Crouch now lives in the USA but it is doubtful that he was won over to the American way of life by his experience of working on the Nathan Lane-starring musical, which opened in 2009 to such mixed reviews that Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks was drafted in to rework the production. Looking back, Crouch describes this time as one “dominated by a fear of failure. On Broadway, it’s about money and people make it very clear to you that their personal fortunes depend on what you deliver. Their fear means that they clamp down, which isn’t the best way for creativity to flourish.”
Crouch also found the prescriptive and over-determined nature of such a huge production artistically deadening. “Because what happens, as a designer, is that when you get these bigger projects, you have to start delegating,” he explains. “For me, making something feels like a spiritual process; I like not knowing what’s going to happen. But that just wasn’t possible there. I had to design and draw everything and tell other people exactly what I wanted made.”
His response to this and to the addition of another director was to become “very quiet in the process” and to crave ever more strongly something more immediate and personal. “I wanted to be back in a room where I could play again, without having to know what I was doing, and to work with people who were my friends.” His way of “keeping sane” during this period was to go home and make puppet heads. “I kind of knew that I was making Punch and the Crocodile but I didn’t know what I was making them for,” he recalls. And so The Devil & Mister Punch – which, fittingly, had a dry-run in Crouch’s living room – was conceived.
The way in which Crouch discusses designing and making puppets shares similarities with the way others might talk about writing. It also links back to the notion of artistic creation as an act of skilled craftsmanship that lies at the heart of the socially levelling mask-making of Commedia dell-arte. Some discover character and narrative in words; Crouch carves, connects and builds his out of wood and other materials.
“It’s true that I treat making as a writing form”, Crouch agrees. “I often work with devised theatre, which means you don’t always know what shape a show will take by the time you’ve started building for it. Shockheaded Peter worked that way. I made a lot of body parts – heads, hands – which were pretty much then ‘auditioned’ to go into the production. So, it’s like using found objects; only, they’re objects that you made but you didn’t know why at the time.” ‘Found’ things also include names, as Crouch makes clear when he explains what inspired the vaudevillians at the heart of The Devil & Mister Punch.
“I was asked to become artist-in-residence at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. And on my first day I had to do a sort of show-and-tell. I had already made a few puppets, so I showed some footage and pictures and said that we were doing a Punch show. Afterwards, the lady in charge of the archives came up to me and said, ‘you do know that it played in this room, don’t you?’ She brought out these old newspapers from 1870 and there were three articles about this company, run by two men called Harvey and Hovey, who were performing ‘The English Punch’.”
With the exception of two (very much alive) New Zealand rugby players who just happened to share their names, neither man could be traced. But it didn’t matter; the spark had been lit. Crouch is a strong believer in serendipity and coincidence as spurs to the imagination and this was just the kind of fortuitous discovery to get his creative juices flowing. And to cement matters, opposite one of the newspaper articles was an ad for a Weber Piano. This was same Victorian brand that Crouch had recently bought and – as he shows me on his iPhone – included in his initial storyboards for the show. There was no doubt. The Devil & Mister Punch had found its leading characters.