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Dorothy Max Prior profiles a collective of theatre-makers who have taken object animation into new territories.

Neil Gaiman: ‘So this is Julian himself, in the Tramway, showing us a prototype wolf's head he'd just made from burlap and glue sticks... Or possibly it's a wolf, showing us a Julian Crouch he'd made earlier...’
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For anyone interested in innovative contemporary theatre, Improbable have been hard to avoid over the past year: we’ve had Theatre of Blood at the National Theatre and Stars Are Out Tonight (a co-production with Amici) at the Lyric Hammersmith; Jerry Springer The Opera (designed by Improbable co-artistic director/designer Julian Crouch) at the NT, the West End, the BBC, and now touring; Shockheaded Peter, produced by Cultural Industry and created by members of Improbable and The Tiger Lillies, returning to Broadway; a regeneration of Animo, their impro object-animation show, also seen on Broadway and brought to the Little Angel by Steve Tiplady; the instigation of a new approach to the ubiquitous theatre industry conference in Devoted and Disgruntled – what are we going to do about theatre?

And now, The Wolves in the Wall – the first major touring show for the new National Theatre of Scotland, headed by Vicky Featherstone, which famously has decided against a permanent building base in favour of supporting as much exciting new theatre work as possible. Wolves opens at the Tramway, Glasgow with a run from 22 March until 8 April, then arrives at the Lyric Hammersmith 12-29 April for its London debut, before returning to Scotland to tour. Based on the book by Neil Gaiman (of Neverwhere fame) and Dave McKean, it is aimed at ‘everyone over 7 who is not a scaredy cat’ and promises to be ‘visually spectacular, musically infectious and darkly comic’.

Improbable operates as a collective, and in recent years it has moved towards a way of working that allows each of the artistic directors freedom to pursue their own projects under the auspices of the company name. Wolves in the Wall is Julian’s baby; it is conceived and made for the stage by Julian Crouch, Vicky Featherstone and Nick Powell, and is billed as a National Theatre of Scotland/Improbable co-production.

But back to the roots: formerly brought together as a company in 1996 (although they had worked together previously), Improbable is Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch, Lee Simpson and producer Nick Sweeting. Their first two productions were the aforementioned Animo, an entirely improvised show of object animation, and 70 Hill Lane, which I saw at the Visions Festival of Puppetry and Visual Theatre in 1996. It remains one of my favourite pieces of theatre – an extraordinary blend of partly-autobiographical storytelling and imagist theatre. The use of Sellotape as the main material of design construction was a decision that was to have reverberations for the company for years to come.

The show (devised by Julian Crouch, Phelim Mc Dermott and Lee Simpson) explored the haunting of Phelim's family house by a poltergeist. With no money to build a house set or furniture, they developed their Sellotape construction idea in a workshop, using holes in the floor with poles, then drawing lines with the Sellotape from pole to pole. They toyed with the idea of putting paper onto the tape, but decided not to.

Speaking at the National Street Arts Meeting 2004, Julian Crouch said of this decision: ‘The Sellotape had an interesting quality, quivering like violin strings and catching the light.’ They built the walls and doors live in front of the audience - the house materialising 'like computer graphics'. The audience saw poltergeist activity such as objects moving and balls pinging whilst never actually seeing the poltergeist. This does eventually materialise - the set is snipped and the rolled-up Sellotape becomes the poltergeist.

But is once enough for Sellotape as scenography? Apparently not, as Julian went on to explain that Improbable next collaborated with the English Shakespeare Company on A Midsummer Night's Dream, using picture frames and Sellotape to create the forest and bower. Sellotape insects were created - butterflies and a four-legged stilt creature with Puck on its back. In the end, Puck rolls up the set and walks off.

Some of the same ideas - such as the Sellotape-winged insects - were developed further in Improbable’s large-scale street arts show, Sticky, which was directed and designed by Improbable, and made in collaboration with pyrotechnics company The World Famous.
Although Improbable had until that point (1998) made indoor theatre, Julian had previously worked with established street arts companies such as Welfare State, Walk the Plank and Emergency Exit Arts. EEA’s co-director Deb Mullins remembers the young Crouch, working on the company’s processional street shows in the 80s:
‘The procession was a device to gather the audience - including an Easter parade depicting War, Famine, Pestilence and Greed! From one of these events, a fabulously gruesome death puppet with a fully jointed skeleton horse was designed and made by a volunteer, whose extraordinary creativity has since been acclaimed, most recently for giant structures made of sticky tape! Throughout the 80s our work reflected major global concerns, in particular CND, and this same Rider of the Apocalypse puppet fronted many an anti-nuclear march.’

When Improbable first mooted the idea of making a large-scale outdoor piece, Julian was keen to find something other than the inevitable withies (flexible hazelwood sticks used to make large portable sculptural puppets and other constructions in street arts).
The answer - Sellotape again. The starting point was to take a roll of Sellotape and a sparkler and to see how far that could be pushed… the result was a twenty minute long early version of Sticky, with pyrotechnics, presented at Stockton International Riverside Festival.

Sticky's next incarnation was created for Neil Butler's UZ as part of the Year of Architecture event in Glasgow. Sticky by now had a giant tower (inspired by electricity pylons) which emerged from nowhere, soaring into the air - a Sellotape construction using the traditional theatre technology of pulleys. There are giant Sellotape insects which are heard rustling, then arrive on a crane. An interesting device used is the Sellotape balls with sparklers in, invented by Greg Woods of The World Famous. An enormous advantage to Sellotape was how little space it took up - it was a large-scale show, but Sticky could travel anywhere in one container.

But there is more to Improbable than Sellotape: shows such as Lifegame, Coma and Spirit – although each very different – bring together physical performance, visual imagery and object animation in a desire to find new ways of telling stories. To take one of these as an example: in Spirit (which I saw on its first outing in 2000 at Komedia Brighton and which was recently revived and presented at the New York Theatre Workshop), design and performance are inextricable linked. A slanting wooden structure transforms from rooftop to hillside to airplane cockpit. Scale is played with as objects (toy guns, balsawood model planes, simple rubber puppets, bread rolls) take on multiple meanings in this story about war, life, death and brotherhood. In one of the most poignant scenes, a ‘corpse’, Phelim Mc Dermott, is animated by his co-performers Guy Dartnell and Lee Simpson –puppetry that uses the human body as its mannequin. The human being as puppet is an idea that also found its way into their 2003 show The Hanging Man, in which the story is told of an architect who hangs himself in his own unfinished cathedral, teased and cajoled by Death.

It has to be said that despite the fantastic set and design, and many interesting ideas that could potentially have made it a great show, The Hanging Man was not one of Improbable’s best. It marked the last co-production between the three key artistic figures in Improbable – the subsequent Theatre of Blood (2005) was realised as a collaboration between Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott whilst Julian and Lee went on to work with Wolfgang Stange’s Amici Dance Theatre Company to create Stars Are Out Tonight (2005).

For those of us who have been there from the beginning, we keep the hope alive that Phelim, Lee and Julian will one day co-create a new show. Meanwhile, Improbable continues as an umbrella for the work of these three innovative theatre-makers… which brings us back to our starting point, and the latest endeavour from Julian Crouch.

Julian has always resisted artistic boundaries - he's an artist, designer, animator, puppet-maker, mask-maker…and ‘a trickster'. He describes himself as ‘mostly interested in things - objects - and their animation’.

If the pre-production publicity and shots are anything to go by, Wolves in the Wall looks to be a corking good show. As a fan of both Improbable and fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, I can’t wait to see the result of bringing them together!


The Wolves in the Wall is a National Theatre of Scotland/Improbable co-production. Based on the book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, it is conceived and made for the stage by Julian Crouch, Vicky Featherstone and Nick Powell, with choreography by Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly.

Tickets are now on sale for the tour:
Tramway Glasgow, 22 March – 8 April Tramway box office: 0845 330 3501
Lyric Hammersmith, 12 – 29 April. Box office 08700 500 511 or book online at
Then touring Scotland – for full details of all dates, times, prices and booking details, and for further information on the company and their other shows and projects see...


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