THE invitation to the press night of Tunnel Visions by Theatre Cryptic is wrapped in thick tracing paper and tied with string. Open it and you get a powerful whiff of citrus fruit. Inside the crinkly package is a slice of dried orange with a message attached. It says: "100 oranges + black bread + peanut butter."
That, we can assume, is the typical shopping list of Langley Collyer, a well-off but eccentric New Yorker who preferred to tackle his brother Homer’s illnesses in his own way. Langley’s remedies for Homer’s blindness, rheumatism and paralysis included a weekly diet of 100 oranges. These he would collect on nightly excursions from their Harlem house, which had neither water nor electricity, and while he was out, he picked up whatever junk he could find - eventually accumulating 136 tons of it.
As well as being distrustful of doctors and disinclined to leave the house in daylight, Langley Collyer was a disposophobic, a neurotic collector of junk who was incapable of throwing anything away. When he accidentally killed himself in 1947, it took the police two weeks of trawling through his 38-year hoard of rubbish before finding his corpse. His brother, meanwhile, had starved to death, trapped in his wheelchair in a mountain of trash and accessible only via a network of tunnels.
It’s a fascinating story and all true. When director Cathie Boyd first heard it, she knew it would make a great piece of art. At that time, no one had turned it into fiction even though it was part of New York city folklore. But what form should it take? Boyd’s first instinct was to think of it as a short film. "But as I started to develop the film ideas, I realised I wanted a small ensemble playing in front of the screen," she says.
So the idea mutated into Tunnel Visions, a piece of music theatre with a score for tenor, violin, piano and electronic music by Anthea Haddow, a libretto by Adrian Osmond, and Boyd directing.
"I got a colleague in New York to track down all the original articles," says Boyd, whose Glasgow-based company celebrates its 10th birthday this year. "She spent weeks going through all the newspapers in the library. These were sent over and I realised what an extraordinary story it was."
For Haddow the story suggested a score not only for the blind Homer, whose weird imaginative visions could be expressed by the music, but also for the junk-laden house itself. "I wanted to create another character who doesn’t exist on the page, which is the character of the house," says the composer. "It’s subliminal: you might not even notice when it’s there, but you will notice when it’s not. The house breathes. It’s a decaying thing that’s ever-growing with junk, so I wanted to make it sound as if it was alive through the sound of breathing and animals scratching around."
The story presented a particular problem to Boyd: how could she be true to her belief in clean, minimalist staging when the Collyer household was all fuss and clutter? Her solution was to bring in film. Last summer in Glasgow’s CCA, she recreated the once well-to-do house with the aid of 5,000 recycled newspapers and filmed her way through the labyrinth of tunnels.
"Hoarding is in all of us, unless you’re some minimalist architect in a minimalist house," she says, giving an operatic trill of laughter. "The film is a small but important part of the piece. You can create on film something you could never create on stage, which is why it’s a crucial element in the performance."
This multimedia combination - not quite opera, not quite theatre, not quite film - is typical of Theatre Cryptic’s atypical approach. Boyd is not someone to be pigeonholed. One minute she will be doing Greek tragedy, the next a James Joyce adaptation. If it’s not a choral work for 25, it will be an installation combining video, art and music. She has organised a Samuel Beckett festival in Glasgow and toured productions to Riga, Caracas and Montreal. To keep her pushing things forward, she is using funding from a fellowship from NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) to explore how technology can improve the visual presentation of orchestral music.
"We’ve never made it easy for ourselves," she says. "Electra was easy for people - they knew what it was - but if you’re doing a new multi-disciplinary work then it can be hard for people to get a grasp. But theatre has to move forward and I’m constantly searching for new ways of presenting work that brings in new audiences - likewise for music."
Her search continues. In the summer months alone, she will be working with Quebecois playwright Daniel Danis on a piece for three voices due to premiere in 2005; with the Latvian Radio Choir on an opera called Unfinished Symphonies; and with Anthea Haddow on a multi-artform collaboration called Apocalypse for Cork’s forthcoming year as European Capital of Culture.
The unifying factor in all this is her desire to give audiences a sensuous experience. The company slogan is: "Ravishing the senses - music to be looked at not just listened to."
It was her aim when she launched Theatre Cryptic as a professional company in 1994 (she’d been operating under that name since 1991, when she was still a student) and it remains so to this day.
"I still have to ravish you - or I’ve completely failed," she says, over lunch round the corner from rehearsals in Aberdeen’s Lemon Tree. "Our senses are a huge part of us: our sight, our smell, our touch, what we hear. It’s what affects our emotions. And ultimately for me a piece should be emotional."
But where did this desire come from? Why was it that when her RSAMD classmates, such as Theatre Babel’s Graham McLaren, moved into conventional classical theatre, she started making shows that resisted categorisation and prioritised the abstract over the rational?
There are three broad reasons. The first is her passion for music and lyricism. It’s significant that this lover of technology does not own a television. She’s a Radio 3 kind of woman, better briefed on literature and poetry than on I’m a Celebrity... Get me out of Here. The second is her experience as a teenager in Belfast, where she was alienated by the overtly political style of theatre fashionable at the time.
"I grew up during the Troubles and my first visits to the Lyric Theatre were plays holding a mirror up to your life," she says. "I did not want to see this reality. I could not stand being reminded of this hell hole that we lived in. I have no desire to do political work. I want something that people can escape in through ravishing the senses, rather than me saying this is what your life’s about."
The third reason is her move to college in Glasgow in 1990 at the height of its celebrations as European City of Culture. Within three months of her arrival she would have had the chance to see Robert Lepage’s Tectonic Plates, Peter Brook’s The Tempest, and three shows by the Wooster Group. Here was theatre that was ambitious, international and outward-looking.
"It was only when I saw the work at Tramway that I saw that this was a different world," says Boyd, who insists, European-style, on taking a year to develop each new show. "It completely changed my vision as a director."
You can see her reasons for reacting against the aggressive certainties of political theatre, but is there a danger that pushing in the opposite direction leads to a kind of decadence?
"I don’t think decadence is the right word," she says, hesitantly. "You could say the opposite of political is emotional. I’m deeply interested in politics - when I travel I freak if I don’t have access to the news. A huge side of me is very political, but I choose not to present that on stage.
"As directors, we always strive to make great works and you have to do works that really matter to you and are very much inside you. It’s the same with anything I direct: if it’s an opera score and the music doesn’t connect with me, I couldn’t fake it, I could not do that."
Tunnel Visions is at the Tron Theatre (0141-552 3748), Glasgow, Tuesday until Saturday, 8pm; The Byre Theatre, St Andrews (01334-475 000), March 16, 8pm; The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen (01224-642 230), March 18, 19, 7.30pm; The Traverse, Edinburgh (0131-228 3223), March 25, 26, 8pm