interview with Julian Crouch: part I

Julian Crouch is an artist, a mask and puppet-maker, and a theatre designer and director who I’ve written about previously at the Artlog. He’s gamely agreed to be interrogated by me about his creative journey and his working processes, and here is Part I of what I hope will extend to several conversations. I have to tell you that he is a wonderful interviewee.
Julian Crouch with Mr Punch
C. H.-J. I was given a marionette by my parents for my seventh birthday. It was a Pelham ‘Prince’, and I loved him immediately in his frock-coat and breeches and his hair tied back in a ribbon. I never had a moment of hesitation about what to do with him, and had him out of that box and marching about in double-quick time. Julian, can you recall your first experience of puppets, and was it love at first sight?

J. C. The truth is I have no recollection of my first experience of puppets. British TV abounded with them when I was young (I was born in 1962), and much of what I saw has later influenced my work – particularly The Singing Ringing Tree, which intrigued, delighted and disturbed me, with it’s background German dialogue, and strange imagery. I have a copy now in glorious colour, but on British TV it was shown in 3 or 4 parts, in grainy black and white.
Above and below: The Singing Ringing Tree

C. H.-J. I recall that, and yes, it was shock many years later to find that it was in the most incredible colour.

When did you design/make your first puppet?

J.C. Again, I am not certain, but I remember making a Punch Puppet and would guess I was around 9 years old, although I had made masks before that. As a boy I was very drawn towards mask making, and still am actually. I made masks and puppets all through my childhood. I had found a book in the library about paper sculpture, and I thought I could give that a go. These paper sculptures were clean and white and neat, and I didn’t have the patience to read the book properly or follow instructions. I remember the things that I made were from newspaper stuck together with brown gum tape. I would cover the whole thing with the tape, and I would lick it rather than use a sponge. I still have the taste in my mouth.
C. H.-J. I too make masks from gum-strip, so I know that taste of old, though I use a sponge these days.
The Caricature Theatre, a puppet company in Cardiff, gave me my first job when I was straight out of school, age fifteen-and-a-half. I sort of fell into it, and it was a fantastic experience because the actors had year-long contracts that gave a security of employment that’s almost unheard of these days. I began my apprenticeship learning about and working with different types of puppet, including rod, marionette, glove and ‘Bunraku’ style. Alas the company has long-gone. Did you initially come to puppetry as a maker/designer, or as a performer?

J. C. I came as a mask maker principally, and puppet making came with the territory, although it’s not often I have made pure puppets as people know them – masks, body extensions, scenic elements and objects as puppetry are more my line. 
Below: Shellbent from The Golden Submarine (Welfare State International 1990)
Below: The Sack Creature from Charivari. (Trickster Theatre Company, 1985)
My father was a drama lecturer at a teacher training college in Scotland when I was in my early teens. Along with his students he would do a saturday morning workshop for young kids. It was an adventure based experience for the children and they would work from a map. At the end of a session they would gather round the map and choose where they wanted to go. If they said the marsh, they would be asked what kind of thing they might find there, and they might say ‘a crocodile’. I had a morning job but I would come in for this part of the session. My task that week would be to make the crocodile for next week’s session. I guess that was my training.
C. H-J. I believe that we share a lack of art school training.
J. C. I learned early on that I didn’t like being taught art in a formal situation, and the work I did at school was not nearly as compelling as the things I made in my bedroom. So I went to Edinburgh University instead to study the history of art. I was not a good student and slowly became nocturnal, awake at night and asleep during the day. I am only motivated if I am engaged and university didn’t quite do it for me, but I did love the city as long as I was not near the university or the student union, and I played in bands, and made masks and puppets for local companies. My college lecturers had a dim view of my external activities, and convinced me I was lazy and had little prospect of gaining any kind of meaningful employment. Eventually I found myself agreeing and I ended my three years at Uni with a mini breakdown… literally unable to open my mouth and speak to anyone. I cured myself by seeking out a friend who had suffered a nervous breakdown a year or so earlier and who we had all quietly shunned through adolescent embarrassment. I found that I could talk to him, and slowly I withdrew from this extended panic attack. The following day (or week maybe) I started making masks in my room. After I had amassed a collection I touted them round the theatre companies of Edinburgh in two black bin liners offering my services at a cut price rate. I got a few jobs this way, and made enough masks to exhibit them. 

Below: masks of tree bark and grass developed for Macbeth  (Theatre for a New Audience), but were also used in The Seagull (Lake Lucille) and The Enchanted Island (Met Opera).

One day a London based company called Trickster came to a venue called Edinburgh Theatre Workshop to put on a production with local volunteers. I worked at the box office there and saw that they used masks in their work. Their director Nigel Jamieson (for whom roughly 20 years later, in Bali, I designed Theft of Sita) was ever ambitious, and their designer and I could just not make enough masks in the very short time we had. So out came my bin liner full of masks, and at that moment the local Arts Council representative walked in the door. She had seen my exhibition so recognised my work, and through that encounter arranged for me to receive a bursary to move to London and become apprentice to the Trickster Theatre company. I stayed with them for about three years, making masks and puppets, getting involved in rehearsals, and learning a bit about lighting design. Their tours took me to many places in Europe. I still work with Rob Thirtle who I met in that company 30 years ago. He is performing in Salzburg right now as I write this in Brooklyn, in Jedermann, my most recent production.

Below: more  tree bark and grass masks for Macbeth, The Seagull, and The Enchanted Island .

C. H.-J. The first time I came across your name was when I heard about Shockheaded Peter. Was Improbable Theatre, which was set up by you, Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott, founded in order to gestate the production? I know that the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Lyric Hammersmith were also involved. Explain the evolution.

Above and below: Shockheaded Peter

J. C. Shockheaded Peter was not actually an Improbable production, although it is often credited as such. It was produced by Michael Morris and Cultural Industry. Its first development workshop preceded the founding of Improbable by a few weeks, and it always remained a separate entity. 
Michael had the idea of the Shockheaded Peter production, and originally had a whole host of artists who were going to work on it. Only the band, The Tiger Lillies, survived the first attempt, and then Michael asked Phelim to get involved, and he asked me. It did its tryouts at West Yorkshire, and then shifted to the Lyric Hammersmith. We thought it would have a life of only a few weeks, but it surprised us all.

C. H.-J. I sometimes get completely flummoxed when people ask me what I do. Not because I don’t know, but because the list is quite long and not easy to condense to a single description. The stage designer John Macfarlane has regular exhibitions not just of his designs, but of his paintings, and so he is known as both a designer and an artist. (We show at the same gallery.) Although I’m now known principally as a painter, I’ve been a performer, a choreographer, a director and designer, an animator, a book illustrator and an artist. (These days when I have to fill in a form I just stick down ‘artist’.) How do you see yourself?

J. C. We sound quite similar. I use the word artist now, although it took me up until very recently to claim that title with confidence. This year alone I have worked as a director, designer, book illustrator, composer, writer, teacher, and installation artist… and I am happy to try just about anything. My diversity seemed aimless and distracting when I was younger, as if I had no discipline and couldn’t focus, but somehow, as I get older, it all seems to overlap in a wonderfully rich way. One discipline feeds the next. I love working just outside of my comfort zone.
C. H.-J. And I should say we love watching you working outside that comfort zone because it’s clearly producing wonderful results. I think you’re right about the diverse knowledge of many years overlapping to produce rich new creations. I’m having one of those moments myself, as I get ready to start directing The Mare’s Tale for Mid Wales Chamber Orchestra after a long absence from the performing arts. 
Julian, there are so many more things I’d like to discuss with you, not least your work as a scenic designer. But that must wait for another day. Thank you for having been so forthcoming with your answers. This talk has been illuminating, and reassuring too for those young people who have to find their ways through life more by instinct than by the usual higher education routes. 
Below: Set for The Hunchback of Notre (Dame, West Yorkshire Playhouse, 1994)


When my work on The Mare’s Tale is done, I plan to write more at the Artlog about Julian.  

11 thoughts on “interview with Julian Crouch: part I

  1. Pingback: Aging Magician – victoriab:culture

  2. I was a student at the college where Julian’s father lectured and took part in the Children’s Theatre project he mentioned. I have many memories of the masks and props that Julian created and it is very interesting and pleasing to see where his skills have taken him.

  3. Pingback: Puppet Catch-up: Clive’s Posts | Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Artlog:

  4. Clive this is great. In 1995 Julian designed a puppet wall mural for a collection of monologues called Family Values I wrote for Bristol Old Vic. Six grotesque, knife and fork wielding, offal eating heads bursting out of a kitchen wall. His work is stunning. I look forward to the next episode.

    • Jeff, Julian has been a delight to interview, and so I thank you for putting us together. I can imagine it must have been a lot of fun collaborating on the B.O.V. project. Julian has such a fantastic capacity for conjuring plausible horrors!

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