Sometimes plays have unusual beginnings.
According to Phelim McDermott, whose Improbable Theatre will present "The Hanging Man" at BAM’s Harvey Theater Nov. 4-9, co-director and designer Julian Crouch first got the idea for the show after being "sacked" from his TV job.
"Julian was driving home when he thought about someone so rigid that he can’t die when he tries to hang himself," McDermott told GO Brooklyn in an telephone interview from Florida where his show is on tour.
Another influence was a painting of Punchinellos.
"They were wearing masks so they all looked the same," says McDermott. "There was a certain equality."
This equality is similar to the way McDermott works with his two collaborators in Improbable Theatre, Crouch and Lee Simpson, whose career has focused on improvisational work. "The Hanging Man" is very much an ensemble piece.
"A lot of the show is created by the actors and changed through improvisation," McDermott says. "It still changes a lot from night to night. It’s a lot like putting a jigsaw puzzle together."
The play developed from Crouch’s germ of an idea.
"Over time you take one image and grow and grow the show outward," McDermott explains. "What tends to happen with our shows is they’re about where we are as artists. In a strange way, they’re sort of the story of the company."
"The Hanging Man" is about a successful architect who is asked to build a cathedral.
"He becomes frozen in the process," says McDermott. "He starts worrying about whether it will be good or not. It sort of mirrors our journey. We thought ’Shockheaded Peter’ [Improbable Theatre’s highly acclaimed "junk opera," created with the Tiger Lillies, who coincidentally will perform at DUMBO’s St. Ann’s Warehouse on Nov. 1] would run five weeks in Leeds. We didn’t think much about it. But it became a big hit all over the world. That’s when we got ’second album syndrome.’ We were aware of our history. We got funding. We were at a place where we thought we had to do another good show."
Fortunately, unlike their hapless architect, who tries to hang himself from the cathedral rafters but is stopped by Death and left suspended between life and death until he learns his lesson, McDermott and his colleagues have gone on to expand their repertoire.
"’Shockheaded Peter’ was Victorian," says McDermott. "’The Hanging Man’ is a medieval mystery play."
Much of that medieval feeling is the work of co-designer Phil Eddolls, who, McDermott says, has an "incredible, almost medieval brain."
Eddolls is a "flyman," the person who makes the likes of Peter Pan glide through the air, and it’s he who has designed the pulley system that keeps the architect suspended throughout the play.
If it isn’t clear now, let it be pointed out that Improbable Theatre has an intensely visual style.
"It’s great to have a sense of the visual story. There’s a journey with the set," says McDermott. "Whether you have 15 wicker baskets or rolls of sticky tape [both of which he’s used], the main thing is that it’s integrated with the dialogue and the text."
McDermott believes that, despite the innovative nature of his work, it is made accessible through improvisation.
"We’re three directors from different backgrounds," he says. McDermott met Simpson when they were both doing improvisation. He met Crouch when they were both working on plays at a Leicester theater and McDermott asked Crouch to collaborate with him on "Dr. Faustus."
"But we share an interest in improvisation [in the beginning they funded themselves by appearing at venues like London’s Comedy Store] and work that connects us with the audience," says McDermott. "We make people aware that [what we do] is theater happening at the moment. We talk to the audience and make them know the show is for them on that night. If you take creative risks, you have to be open to feedback from the audience about whether it works or not."
So far, says McDermott, that feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
"Audiences really love our show," McDermott happily acknowledges. "We’ve had a fantastic response in the States - standing ovations and people cheering."
At the risk of inciting jeers well, this may mean that audiences do, indeed, get the hang of it.
Improbable Theatre’s "The Hanging Man" plays Nov. 4 through Nov. 8 at 7:30 pm and Nov. 9 at 3 pm at the BAM Harvey Theater. Tickets are $20, $30 and $45. BAM Harvey Theater is located at 651 Fulton St. at Rockwell Place in Fort Greene. For tickets, call BAM at (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.