Friday, May 19, 2017

60 Years At The SJT: 1982

2017 marks the 60th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn joining the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1957. Alan has been indelibly associated with the company since that time as actor, writer, director and Artistic Director.
To mark this anniversary, the blog will be running a weekly feature highlighting each year's significant achievements and events relating to Alan Ayckbourn alongside notable photos.

60 Years At The SJT: 1982
1982 for Alan Ayckbourn and the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, is dominated by a single play.
Albeit a single play of epic proportions.
It opened on 3 June 1982 and would run in repertory until 1 October 1983 - although it would not be finished until 1 February 1983 nor seen in its entirety until nine months after it had first opened.
The play is Intimate Exchanges and it challenged the playwright, his actors and the his home theatre as no other play before.
The roots of Intimate Exchanges actually lay in the previous year's equally challenging - if in a completely different way - Way Upstream; this being a play which required a cabin cruiser moving through a flooded stage with rainfall. Technically as complicated as the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round was ever likely to get.
Astonishingly, the company toured Way Upstream to the Alley Theatre, Houston, during early 1983 during which, Alan Ayckbourn discovered he was to lose most of his repertory company and his initial plans for the 1983 summer season were spoilt. For various reasons, most of the company were either departing or taking a break and Alan was left with just two actors; but two very respected actors.
Whilst the playwright has subsequently noted he could have just recast or brought a new company in, he found himself left with two of the most experienced actors in the company.
He'd had an idea for a play for two people for some time utilising a concept he had begun exploring in 1980 with Sisterly Feelings. It would be a radical combination.

This seemed the perfect time to pursue an idea that had been haunting me ever since Sisterly Feelings, namely to write a large scale multi-ended opus in which choices genuinely lead to other choices in an increasing proliferation - one, two, four, eight, sixteen and so on. It was intended not merely as a vast gimmick, but to pursue a theory that I had long held that the tiny, often careless choices we make in our lives can lead to vast consequences. In Intimate Exchanges, during the overall canon, depending on whether or not Celia Teasdale decides to have a cigarette in the first five seconds, several people are divorced, start affairs, have children together, die, and even, very occasionally, live happily ever after.

Alan Ayckbourn's original structure for Sisterly Feelings with
eight permutations rather than four.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
In Sisterly Feelings, Alan had written a play which had randomly determined alternate scenes for the two middle scenes of the play, so the play had four potential variations. But this was a scaled down version of his original idea for the play, which would have been a branching play starting with a common first scene which branched at the end of each scene, leading to a total of eight possible permutations.
Alan decided to simplify this structure, but like so many of his ideas, it stayed in his mind waiting for the right moment to be developed. He now had that opportunity but on an even larger scale. A play that would ultimately have 16 different permutations.
The structure for Intimate Exchanges with all 16
possible permutations.
Copyright: BBC / Alan Ayckbourn
First and foremost though, he needed the co-operation of his two actors. Without them - without actors he trusted and knew were capable of meeting the challenge - the project would be a non-starter. Over two dinners in Houston, he proposed the idea separately to Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram. Added to the complex structure was also the final piece of this jigsaw. Each actor would play at least four different roles. The request was obviously flattering to each actor and both tentatively agreed to the idea, although Robin - recently a father - was not at all confident about what he had committed himself to. It was not long before the sheer scale of the play revealed itself.

"Here were two actors I'd worked with for years and years, two people who would actually trust me, and I could trust them, to do a play of an enormous nature."

Lavinia Bertram & Robin Herford
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Alan began with the structure, setting out the general course of each of the plays. The initial plan was to actually write the complete play in one go and introduce it entirely over the course of the 1982 summer season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.
This proved impractical and was altered to Alan writing four of the eight major variations for the summer season before writing and introducing the rest of the variations over the course of the following year. The plays would begin in June, run through the summer, come back into repertory for the autumn before taking over the theatre again from January to mid April coming back in the summer the following year.
Not only was it an ambitious idea, but potentially a very risky one. Eric Thompson, the director of the London production of The Norman Conquests, had once remarked of the trilogy that if audiences didn't like the first one, they weren't going to come and see the other two and they'd have not one but three flops on their hands. Here, the stakes were even higher. It was one play, but it was essentially a year's worth of programming for the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough.
If audiences did not like the idea or support the notion of visiting multiple times, it could be a very expensive risk for the venue.
The scale of the piece - and perhaps even the lunacy of the idea - had begun to become clear when rehearsals started in May 1982. Alan had completed three of the variants with one other largely completed. The summer season opened on 3 June with A Cricket Match, which went into repertoire with the other two completed variants. The rest were introduced over the course of the year ending with A Pageant premiering in February 1982. By this point Alan had written 31 scenes which incorporated approximately 16 hours of dialogue, ten characters, 12 major set changes and dozens of quick changes.
At the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, a huge diagram of the structure was hung in the foyer with lights to indicate the choices of that evening's performance (unlike Sisterly Feelings, the scale of Intimate Exchanges precludes an in-performance random element) and it was emphasised not only could the plays be seen in any order but that it was not necessary to see all the plays - or any more than one - but the more you saw, the richer the play and the characters would become.

"Intimate Exchanges is, hopefully, a project that grows on you. And grows. And grows…. You will appreciate that working on a canvas this size - with nearly 30 hours of drama - it was my intention that the characters should continually unfurl and spring, just occasionally, the odd surprise. I hope they'll always remain the same, in that they're true to themselves always, but will nonetheless develop as new pressures or situations present themselves."
Alan Ayckbourn with the diagram illustrating the structure of
Intimate Exchanges in the foyer of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
The audience reaction was key to the success of Intimate Exchanges, more so than the critical reaction. After all, positive word of mouth would keep people coming and talking about the play over the course of a year. A good review might bring people in initially, but it would not be read or relevant a week later - never mind fifty weeks later (particularly in a pre-internet era when it was not so simple to track down old reviews).
Fortunately, the audience response was overwhelmingly positive with people keen to return and see how the lives of the characters altered with the choices made. It validated Alan's decision to dedicate so much of a year's programming to the play and was, no doubt, gratifying to the actors who were having to learn so much dialogue.
The play's run ended on 1 October 1983, preceded in April by the Intimate Exchanges Grand Marathon, a much publicised sell-out event in which every possible permutation of the play was offered in 16 performances over 12 days.
Alan Ayckbourn, Lavinia Bertram & Robin Herford celebrate
100 performances of Intimate Exchanges in 1983.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
The size of the piece has meant that it has only ever been revived in its entirety one other time - although the various parts of the play have been performed individually, as pairs or with four combinations over the years.
The revival was, naturally, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, in 2006 when Bill Champion and Claudia Elmhirst undertook the ambitious challenge. But that production had its own issues when Alan Ayckbourn had a stroke two weeks before rehearsals began - and the story of that will be told in approximately 20 weeks as part of this 60 year celebration!
Back in the 1980s and Intimate Exchanges would go on to transfer to the Greenwich Theatre before moving to the Ambassador's Theatre in the West End, still starring Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram. Essentially their lives would be dominated by Intimate Exchanges from May 1982 to February 1985. Afterwards, Robin would retire from acting to concentrate on directing!
Intimate Exchanges remains to this day one of Alan Ayckbourn's most ambitious works and like Way Upstream the year before, clearly demonstrated that the playwright and his home theatre were committed to exciting and extraordinary theatre - for which the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round become well known for throughout this decade.

"It was a fascinating and very rewarding experience which I don’t think any of us will ever forget. Between Robin and Lavinia, they memorised thirty scenes, eleven different characters and sixteen or so hours of dialogue. I described it rather pompously as a Festival of the Art of Acting. Lavinia described it as an orgy."

Author's note: We'll be taking a short break from the 60 Years features and they'll return in two weeks on Friday 2 June.

Monday, May 15, 2017

News & Listings: 15 May 2017

Ayckbourn Plays This Week & Coming Soon
13 July - 8 October: Taking Steps at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (directed by Alan Ayckbourn)

News Round Up:
> Although Alan Ayckbourn's talk at the British Library next Monday is now sold out, there is an opportunity to see it live-streamed. Several central libraries around the country (including Poole and Leeds) are live-streaming the event looking back at the playwright's long career. Check with your local library for the nearest live-streaming venue. Alan Ayckbourn: Eighty Plays On is taking place at the British Library on 22 May at 7pm.
> Several performances of the world premiere staging of Alan Ayckbourn's epic two-part The Divide at the Edinburgh International Festival have already sold out. Produced in association with the Old Vic Theatre, The Divide is an epic love story set in a dystopian future where the sexes have been divided following a catastrophic disease which has decimated the male population. The Divide will be performed at King's Theatre, Edinburgh from 8 - 20 August and early booking is advised via the festival website here.
> The blog is celebrating Alan Ayckbourns' 60th anniversary at the Stephen Joseph Theatre throughout the year with an article every Friday taking a year-by-year look at his association with the company.
Unseen Ayckbourn: Illustrated Edition by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd is now available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. Fully updated for 2017, this book explores the unseen, withdrawn and unpublished works of Alan Ayckbourn with illustrations for the first time.

Friday, May 12, 2017

60 Years At The SJT: 1981

2017 marks the 60th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn joining the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1957. Alan has been indelibly associated with the company since that time as actor, writer, director and Artistic Director.
To mark this anniversary, the blog will be running a weekly feature highlighting each year's significant achievements and events relating to Alan Ayckbourn alongside notable photos.

60 Years At The SJT: 1981
When it comes to 1981 and Alan Ayckbourn's time at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, there is really only one thing to discuss.
But then, when you announce a play that will essentially turn a small regional theatre into a canal, it's quite hard for anything else to compete!
Welcome toAlan Ayckbourn's play Way Upstream.
Alan has become well known over the decades for his fondness for what he terms 'event theatre'; productions which celebrate theatre, particularly its liveness and offer an experience that can only be truly appreciated in the theatre.
His first of these was arguably The Norman Conquests trilogy at the Library Theatre in 1973. Way Upstream marked his first major theatrical event at the company's second home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, and it pretty much went for broke.
The inspiration for the play is surprisingly prosaic and didn't - initially - necessarily involve the idea of the most challenging setting to have yet appeared in an Ayckbourn play.

"I wanted to write a play about the nature of leadership, and why some members consider themselves to be leaders and others don't, and the ones who do consider themselves to be leaders are obviously the ones who shouldn't be anyway, and the ones who don't consider themselves to be leaders would probably make very good ones if they put themselves forward. It's an ironic twist. Just to write a play with five or six people sitting in a living room discussing it would probably be very boring, but I got the idea of setting it in a cabin cruiser on the River Thames, because that is where the nature of leadership always comes out. You see these red-faced men in yachting caps shouting at their reluctant families 'Come along darling, tie up, tie up, come on!' That was three or four ideas in one play."
Easy notes for the play including a different name for the boat -
the Hadforth Maid II - and Alistair and Emma were originally
named Adam and Edie.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
Of course, it wasn't such a simple step as just deciding to write a play and fill your stage with water, you need to be sure it's practically possible and here Alan had the good fortune of discovering the theatre - based on the ground floor level of a former school - was blessed with concrete floors. Previously, Alan's original production of Time And Time Again had seen the pond develop a leak into the reading room below the Library Theatre on the first floor of Scarborough's public library.
Here, if water spilt or leaked, it was only going to flood the theatre rather than the metal-working classes held in the floor below by a local college!
Way Upstream was scheduled to open on 2 October 1981 and Alan began writing it on the 11 August As was common at the time, it meant that when the play was being publicised, Alan had not written a single word of the script and there was a suitably nebulous description in the summer brochure.

"At the time of going to press all we have is the title and a brief description that the play is a tale of mutiny and piracy set aboard a cabin cruiser on a sleepy English river, but rest assured that the script will arrive in time for rehearsals, so don’t miss the opportunity of being among the first audience ever to see this new play from Alan Ayckbourn."

In an interview from the time, Alan himself was equally coy about what he was creating, except to say that it was going to be quite different to anything he had written before.

"It is for me quite a departure. Whatever else I'm being accused of, I don't think I'm trotting out the same old play again."

Of course, one would imagine that when contemplating the most adventurous and challenging production to have yet be staged by the company, preparation and planning would begun some months in advance.
Or not.
Alan finished writing the play in early September and - approximately four weeks - before the play was due to open, spoke to his designer - Edward Lipscomb - about the precise needs of the play.
This essentially boiled down to building a tank to enable the flooding the auditorium, creating a watertight and movable boat and having a localised downpour. Just another day in the life of a designer and theatre production team!
An early sketch by Alan Ayckbourn showing his design for
set - essentially a cabin cruiser!
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
Edward's first step was to contact a water effects specialist. Byll Elliot, who was responsible for the water effects at the Paris Lido. The job of his company -  Watersculptures of Lancaster - was to create a rainstorm as well as creating realistic waves spray out from the bow of the boat and a wake from the boat's stern.
The depth of the water, concealed by a specially formulated powered to make the water murky, was just nine-and-half inches, which had to cover anything required to move the boat as well as hiding the platform the boat would be built upon.
For this, Edward turned to the local firm Archer Industrial Systems, who built a revolving plate which was placed on a trolley which moved along rails installed within the tank - all of which had to be built without knowing the precise dimensions and weight of the finished boat; they had just three weeks to achieve this!
The boat itself came from a local boat builder, Colin Wigglesworth, based at Riggs Head near Scarborough. Edward explained they needed a boat without a bottom and could they help?
Fortunately, the firm had old moulds for cabin cruisers - no longer in  demand and last used in 1965 - and from there were able to construct a boat in three sections  measuring 19ft in length; each section had to fit through a four ft, nine inches door to get into the auditorium.
Back in the theatre, thick - but flexible - plastic sheeting was laid creating a watertight pool around the auditorium which had removed the first row of seats to build up to the necessary depth. Onto the plastic heating went the rails constructed by Archers. Electrics were then installed, which obviously involved a great deal of isolation given the proximity to a body of water!
Watersculptures had meanwhile installed a simple pump with a pipe running up to and across the ceiling ending in a shower which could create the rain effect.
The boat was brought into the theatre on Sunday 28 September and assembled onto the plate which was now on the rails. A motor to move the boat / plate was installed which proved to be too small and blew up. A new larger motor was order from Leeds, which arrived the day before the show was due to open, but when installation was completed at 4am, it also did not work; the problem fortunately discovered to have been a short in the terminal box.
On the Tuesday, the Yorkshire Water Authority arrived to fill the tank using two high powered fire hoses to fill the entire tank. All the while, carpenters and the production team were working on the boat to finish it.
Designer Edward Lipscomb on the set of Way Upstream, sat
on the Hadforth Bounty in a flooded stage.
Copyright: To be confirmed.
The boat was finally ready by the Friday when it was decided to test out the water effects for the first time; the water was turned on and a monsoon appeared which was so heavy that the water bounced off the boat into the auditorium seats. It was decided not use the rain during the first performance as adjustments were made for more of a drizzle than a storm!
Despite the water technicians creating a rainstorm, it was realised too late they had not accounted for one thing which broke the illusion of the play. A dripping shower head. After the storm, the water did not completely shut off and dripped onto the boat.
This was solved by the theatre's master carpenter Frank Matthews, who simply rigged a string operated cup by the shower head that could be released to cover the head once the rain had stopped, catching any drips.
The issue with the motor meant a dress rehearsal was lost and the technical rehearsal did not take place until the actual opening day, finishing just 25 minutes before the show had its opening! Despite all this, as Alan testifies, it was all very much worth the stress and pressure experienced by everyone involved in bringing it to the stage in time.,

"It was exciting with the Way Upstream experience when various elements pulled together. We asked a local boatyard to provide a 'sawn off' boat, for instance, and local interest certainly caught fire with this show. It was not an easy project, and it was trial and error. It was a new technology to move bottomless boats with motors through water - albeit only ten inches of it. With a varying number of people on board it required a great deal of work with gears and motors. If the motor was too strong the boat shot water everywhere, and if it was too feeble it started to catch fire. Our poor engineer was rushing backwards and forwards trying different strengths of motor and various gearing When it worked, which thank heavens it did on the first night, there was a sort of sigh of relief from the entire audience followed by a huge round of applause. A sort of 'thank you, God' followed by applause."

With the exception of the cancellation of the first preview to accommodate the technical rehearsal, it is remarkable to think no performance was cancelled during the play's original run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round and that it was a technical triumph achieved on a shoestring budget.
The play was a resounding hit with Scarborough and apparently the sight of the 'lake-in-the-round' when audiences first entered the auditorium was hugely exciting.
The play enjoyed a sell-out run at the theatre and the first night audience - full of Scarborough people who had worked on everything from building the cruiser to designing the winch system for movement - apparently cheered as the boat moved away from its moorings for the first time.
Way Upstream is notably the first of Alan Ayckbourn's play to leave the suburban household and marked a new phase of his writing. It was hardly a tentative step into the world at large!
Of course, the question is, how do you follow something of this scale?
Well, initially, Alan decided to tour the production. To Houston. Way Upstream transferred with the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round company across the Atlantic in February 1982 for a month long residency. Way Upstream was staged at the Alley Theatre in a water-filled stage complete with moving boat and rainstorm and went incredibly smoothly on a limited budget.
Somewhat ironic given that the National Theatre with a huge budget and all its technical resources was not initially able to achieve this the following year with its infamous staging issues.
Alan Ayckbourn at the wheel of the Hadforth Bounty at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
And after touring Way Upstream? What could Alan possibly follow this up with at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round?
Only a two-hander play.
Albeit a two-hander which happened to have sixteen different endings, more than 30 hours of dialogue, 10 characters and took more than a year to unveil in all its glory....

Monday, May 8, 2017

News & Listings: 8 May 2017

Ayckbourn Plays This Week & Coming Soon
13 July - 8 October: Taking Steps at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough (directed by Alan Ayckbourn)

News Round Up:
> Further details about this autumn's UK tour of How The Other Half Loves have been announced. The production, based on last year's West End revival, will be directed by Alan Strachan and star
Charlie Brooks, Matthew Cottle, Sara Crowe, Robert Daws, Caroline Langrishe and Leon Ockenden. It will tour to: Theatre Royal Windsor (30 August - 9 September); Salford Lowry (11 - 16 September); Theatre Royal Glasgow (18 - 23 September); Malvern Theatre (25 - 30 September); Theatre Royal Bath (2 - 7 October); Grand Opera House, York (9 - 14 October); Richmond Theatre (16 - 21 October): Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (23 - 28 October); Cambridge Arts Theatre (30 October - 4 November); Everyman Theatre, Chelthenham (6 - 11 November); Theatre Royal, Brighton (20 - 25 November); Theatre Royal, Norwich (27 November - 2 December).
> Dick & Lottie, the UK's only amateur company dedicated to the plays of Alan Ayckbourn has announced an ambitious programme of 15 Ayckbourn plays during 2018 and 2019 - the company's 15th anniversary. Highlights include a rehearsed reading of the playwright's fourth play Standing Room Only, the Damsels In Distress trilogy, a rep season of six plays in six weeks and A Chorus Of Disapproval alongside the rarely seen short play An Evening With Palos. More details can be found here.
> Several performances of the world premiere staging of Alan Ayckbourn's epic two-part The Divide at the Edinburgh International Festival have already sold out. Produced in association with the Old Vic Theatre, The Divide is an epic love story set in a dystopian future where the sexes have been divided following a catastrophic disease which has decimated the male population. The Divide will be performed at King's Theatre, Edinburgh from 8 - 20 August and early booking is advised via the festival website here.
> The blog is celebrating Alan Ayckbourns' 60th anniversary at the Stephen Joseph Theatre throughout the year with an article every Friday taking a year-by-year look at his association with the company.
Unseen Ayckbourn: Illustrated Edition by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd is now available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. Fully updated for 2017, this book explores the unseen, withdrawn and unpublished works of Alan Ayckbourn with illustrations for the first time.