times, music, and comedy all fed into their layering process. The result, which toured the United States and Europe, was an alluring and unpredictable “medieval mystery play,” one that has clear implications for the future direction of twenty-first-century performance theater.
- Coproduced with the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Lyric Hammersmith, and Wiener Festwochen.
- For a thorough examination of the processes and outcomes related to the Walker Art Center, Wexner Center for the Arts, and Improbable Theatre’s presentation/collaboration model, see Suzanne Callahan, Singing Our Praises: Case Studies in the Art of Evaluation (New York: Association of Performing Arts Presenters, 2005).
Philip Bither “Improbable Theater,” from Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections (New York: D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, 2005), 282.