During our conversation, Paul Hunter – Co-Artistic Director of Told by an Idiot – says something rather unexpected: “One of our heroes is Miles Davies, because aside from his extraordinary music and creativity, he never settled and he constantly changed things.” Now, on the surface of things, this might seem an unusual comparison to get one’s head around. Upon closer inspection, though, it serves to underline those factors that give this company its unique edge. Since forming in 1993, Told by an Idiot has made its name creating uproarious performances that combine playful storytelling, buffoonery and a pervasive sense of unpredictability. Jazz music’s emphasis on improvised rhythms and a ‘moment-by-moment’ reinvention are fitting expressions for this company’s restless creativity. “We work very hard at trying to be spontaneous, because I think that kind of spontaneity and ‘liveness’ is what theatre does better than anything else.”
Over the course of their 21 years creating work, the company has explored a divergent range of ideas and topics. It has adapted films and novels, tackled Shakespeare, revived classics and devised entirely original work. This wide-ranging imaginative palette has given the company a reputation for being more than a little bit unpredictable. In today’s cash-strapped climate, caution has become the better part of valour for many companies and venues. Do these restraints mean that Told by an Idiot’s desire to reinvent itself with each new production has become more difficult? “We were very conscious of not wanting to repeat ourselves. For us, there was a big danger in that. When you have a success, people want the same thing. But we can’t do that. I know in some ways that makes it harder for venues to sell us, because they can’t do it off the back of the previous show. But I think at the heart of what we do remains the notion of this very playful, rather anarchic, often poetic spirit.”
The idea behind Told by an Idiot began when Paul Hunter and Hayley Carmichael (Co-Artistic Director) were completing their acting training at Middlesex Polytechnic in 1986. Under the tutelage of an influential teacher, John Wright, Hunter and Carmichael began to envisage the possibility of creating original work from scratch. “One of the earliest things he challenged us with was the notion of making our own work. I think that the best teaching, in terms of theatre work, is a brilliant combination of excitement and fear. When we left, he suggested to us that we should make something together. We got terribly excited. But the irony was that when met up in a café in Camden Town, we couldn’t come up with any ideas!” Their collective imaginations sparked into life when the group discovered Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the novel that would go on to form the basis of their first production, On the Verge of Exploding (1993). This bold and bravely non-literal adaptation of Garcia’s novel garnered great acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with the production going on to tour Romania and Johannesburg. Looking back over this time, it was clearly a formative turning point for the company. Still, as Hunter explains, the aims at the time felt a lot less momentous to begin with: “I would love to say we had this great mission when we began, but I don’t think we did. I think the bottom line for us in forming a company was being able to say we made something of our own that no one else had ever done before. Regardless of whether people thought it was rubbish or not – it was ours.”
If there is a constant, underlying factor within Told by an Idiot’s work, it stems from its unapologetic celebration of theatre itself. Through a rejection of mimesis, it embraces the trickery and craftiness of performance in all its glory. “One of the strengths of theatre is its very artifice. It’s by acknowledging this artifice that you can find a different sort of truth.” By revelling in artifice, Told by an Idiot has developed a performance style that combines savage comedy with a disquieting undercurrent of the tragic and macabre. This blurring of form is an essential element for its latest piece, Never Try This At Home. Currently playing at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Told by an Idiot’s latest endeavour explores the darker side of children’s television. Set in the fictional world of Saturday morning television show, Shushi, the piece explores the manic world of custard pies and over-the-top presenters which have long been a touchstone in children’s entertainment. “Over the last few years, we’ve been inspired by things that have happened in real life. I remembered that as an eight-year-old, a family friend took me on the TV show, Tiswas. I was in the cage where they threw buckets of water and custard pies at us. We came up with a show that was inspired by that and celebrates that wildness and pushes the anarchy that is in our work.” The surreal and chaotic world of children’s television is an ideal arena for Told by an Idiot to play in. Its work retains a rambunctious and sometimes darkly mischievous quality, and children’s television is the perfect space in which to demonstrate its talents and explore the darker side of all the reckless, pie-throwing fun.
Finally, I end my conversation with Hunter by asking him what lessons he has learned as a theatre maker with Told by an Idiot. I ask him if there are any shards of wisdom he could pass on to the artists and companies starting to create work today? “Choose your critics carefully,” he advises. “You’ll be inundated with people who will have an opinion on what you should do, and it’s very important you listen to a lot of these things. But it’s also important to hold on to what you believe something is about.” He believes passionately in the bonds between creative people and in the importance of forging strong relationships with one another: “At the heart of making something is something else that binds people together. You might not even be able to put your finger on it. But it’s an understanding that goes quite deep.”
For more information on Told by an Idiot, visit its website. Never Try This At Home is at Birmingham Rep until 15 March, then tours to Sheffield Crucible (18-22 Mar) Traverse (26-29 Mar) and Soho Theatre (2-26 April).