RolePlay: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
Alan Ayckbourn's preface to Damsels In Distress (Faber edition)
In 2000, having recently reached my sixtieth year and rapidly approaching my 45th working in theatre, I began to yearn, once again, for a permanent acting company which during the 60's, 70's and early 80's were the mainstay of the Theatre in Scarborough. Recently, as with so many regional companies, we had begun to rely more and more on actors visiting us, short term, for one or maybe two productions. Spot casting in this way has its advantages. You tend to get just the right actor for the right part and, given the shorter nature of the engagement, a wider range of performers willing to tear themselves away from family, friends and other more lucrative London based work.
What you lose of course is the true company. The moment when a group of individual (sometimes highly individual) actors through familiarity, growing confidence and trust in each other forms that most unique of all theatrical achievements - a shared 'corporate' identity. The individuality remains - but the sum of the separate parts has generated something greater and stronger.
In my experience, some companies are highly stable and are happy to remain together for months, even years. These, ironically, are often made up of those who offstage prefer to go their separate ways. Their working lives are close-knit and shared; their personal lives are worlds apart. Conversely the group that eats, drinks, sometimes sleeps (and incidentally acts) together proves usually to be short lived and unstable. It is nothing you can plan for. Who can foretell whether X will take an instant dislike to, or have an overwhelming desire for Y? Personally, I try to put together companies consisting of people that I like and trust to luck that this common bond will prove a strong enough glue to hold the elements together.
It was with this principle in mind that I put together the 2001 Scarborough summer company of seven. The contract was technically from April to November but was in effect open ended. It was intended that we would stay together until the glue melted. As additional security I also retained the services of the experienced, trusted resident stage management team of three. Lacking an assistant director I fully knew the importance of having someone to provide after care, comfort and support if the going got rough.
I had written the company two plays, GamePlan and FlatSpin. Both were really entirely separate, linked by an identical cast size and the same set. The overall title I selected for them both though, Damsels in Distress, did reflect the fact that both were about women who one way or another had found themselves up against it in the modern world.
The plays were duly cast from actors some of whom I had worked with before and some, thanks to my invaluable casting director Sarah Hughes, new to me. The longest serving, Robert Austin, had worked originally with me way back in the seventies, creating amongst other things the part of Sven in Joking Apart in 1978 which transferred from Scarborough to London that same year. Jacqueline King and Bill Champion had also done a Scarborough to West End transfer twenty years later in Comic Potential. Of the more recent members, Alison Pargeter and Saskia Butler had both appeared a few months earlier in the 2000 Christmas show, Whenever, which I had written with composer Denis King. Finally, Beth Tuckey and Tim Faraday, neither of whom I had worked with before. New and old. Reassuring and unfamiliar, just enough to keep me, as director, on my toes. Final chemistry ultimately unknown.
In the event the balance was just fine. GamePlan rehearsed and opened successfully and, in what seemed like no time at all, (about 7 or 8 weeks) we were midway through rehearsals for FlatSpin. It was then that the 'company' effect began to take hold, like it had done in the past. As the group developed and consolidated so I began to get the desire to write something more for them. Mid-morning during a rehearsal, I announced that there could - possibly be - if they didn't mind - though it wasn't in any of their contracts - so if they did mind of course, then I wouldn't mind - there could be a third play for them to do ... Rather stunned they agreed. I don't, in retrospect, think it was much of a choice for them, though.
We opened FlatSpin on a Tuesday. I went home rather prematurely from the first night party. The following day, I started work on what was to become RolePlay. Just over a week later, on the following Thursday, I presented the cast with their new script. Damsels in Distress was now officially a trilogy. Same set, same actors but a totally fresh set of characters.
Although the plays can be seen individually and in any order, this last written piece by happy coincidence brought the entire company on-stage together in a seven handed scene for the first and only time. A fitting finale, I thought.
I suppose that one day these plays will be produced by others. I hope they will. Already there are productions planned for one or more of them, singly, here and there. But for me they will always remain an entity, born out of a company. Written for a small group of actors, with talent, stamina, a sense of teamwork and a taste for adventure. Here's to that original 'magnificent seven'.
It's My Party (And I'll Untie If I Want To...) (Stephen Joseph Theatre 2001 programme note)
Robert Morley, writer, actor and raconteur, once told me this story so it must be true. Years ago, he was apparently on an overseas theatre tour and the company were invited to dine with the British Ambassador. When they all arrived, before being introduced to his Excellency and his good lady, they were taken aside by an aide and quietly warned that, owing to the pressures of duty, her ladyship had recently grown a trifle eccentric but that in order not to upset her husband would the guests please ignore any irregularities they might observe in his wife's behaviour.
Somewhat apprehensive, they were then introduced to the couple; to their relief their hosts appeared relaxed, charming and delightfully normal. At dinner they were seated at a long table, the ambassador at one end and his wife at the other.
The meal proceeded happily enough until Morley, sitting halfway down the table, noticed that his hostess was no longer in her seat. A few moments later he observed the male guest seated to the right of her empty chair twitch slightly and look somewhat surprised. A moment later, the man to her left did the same. And so on down the table, as male and female guests in turn displayed similar symptoms of mild shock or amazement. Eventually, all was explained as Morley himself became aware of his hostess under the table surreptitiously untying his shoelaces and removing his shoes. Like those before him he tried to show no reaction to this but to give full attention to the ambassador's current anecdote as he chattered on, apparently oblivious.
Finally, as if by magic, her ladyship reappeared back in her chair, looking for all the world as if nothing had occurred. At the conclusion of the meal, she rose and invited the ladies to withdraw and led her party of bemused and shoeless female guests from the dining room. After an interval, the ambassador, the only male in footgear, did the same with the men.
When their hosts finally saw them all off and bade them goodnight, the party hurriedly recovered their shoes, which they discovered in a concealed pile just outside the front door. Rule Britannia.
An Afternoon With Alan (Pitlochry Festival Theatre 2016 programme note)
I've always been a director. I used to run, until very recently, the Stephen Joseph Theatre. I was the Artistic Director there for 40 years. There has always been a tradition of a company theatre there, as my plays will suggest. They are all company plays really, right from the very early ones. They weren't obvious star vehicles, though the idea of the Damsels trilogy wasn't that unusual. I chose seven actors who were cast in two plays, initially FlatSpin and GamePlan, and then because we were having such a good time and I was in a crazy mood at the time, I suggested I write a third one. They all looked a bit askance: so I said "Well, your contracts run until the end of the year, you can squeeze in a third one." It was interesting, seven actors playing twenty one roles and the only thing in common in the plays is the set itself, because I set them in a London riverside apartment, based on somewhere I used to live on the Thames, so we were used to the riverboats going backwards and forwards and the party boats and the tidal river coming up and down. So it's another character, the river.
But a different set of characters inhabit it in all three plays. The characters are not connected in any way. I'm fond of trilogies, ever since The Norman Conquests, which is the same set of characters set in three different locations - this is like mirror imaging it - different characters in the same location, so that was the idea. I know audiences love to see actors performing differently and l know Pitlochry works on that situation too, in that you can, if you see a lot of plays over a season, see actors you rather like coming back as totally different characters, playing villains and heroes and singing and dancing and all sorts of different things, so I think that's one of the magic elements of theatre.
All three plays have a darkness to them: my writing has progressively, over the years, got darker. At the time I was writing this, 16 years ago in 2000, it was certainly into the dark side, but I hope I have clung on to the comedy of the stage - all three plays are quite funny as well, quite darkly funny. My feeling is that if you write comedies, they're a bit like Chinese meals, really. If you get out of a theatre having purely laughed for two hours, you may well have had a really good time, but by the time you are half way home in your car, you suddenly get a bit hungry again for something more serious. So I'd love to leave the audience in all these cases with a little bit of weight, and it's just getting the balance between the weight, the substance and the fun of the performance.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.