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Theatremakers: Told By An Idiot

First Published 8 December 2009, Last Updated 13 February 2012

Type ‘Told By An Idiot’ into Google and two quotes will appear at the top of the page; “Theatre about as inventive, imaginative, and fantastical as it gets” and “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The first is Time Out’s much quoted thoughts on the theatre company, the second is taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and signifies that drama doesn’t necessarily need explosions, battles and over the top effects to be exciting. Both are equally relevant to Paul Hunter and Hayley Carmichael’s innovative theatre company Told By An Idiot and sum up their work over the past 17 years.

Having met at Middlesex College in 1986, where Carmichael and Hunter were both studying drama under John Wright, they decided to form a theatre company. After spending two years training at the college, Hunter and Carmichael left with one crucial element missing from their plans, an idea for the piece that would launch their collective.

Five years later, both working separately as actors, Hunter found the inspiration they needed in a two-page extract from Gabriel García Márquez’s seminal 100 Years Of Solitude. Carmichael read it, agreed it was to be the basis for their first production and in 1993 the company successfully launched at the Edinburgh Festival with the critically acclaimed On The Verge Of Exploding, adapting the short story from Marquez’s novel into their first play. As Hunter explains, the themes and characters in their very first show became vitally important to the company’s development: “We described it as a clown tragedy; the two characters that Hayley and I played in it were very, very naive. I was a poor chicken thief and she was a peasant girl and they were the sort of characters that had they been in a bigger story or a classic story like Shakespeare, they would have been the comic relief, but we wanted them to be our Romeo and Juliet. They are our love story, rather than being pushed aside to provide the comedy.”

The idea of creating stories with characters that live on the edge of society at the forefront of the play – the man who would never normally get the girl or the woman who wouldn’t quite fit into the world created by the playwright – developed into the company’s obsession, exploring the delicate line between tragedy and comedy, as Hunter explains: “What was exciting was to make something where you’re making people laugh but almost immediately at the same time they’re feeling something else. So in a way it’s what life is about, they’re not separate things and that became something we were always keen to pursue. Even in The Fahrenheit Twins [the company’s latest work], in the very end, it’s an incredibly bleak ending to this story, but most nights people are still laughing when my character is going ‘well do you think we’d feel better if we killed him?’. That laugh is a laugh, but underneath that is a very bleak ending as you see what has happened to these two kids.”

The Fahrenheit Twins, which played at the Barbican Pit last month, is a dark fairytale adapted from Michael Faber’s children’s book, telling the story of a pair of siblings growing up on a remote arctic exploration station with their scientist parents. Both funny and sinister, the production perfectly encapsulates the company’s love of the surreal, imaginative and all things beautifully strange.

Carmichael and Hunter, who both act and direct, were reunited together on stage for the first time in five years in The Fahrenheit Twins. The pair never attempt to both act in and direct a production, having accepting they are best keeping their attentions directed on one medium at a time: “When we first made The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Hayley and I were both in it and co-directed it,” says Hunter. “The show was successful and then revived at the Lyric [Hammersmith], but when we revived it I was very clear that I didn’t want to be in it. I know some people are very good at it but I didn’t really enjoy both to the maximum. I didn’t really enjoy fully acting in it because my eye was always going ‘I must remember to tell that person about the moment they lift their cup up’ and I didn’t fully enjoy the directing because I kept thinking ‘I must remember I’ve got to play that bit more’. After that experience I decided I wouldn’t do it again.” Collaboration, therefore, is a key part of Told By An Idiot’s philosophy, with both founders realising that directing them in one of their own productions takes a particular type of person: “Hayley and I have known each other for 20 years and know each other inside out. We thought we can’t bring someone in who will be too weak and let us get on with it, we need someone who is going to be a strong director.”

Matthew Dunster, who Hunter worked with on Troilus And Cressida at Shakespeare’s Globe this summer, was the choice to direct The Fahrenheit Twins. He too recognised the difficulties, as he explains: “It’s very strange directing two people who are your boss. They’re the joint Artistic Directors and they’re in it. So they’re employing me to direct them; that’s quite an interesting dynamic.”

Told By An Idiot’s collaborative philosophy reaches far beyond their opinions and those of the director though, explains Hunter: “It’s a very collaborative process, not only with me and Hayley but with everyone in the room. We passionately believe that theatre should be the most collaborative of art forms. Hayley and I truly believe the best theatre comes out of not one person’s imagination; everyone in the room has a voice, not just the director or the stage manager, everyone has a say in what they’re seeing.”

Whether Told By An Idiot is performing a story based outside the realms of our reality, such as the 2006 production The Evocation Of Papa Mas, which was set in a cartoon world and based around imagery of Trinidadian carnivals, or working on A Comedy Of Errors with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the rehearsal process is always designed to create something new, magical and innovative: “Our starting point would always be the physical,” says Hunter, “so even with the Shakespeare we didn’t leap to reading the play, we spent a lot of time finding the physical life of the play and then came to the script a bit later… we tend to try and approach it more from the physical life and the script sits on top of the physical language we create.”

This preliminary work cements the company’s unique style. In The Fahrenheit Twins, although dialogue was used, the story was actually told through Hunter and Carmichael’s physical actions; miming, changing characters with the smallest adjustment of their costume or the way they held themselves. “We try not to rely on language,” Hunter elaborates. “We always like to think that if you came to one of our shows and you didn’t speak English you’d follow most of what was happening. We tend, when we’re devising, to try and be very clear that the words aren’t telling the story, the story is told by what you are seeing.”

To further enhance this unconventional approach, the technical and aesthetic side of the productions are crucially important. In rehearsals they find it vital to have the set there for the whole period so they can play with the space and utilise it fully before introducing words: “The design in particular is crucial. We don’t tend to have a conventional rehearsal period of five or six weeks, we do two or three periods of research prior to that rehearsal period where the designer is involved. For instance, The Fahrenheit Twins, which has quite an extraordinary set, we had the set from day one of rehearsals so we were on the set for the whole time in the rehearsal room which means that we can hopefully create a really strong visual world and visual vocabulary.”

Told By An Idiot’s list of past collaborations boasts an impressive number of the literary and acting elite, including the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who created a female twist on the story of Casanova for the company, children’s author Philip Pullman with an adaptation of his story The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, and Richard Wilson – who became the first ‘non-idiot’ to direct a show – working with the company on Playing The Victim at the Royal Court.

Drawing their inspiration from outside the theatre realm, relying instead on cinema, carnivals and children’s stories, for example, Hunter says the original projects are the most exciting: “The first one [production] is always special because when we made that we never thought we’d be a company. I was just thinking I want to say that as an actor I’ve made one show. Luckily we stood in Edinburgh and people were queuing up to get in and you thought ‘God that’s ours’. It felt different, of course, to a play like one by Shakespeare or one you pick off a shelf, no one had ever done On The Verge Of Exploding before, it didn’t exist until we did it. My favourite shows are the ones where we’ve created it from very little, like the jazz show I’m A Fall To Want You was really special because again, it was just our imagination… there’s something about the act of creation.”

With the ever present imagination and magical edge to Told By An Idiot’s shows, with the blinding white fur set in The Fahrenheit Twins, or elaborate wigs in Casanova, you cannot help but see the influence of another theatre company, Complicite. Hunter, whilst resistant to invite comparison, agrees: “I think there are very few companies working in the era we are or making the sort of work that we do that aren’t influenced by the early Complicite shows. I think even seeing them when I was in college in the late 80s with Hayley; we’d never seen anything like it. Before then theatre had been pretty straightforward traditional and then when you saw the Complicite shows they looked mad and they seemed mad. I thought there was some sort of anarchy and a life about it that was a very big influence on our early work.”

As well as the methods the companies have in common, they also both produce pieces that are wide open to interpretation and belong in theatres all over the world. “One key moment was when we were invited to Romania to a festival with our first show and no one knew who we were,” says Hunter. “Luckily they sort of went mad for it and also saw things in our play that we didn’t. It was shortly after the fall of communism and a lot of these actors and artists and audiences were saying ‘It’s about Romania and this character represents the old regime’ and me and Hayley thought it was extraordinary. We took the very same show to South Africa the following year, we were the first company to go there post apartheid, and they all said ‘Oh my God, your play’s so political it’s like our country’.”

After returning to Stratford-Upon-Avon with A Comedy Of Errors next summer and a possible visit to New York later on, Hunter and Carmichael will be back to create a new show, developing something from nothing and allowing it to take its time, not premiering it until 2011. As Hunter explains, the life of an Idiot is a constant evolution and an exciting journey with no set directions: “We have some vague ideas about German terrorism and various things, but we have no idea what it will turn out to be. It’ll start out being about 1970s terrorist groups and could end up going a long way from that.” With an avid following and scores of surrogate Idiots who have had the chance to work with the company, wherever it ends up, it is a safe bet that the unconventional Told By An Idiot journey will determine a suitably imaginative destination.



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