A few years ago, the downtown theater group in which Richard Crawford had invested a decade of his professional life decided to disband. The Flying Machine, as the troupe was called, had had success: its four founding members, who had met as students at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, had had a hit show, Frankenstein, and another, Sad Since Tuesday, that won the Best Ensemble Award at the first International Fringe Festival in New York. There had been other rewarding times along the way.
"But there I was, at the age of 38, re-entering the world of more conventional realistic theater," said Crawford the other day in his dressing room for War Horse, in which he plays the aptly named Sergeant Thunder.
Crawford, who before the very physical Lecoq work and downtown-performance explorations had done classic London theater training at Rose Bruford College, faced his mid-career moment squarely. "I knew it would be a challenge to move above 14th street," he said. "I thought: This is a huge step forward for me."
One of his gigs was much more north of 14th street than he might have imagined. "I went to Montreal two summers ago, to work on a Cirque du Soleil show called Banana Shpeel. I moved my family up there." (His family includes War Horse's Movement Associate, Adrienne Kapstein, who, like Crawford, has LeCoq training.) Almost immediately, Crawford got fired fromBanana Shpeel, which, given the production's subsequent splat (after many delays, it opened at New York's Beacon Theater and closed after only five weeks) may have been a blessing.
But at the time Crawford felt flummoxed. "I had no security." He asked himself the question that almost all actors, tasked with the eternal need to be hired, must pose: "What do I have that I can control?"
His decision: "My wife and I decided that we would employ ourselves." They founded Movement Theater Studio NYC, the first Lecoq-based studio in New York. The studio's faculty includes Crawford and Kapstein, who both have extensive teaching experience, and master Lecoq teacher Norman Taylor. The fall and spring workshops tend to attract professional actors eager to learn a new style and people brushing up their physical technique; the summer intensive course tends to attract professionals and theater students from the U.S. and abroad.
"The school," Crawford said, "tries to promote three ideas. First, the actor as creator. Second, the body in movement. And third, playfulness - how a performer can have pleasure while onstage." He continued: "It seems to me that a sense of play is woefully absent from much training. Sometimes, people do theater games or a bit of clowning, but that's about it." And further: "Scene study tends to separate people from enjoying themselves. But I feel that if you're not having fun onstage, then get off." Having fun, Crawford elaborates, "doesn't just mean juggling or telling jokes. There can be a kind of pleasure in playing difficult emotions like fear or anxiety."
Crawford's War Horse character reflects the actor's philosophy. "Sergeant Thunder is trying to instill fear and discipline into his troops," he said. "But he also contains a well-known comic archetype: the drillmaster as serious clown."
Crawford said that War Horse is the largest show in which he has been involved. "What I love about it is that it's a big production but still a simple story. One of our challenges is to maintain a connection to that basic storytelling even as we're involved in something with a very high profile."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.