Julian Crouch ~ Stage Designer and Puppeteer

Dutch National Ballet production of Cinderella with costume designs and settings by Julian Crouch.  Lighting Designer: Natasha Katz

Date:  2012.
Photographer: © Erik Tomasson

The decor and costumes, designed by costume designer Julian Crouch, were a joy to watch. The magic tree (the tree that was the grave of Cinderella's mother and ultimately the coach and the dress) and coach, conceived and designed by American puppeteer Basil Twist and the designer, completed the fairytale. The whole décor came at me like a painting come to life. . . . The highlight was the coach which was picking from the tree with a huge piece of fabric, four wheels and dancers. To me this showed how the magic of theater works few simple (but beautifully finished) attributes and effects, and everyone is in a 'ohohhh' mood. The audience was very enthusiastic about the coach and applauded loudly.

[Translated from a Dutch Review of the performance.]

As for the magic, the tree and transformation scene (the latter especially) are brilliantly handled by designer Basil Twist – while Julian Crouch’s sets are at once spare and monumental, and his fantastical costumes for Acts 1 and 3, well, fantastic.

[From the London Daily Telegraph review by Mark Monahan, July 2015]

Phillip Glass
Performance of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha with designs by Julian Crouch at English National Opera, London.

Date: 2007
Photographer: Unknown ©Julian Crouch and English National Opera.

CrouchJulian Crouch

Date: 2010.
Photographer: Unknown ©Julian Crouch

Julian Crouch

Julian is a director, designer, writer, maker and teacher whose career has spanned Theatre, Opera, Film and Television.

Initially a mask and puppet maker, Julian designed Charivari for Trickster Theatre Company, a company he toured the world with from 1985 to 1986. In the following years, Julian specialised in site specific design, including seventeen productions for Welfare State International. In 1992 he began a successful creative partnership with Phelim McDermott, for whom he designed Dr Faustus, Improbable Tales, The Servant of Two Masters and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which earned him a T.M.A nomination for Best Designer of the Year). They also co-directed and designed THE Quest for Don Quixote which received a Best Design Nomination in the London Fringe Awards and A Midsummer Night's Dream (TMA Best Touring Production Award) for the English Shakespeare Company.

Along with Lee Simpson, Phelim and Julian formed their own company, Improbable Theatre, in 1996. Their productions of Animo, 70 Hill Lane, Lifegame, Coma, Spirit, Stocky and Angela Carter's Cinderella have gained far-reaching national and international recognition, winning several major awards.

Julian and Phelim’s most enduring collaboration to date has been Shockheaded Peter for Cultural Industry (Olivier Awards - Best Entertainment, also nominated for Best Direction and Best Design, TMA Best Director Award, Critics Society Best Designer Award and a South Bank Show Theatre Award Nomination). This production, based on the Struwwelpeter book, has returned to the West End after four years of record breaking international touring. In 2000 they produced a German version, Struwwelpeter for the Deutches Shauspielhaus, Hamburg. They returned in 2002 to mount Ein Sommernachtstraum.

In 2000 Julian collaborated with Balinese puppeteers and musicians in The Theft of Sita for the Adelaide Festival, which appeared in London as part of Lift. Most recently Julian designed Tiny Dynamite and On Blindness for Paines Plough and Frantic Assembly. He continues his work with Wolfgang Stange and the Suntera Foundation in the refugee camps of Sri Lanka.

More recently Julian was Designer and Associate Director on the multi award winning Jerry Springer - The Opera by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, for the National Theatre, and now in the West End at the Cambridge Theatre (Best Musical - Evening Standard awards, Olivier Award, Critics Circle). He is currently working at the National again, designing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and is in development with Vicky Featherstone and Neil Gaiman on the theatrical realisation of the latter's Wolves Within the Walls.

[Text based on biography at Improbable Theatre Company]

A scene from 'Wolves in the Walls' designed by Julian Crouch for the National Theatre of Scotland.

Date 2006
Photographer: ©Keith Pattison.


A scene from Shockheaded Peter with designs and puppets by Julian Crouch presented in San Francisco.

Date: 2000
Photographer: ©Chronicle photograph by ©Thor Swift

Puppets by Julian Crouch for 'Shockheaded Peter' presented in New York.

Date: 2014.
Photographer: ©Rachael Shanet

Julian Bleach in "Shockheaded Peter," which includes vignettes about thumb-suckers losing thumbs and picky eaters turning into skeletons.  Design by Julian Crouch

Date: 2005
Photographer: ©Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

It all begins with the sound of meandering footsteps, ominous but curiously clumsy, as if something wicked had lost its way. In the teasing opening seconds of the sensational - in all senses of the word - "Shockheaded Peter," you're likely to experience that mixed thrill that is part giggle and part goose flesh, the kind that descends when you hear a sudden thud in a dark and quiet house. You suspect that whatever lurks behind the red velvet curtains of the Little Shubert Theater, where "Shockheaded Peter" opened last night, is either truly fearsome or really ridiculous. Trust your instincts: "Shockheaded Peter" is, oh, so deliciously, both.

Ben Brantley, New York Times, February 23, 2005.

Julian Bleach (with clock) and Tamzin Griffin perform a scene from Shockheaded Peter.

Date: 2000
Photographer: Thor Swift/San Francisco Chronicle

Satyagraha Met
Performance of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha with designs by Julian Crouch at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Date: 2008.
Photographer: Unknown ©Julian Crouch and Metropolitan Opera

The Wolves in the Walls

There are sneaking, creeping, crumpling noises coming from inside the walls. 

Lucy hears creeping, creaking, crumpling noises coming from behind the wallpaper and is convinced that there are wolves in the walls of her house. Her jam-making mother, tuba-playing father and video game obsessed brother think the noises are really mice, or rats or bats. But they are wrong and she is right as they will all soon find out. . .

Taken from the book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean ('Sandman' series, 'Mirror Mask') and brought to life by a team of innovative and celebrated theatre-makers led by the National Theatre of Scotland's Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone, Julian Crouch (Improbable Theatre, Shockheaded Peter'), Nick Powell (Suspect Culture) and an unruly pack of actors, musicians and crazy puppets.

The Sunday Herald reports that the piece contains ' everything children love in live performance: tension, suspense, fear, courage, humour and a fart gag. The children in the audience explode with anticipation.'

Please follow this LINK for an Interview with the makers of Wolves in the Walls .

Shockheaded Peter

Shockheaded Peter is a 1998 musical using the popular German children's book Struwwelpeter (1845) by Heinrich Hoffmann as its basis. 'Der Struwwelpeter' (1845) comprises ten illustrated and rhymed stories, mostly about children. Each has a clear moral that demonstrates the disastrous consequences of misbehaviour in an exaggerated way. The title of the first story provides the title of the whole book.

Created by Julian Crouch, Phelim McDermott, and others, the production combines elements of pantomime and puppetry with musical versions of the poems with the songs generally following the text but with a somewhat darker tone. Whereas the children in the poems only sometimes die, in the musical they all do. Commissioned by the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and the Lyric Hammersmith in West London, the show debuted in 1998 in Leeds before moving to London and subsequently to world tours.

A triumphant enactment of grisly cautionary tales for children has achieved cult status and arrives in the West End next month.

Shockheaded Peter is the two-word answer to people who think that theatre has had its day. Described by its producer as 'a nineteenth-century pop-up video', it projects a dizzy mix of talents: the grisly tales of a nineteenth-century physician; a fringe theatre company whose directors are also designers; a band whose music has been filed in record shops under every section from jazz to folk to rock.

First staged three years ago at West Yorkshire Playhouse, and subsequently at the Lyric Hammersmith, the show has since sold out in Toronto, Wellington, Zurich, Minneapolis... Next month it comes to the West End. The most original piece of theatre of the past 10 years has become a mainstream success.

Much of its power is due to the dark imagination of Heinrich Hoffmann, a Frankfurt doctor who had worked in his city's morgue and with the mentally ill. Unable to find a picture-book for his son, Hoffmann wrote and illustrated a clutch of cautionary tales, in which childish misdemeanours - playing with matches, fidgeting at mealtimes - were horribly punished: a little boy who sucks his thumbs has them cut off by the scissor man. At the centre was Struwwelpeter - Shockheaded or Slovenly Peter - a stocky chap with hair like a bush and terrifyingly long fingernails that curl like briars.

Pretty Stories and Funny Pictures for Little Children was published in Britain in 1848, two years after Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense and 17 years before Alice in Wonderland. In all three books a new vein of writing for children is detectable, in which the ridiculous shades into nightmare, but Hoffmann is by far the most gory.

Freud saw the thumb-sucking tale as an account of masturbation and - 'Snip, Snip' - castration. Marxist historians have read the stories as expressions of mid-nineteenth-century bourgeois culture. In both world wars, the figure of Shockheaded Peter was used in anti-German propaganda: Hitler was adorned in picture-books with nail and hair extensions.

But it took Michael Morris, of Cultural Industry, to see in Hoffmann's work a suitable case for theatrical treatment. Morris, who as a child had been drawn to and scared by the figure of Struwwelpeter, approached Martyn Jacques, accordionist, possessor of an eerie falsetto voice, creator with his group the Tiger Lillies of Low Life Lullabies. Jacques adapted Hoffmann's words and set them to music, introducing one big amendment: in his version all the erring children die; the word 'dead' - often delivered by Jacques as if he were pronouncing something of great sweetness - rings through the show. Morris next turned to Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, of the brilliant Improbable Theatre, who wove the songs into a story.

The tale of monstrous Shockheaded Peter - who gets buried under the floorboards by his prissy parents, and proceeds to sprout through them - provided one framing device. The idea of a ramshackle touring theatre company, presided over by a fruity actor manager (villainously leering Julian Bleach), struggling to put on a show which was constantly getting out of control, was another. The design became that of a toy theatre, with cardboard props and dimensions so cramped the actors seemed to be struggling to stay inside the set. . . .

The stories are enacted both by enormous humanoid puppets and actors who deploy the puppet-like style of silent movies. There was Harriet who incinerates herself, disappearing into the froth of her flame-coloured petticoats while her cats gloat: 'We told her so', and Fidgety Phil, stabbed to death by cutlery to the accompaniment of a frantic percussion on pots and pans. There was the fleeting moment when a giant fly sweeps over the stage, and the slow minutes when Peter's fingernails start to push up through the floor, and his enormous goggling head lolls above the proscenium arch.

Animated and given voice on the stage, these stories have a far-reaching thrill and chill, talking differently to each audience of buried secrets that will burst out. In Tel Aviv the show proved an intense experience for older watchers familiar with the stories from childhood.

In Australia the show's challenging moment - when the audience is asked: 'What's under your floorboards?' - caused a shiver at the Adelaide Festival, where a debate had raged about opening the Festival Club to Aboriginal bands.

Now Shockheaded Peter is sprouting different lives in Hoffmann's own country. Düsseldorf has seen an entirely new production: a large-scale sci-fi version featuring robots and loads of machinery. And last week in Hamburg I saw a staging mounted by Crouch and McDermott with a German cast. On the wide stage of the beautiful Schauspielhaus, the show was more more imposing, more studied, less explosively funny than the English version.

But the inheritance of Weill-style cabaret was more apparent, largely because of the performance of Wiebke Puls, who sang triumphantly in the Jacques role. So long-limbed that she seemed to concertina when she sat down, she presented herself differently for each number: often in a circus-style corselette; once like a mermaid; once, sitting high above the stage, as a cat, with a long tail draping Rapunzel-style to the floor.

The German audience didn't laugh much, but they applauded like crazy. The man in the ticket office was happy. He'd been given the book for Christmas when he was six, partly as a threat: it was meant to shock him out of being a picky eater.

The Observer, Sunday 14 January 2001

Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch stage Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha” at the Metropolitan Opera.

Date: 2008
Photographer: ©Michael Chelbin

Rehearsals for Philip Glass’s Satyagraha with designs and masks by Julian Crouch for the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Date: 2008.
Photographer: Unknown ©Julian Crouch and Metropolitan Opera

Masks by Julian Crouch in the projected scenery for Philip Glass’s Satyagraha with designs by Julian Crouch at English National Opera, London

Date: 2007
Photographer: ©Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Satyagraha in a co-production with English National Opera and The Metropolitan Opera, New York,

Satyagraha was commissioned by the city of Rotterdam, Netherlands, and first performed at the Stadsschouwburg (Municipal Theatre) there on September 5, 1980, by the Netherlands Opera and the Utrecht Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bruce Ferden.

The UK premiere was a joint production by Bath Spa University and Frome Community College in the theatre of Kingswood School. Bath in 1997. In 2007 a new UK staging was prepared by the English National Opera and Improbable theatre, co-produced by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

One of the most visually spectacular stagings of recent decades, ENO’s hit production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha broke all Company records for contemporary opera when it premiered and then went on to enjoy huge success at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Instilled with a breathtaking theatrical flair by Improbable’s award-winning director-designer partnership of Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, Glass’s masterpiece is a mesmerising and hauntingly beautiful meditation upon Mahatma Gandhi’s early years in South Africa and his spiritual progress towards the concept of non-violent protest.

The director, Phelim McDermott, and the star, Alan Oke, of the ENO's adaptation of Philip Glass's Gandhi opera remember struggling with Sanskrit and finding a contemporary echo in the Occupy movement.

Phelim McDermott recallks that seven years ago, English National Opera put him in touch with Philip Glass. They had a coffee, and he mentioned Satyagraha, his 1980 opera about Gandhi's early years in South Africa whose text, adapted from the Bhagavad Gita, is in Sanskrit. He said, 'I'm not interested in telling you how to do it, but you have to do the whole piece.' I'd heard the work as a student and had never quite connected with it, but listening to it again I got excited, initially more by its themes: group activism and how change happens through the actions of communities rather than one person.

It's not an opera with a linear narrative. It's more like a poem that says: 'Look at these moments and think of how they helped the ideas of this man form.' Rather than expand these moments narratively, horizontally, it expands them vertically, kaleidoscopically. This is something that all opera can do but, musically, there's more space here than in most.

Designer Julian Crouch and I made some simple, bold decisions about materials: the corrugated-iron concave set, newspaper pages, rolls and rolls of Sellotape – and from these we created big images, such as the huge papier mache puppets. Those were made in the same studio where we rehearsed, and you'd see the chorus looking at all this newspaper and thinking: 'What the hell is this?' None of us quite knew how it would evolve – it was the first opera I'd directed.

I drew graphs and charts with highlighter pens that were my own form of musical notation: swirls for this sequence, steps for this bit. There's a process you go through listening to Glass's music – you have to surrender to it. Those repeated rhythmical sequences feel like a kind of meditation; in this opera particularly there's a marriage of themes and music. There was a lot of nervousness: would we be able to pull it off? If I'd known what I was letting myself in for, I'd never have done it. But it's opera. There are so many different elements, so many things that have to come together. You really can't control it and that, for me, is what's interesting about it – its vulnerability. . . .

Imogen Tilden, The Guardian, November 2013

Dr Atomic
Julian Crouch's design for John Adams's opera 'Dr Atomic' 2009 production at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Date: 2009
Photographer: Unknown.  ©Julian Crouch and Metropolitan Opera

Dr Atomic
Julian Crouch's design for John Adams's opera 'Dr Atomic' 2009 production at the Metropolitan Opera, New York

Date: 2009
Photographer: Unknown ©Julian Crouch and Metropolitan Opera.

MetropolitanJulian Crouch's design for John Adams's opera 'Dr Atomic' 2009 production at the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Date: 2009
Photographer: Unknown.  ©Julian Crouch and Metropolitan Opera

Return to Designer List    'The Enchanted Isle' at the Metropolitan Opera

Dr Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera, NY (October-November 2008)

Opera inevitably deals with characters caught in larger-than-life emotional or political turmoil. But in the case of John Adams's Doctor Atomic, the subject matter is particularly compelling. The opera, which has its Met premiere on October 13 in a new production by acclaimed filmmaker Penny Woolcock, conducted by Alan Gilbert, dramatizes a modern-day event of truly epic implications: the inauguration of the nuclear era with the first atomic bomb test during the tense final summer of World War II. 'The manipulation of the atom, the unleashing of that formerly inaccessible source of densely concentrated energy, was the great mythological tale of our time,' Adams writes in his recently published memoir, Hallelujah Junction. With the bomb's successful explosion, 'the relationship between humans and the planet they inhabit changed unalterably.'

Adams, one of today's most successful and frequently performed composers, has developed a reputation for mining the tremendous mythic and symbolic potential of contemporary stories and events. At the same time, his colourful and sensuous music appeals to audiences in a way rarely achieved by a 21st-century composer-a combination Woolcock finds particularly stimulating:

'I feel like the luckiest person in the world working on this, because John's music is so beautiful, and the subject is so thrilling and important.'

Doctor Atomic is the fifth of Adams's six stage works to date, and with its focus on the resonance of figures and events familiar from contemporary American history, it follows the example Adams established in his first opera, the 1987 Nixon in China (which considered the clashing ideologies of the Cold War).

The Opera's New Clothes. Why I walked out of Doctor Atomic.

There is some lack of clarity in the program about the opera's authors; it was conceived by John Adams (composer of the previous contemporary-history operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, about the murder of an elderly, wheelchair-bound Jew by Palestinian terrorists) and produced for the Met by Penny Woolcock. But the libretto has largely been 'written,' if that's a verb you can apply to this text, by theater and opera director Peter Sellars, who has compiled an assemblage of quotes from books and documents interspersed with the work of noted poets and dialogue of provenance uncertain to me.

Adams and Sellars have chosen to focus on the days before the first Los Alamos test, less than a month before the bomb was used on Hiroshima. And on the conflicts among—and within—the atomic scientists assembled by Oppenheimer.

I was expecting something powerful and sophisticated. And the music and the sets couldn't have been more effectively dramatic.

Ron Rosenbaum (The Spectator)

Sellars directed the original production, available on a new Opus Arte DVD, and kept everything in constant motion, as if he didn’t trust either his own text or Adams’s music to sell the opera’s big ideas. Woolcock has pared the staging down, simplified the décor, and focused on the story. Julian Crouch’s sets are admirably humble, even childlike: Draped sheets represent New Mexico’s polychrome mountains; a mobile of suspended debris stands in for all explosions; projected equations furiously write themselves, transforming into lunatic doodles. Woolcock and Crouch wisely avoid competing with history or overwhelming the score. The production is muted because the topic is blinding, and because Adams’s music is so iridescent.

Justin Davidson, Classical Music Review, New York

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