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Told by an Idiot: ‘We’re serious about our comedy’

Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter in My Perfect Mind. Photo: Manuel Harlan Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter in My Perfect Mind. Photo: Manuel Harlan

If there’s one thing that defines Told by an Idiot, it is collaboration. “I still hold with the notion that theatre is the most collaborative of art forms,” says Paul Hunter, the company’s co-founder and artistic director. “I think theatre’s at its best when it properly collaborates, so that’s always the starting point for us: the idea of collaboration.”

Collaboration, though, has meant many different things over the company’s 22-year life. It began with a focus on the actor, moving on to work with poets such as Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage and writers such as Carl Grose. The 2004 production I’m a Fool to Want You enlisted jazz musicians to capture episodes from the life of French writer Boris Vian, while in 2013 it forged an actor collaboration of a different kind with Edward Petherbridge on My Perfect Mind, a show inspired by Petherbridge’s stroke.

Hayley Carmichael, another of Told by an Idiot’s founders, insists that the shows – while different – all share the same philosophy at heart.

“Even if the starting point is brought to the room by one of us, what happens next is that everyone in the room is a collaborator and takes part in the collaborative process, which for us will always make the end result richer.”

Hunter sees the constant seeking out of new co-conspirators as a way to keep the company’s work evolving. “We’ve often been drawn to collaborating with people who aren’t theatremakers,” he tells me, adding that the company feels “more provoked” when working with artists from different mediums.

It would have been easy for Told by an Idiot to stick to an established formula. Soon after the company was set up in 1993 by Hunter, Carmichael and their former teacher John  Wright, the group found success on the Edinburgh Fringe with On the Verge of Exploding, a piece inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The show was nominated for the Independent Theatre award and was picked up for a run at the London International Mime Festival.

Cast members in rehearsals for I Am Thomas. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Cast members in rehearsals for I Am Thomas. Photo: Manuel Harlan


“From the very beginning we’ve tried to resist too much overt repetition,” Hunter stresses. “When you have something that people like, which luckily we had at the very beginning, then the temptation is to do the same thing, because people want you to do the same thing.”

Still, there’s an established Told by an Idiot style than runs through its work. Asked to define it, Hunter refuses to narrow it down any further than a focus on three elements: “The performers, the material and the audience.”

“We celebrate the role of the performer above anything else,” he says, adding that the company has “never been particularly interested in trying to create reality on stage”. Every new project starts with a question: “Does this need to be on stage?”

Another recognisable feature of Told by an Idiot’s work is its marriage of the dark and the comedic. “We’re very serious about our comedy,” says Hunter. “Occasionally we’ve done out and out comedies, but on the whole most of our work is about the tension between something that is funny and something that isn’t.”

Carmichael adds: “We have always wanted to find the comedy in all things human. It’s always there.”

The company has made shows that touch on dementia, violence, misogyny and death – to name just a few of their themes. “On the surface, if you described 99% of our shows to people, they would go: ‘And that’s funny?’” Hunter suggests. He firmly believes, though, that “comedy can reveal the humanity in something, it can reveal the lunacy of something, the ridiculousness of a situation”.

Told by an Idiot shows tend to start from a small grain of something unlikely. My Perfect Mind is a prime example.

“If someone had said to me two and half years ago that one of our most successful shows would be about an older actor having a stroke and not playing King Lear, I probably would have laughed,” says Hunter.

My Perfect Mind overlaid Petherbridge’s memories and experiences with scenes and speeches from King Lear. The two halves of the show, despite making an improbable marriage, spoke to one another in surprising, insightful and often deeply moving ways. Hunter insists, though, that “you can’t set out to do something really profound”. It just happens.

“Things don’t always arrive by lots of consideration,” says Hunter. “We think about things, but sometimes they happen by mistake.” This is why research and development is such an integral part of Told by an Idiot’s process. It is crucial for the company and its collaborators to have time together to explore ideas without the pressure of an imminent production. Or, as Hunter puts it: “You need the opportunity to mess about.”

“The Idiots have a very special way of working,” says Annie Fitzmaurice, an associate Idiot along with Stephen Harper, Iain Johnstone and Michael Vale. “As often as not, the ideas you contribute as an actor could be off-the-cuff remarks, little jokes at a coffee break, or random observations that Paul will pick up on and run with.” Harper agrees, adding: “Told by an Idiot’s process stretches me beyond my comfort zone.”


5 things you need to know about Told by an Idiot

1. Artistic director and co-founder Paul Hunter has worked on every Told by an Idiot show to date.

2. The company has worked regularly on co-productions with theatres including the Barbican, the Theatre Royal in Plymouth and the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

3. Audiences are offered the opportunity to peek behind the scenes at the company’s working process in open rehearsals.

4. The company is currently working on the Falling Down Project, an investigation into why we still laugh when people hurt themselves.

5. The company’s patron is actor Richard Wilson.

Fortunately for the company, the ability to “mess about” has increasingly been enabled by a range of co-producers and by the support of Arts Council England. Hunter sees this investment in research and development as vital to the nurturing of innovative theatre. “If that’s what you want to support, you need to support it from the earliest kernel of an idea,” he argues.

Told by an Idiot’s rehearsal process is always about creating an open environment – something it has taken one step further in recent years. It now regularly throws open its doors to members of the public, inviting audience members to watch the company rehearsing. The aim is to “slightly demystify some of the stuff that goes on around performance”.

“We’re very keen for people to engage with what Told by an Idiot is in a way that goes beyond buying a ticket and watching what we do,” Hunter continues. Opening up the rehearsal room is an important part of this, as is the educational work the company does under the banner of Taught by an Idiot. Recent projects have included a digital devising project that linked up groups in South Africa and the UK, and a collaboration with four primary schools in Camden that encouraged children to challenge traditional fairytale narratives.

Theatremakers talk a lot about accessibility, but what does that word really mean? For Hunter, it is “something that can be complex, it can be provocative, it can be surprising, it can make an audience work”. He recalls an interview with one of the founders of Pixar Animation Studios: “The guy asked him: ‘Who is your target audience?’ And he said: ‘Basically, anybody who breathes.’ That’s what we should be aspiring to.”

That aspiration continues with the company’s new show I Am Thomas, another surprising mash-up of comedy and tragedy. Using songs and humour, it tells the story of Thomas Aikenhead, the last man to be executed for blasphemy in Britain. Hunter describes it as “an extraordinary piece of hidden history”. In directing the show, Hunter wants to stress that Aikenhead was “not some extraordinary martyr”, he was just a man “in the wrong place at the wrong time”.

“It will be a very provocative, but hopefully very entertaining, piece of theatre,” Hunter adds. Provocative and entertaining: two more words that might define Told by an Idiot.

Company profile: Told by an Idiot

Artistic director and joint chief executive: Paul Hunter
Executive producer and joint chief executive: Anna Schmitz (covering Jenni Grainger’s maternity leave)
Number of performances: 88 in 2014/15
Audience figures: 9,500 in 2014/15
Participant figures: 1,143 people reached through Taught by an Idiot so far this year
Number of employees: A core team of four (artistic director, executive producer, assistant producer and participation manager), plus a placement from Creative Access. Actors, technicians, stage managers and creative team members are contracted on a project-by-project basis
Turnover: £265,827 to year end March 2015
Funding levels: £168,214 per year (committed until 2018) Arts Council England national portfolio organisation funding
Key contacts: 020 7407 4123 annaschmitz@toldbyanidiot.org

I Am Thomas runs at the Lowry, Salford, until March 5, before a UK tour

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