With Alan Ayckbourn currently celebrating his 80th year (and his 60th as a playwright) I’m mindful just how much of my leisure time has been bound up with the works of this dramatic Titan. Reinforced by a recent visit to his stamping ground of Scarborough, Yorkshire, I thought it was about time I tried to explain quite why I’m such a devotee. But it was clearly going to be too large a subject to cram into a single blog post and so I hit on the notion of a trilogy. After all it is something that Ayckbourn himself has tried on – pleasingly neatly – three occasions (The Norman Conquests, Damsels In Distress and Things That Go Bump…) And just like these dramatic pieces these blog posts can be tackled in any order….and that’s the only claim of similarity I’m going to make. So, now here we go with….
“I always consider myself as a director who writes rather than a writer who directs, because directing takes up so much of my time.” This statement by Alan Ayckbourn – one of the most prolific playwrights ever – may seem somewhat surprising but perhaps demonstrates where his first love lies.
Apart from a one act children’s play (put on simply to cheer up a cast of schoolchildren totally deflated after being in a production of Oliver! and absolutely desperate to do something else) I came rather late to directing the works of Ayckbourn. But when I did, they turned out to be some of the biggest challenges I have faced in stage work. Ayckbourn’s play structures and settings are noted for their technical demands and, to some extent, it is this challenge which has always appealed to me. I’ve rather masochistically liked the idea of trying to stage plays which would normally be beyond the capabilities of non-professionals. Thus, three kitchens on subsequent Christmas Eves or three bedrooms all on stage at the same time have held no terrors for me (not completely true, of course)… though perhaps my set designers would not quite agree. In all I have directed ten Ayckboun plays though in some ways it feels like many more, so large do they loom in my body of work. Here’s a list of those attempted… with varying degrees of success:
|Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations||1982|
|Woman In Mind (December Bee)||1989|
|Man Of The Moment||1992|
|Time Of My Life||1995|
|Absurd Person Singular||2002|
|Things We Do For Love||2003|
They say everyone remembers their first time and so it was with Woman In Mind. I’d already seen the play done professionally with Julia McKenzie in the lead and found it quietly devastating so the chance to direct it was one I jumped at. It turned out to be one of those fortunate productions blessed with absolutely perfect casting and a script which mixes high comedy with heart wrenching tragedy. Susan, the central figure, is a classic unreliable narrator through whose eyes the audience see and hear everything including the apparent (though not necessarily real) flaws of the other characters so it was a supremely interesting directing challenge.
Possibly the most technically difficult play to pull off was Man Of The Moment; it’s seldom revived as its main feature is an onstage swimming pool. That’s a challenge too far for many a company on a limited budget, to say nothing of the potential for disaster with all that water near electricity … and yet the challenge proved irresistible. The original script calls for only a corner of the pool – the deep end – to be visible; for reasons that now escape me, we decided to make ours full(ish) size. This came back to bite us rather when a hosepipe ban was announced just days before the production. The plan had been to drain and replace the water periodically – as it was, we had to rely on chemical additives to keep the water germ free. You may be wondering how the pool scenes were rehearsed – in essence they weren’t – at least not in a pool – but I had a cast with endless experience (and gusto) and so we managed somehow.
Possibly even more challenging than this was Things We Do For Love. The play is set in a cross section of a house divided horizontally into three flats. While the middle floor maisonette is visible in its entirety, at the top of the house only the bottom portion is visible – thus characters are heard but only their feet and shins are visible. In the downstairs flat only the ceiling (which one of the characters is painting) can be seen. It obviously wasn’t possible to rehearse the show vertically, so it had to be done with an area to the left reserved for the upstairs flat and another sectioned off to the right for downstairs. The set build took forever as the whole of the main acting area had to be raised about three feet to accommodate the basement flat and a solid ceiling had to be constructed so that the actors could walk about “upstairs”. I’ll leave you to imagine how long the technical run through took.
Time Of My Life was another piece which required some ingenuity in rehearsing. In this play there are three interlocking time frames. The central scene is set in the private room of a restaurant and takes place over real time apart from a coda where time jumps back to before the action of the play starts (keep up!). In the second set of scenes, time moves forwards via several jumps across events covering the subsequent two years. The last section moves progressively backwards from the main scene covering a span of two months. In order to get the time flow right and ensure that the sequence of events was understood we decided to pick the script apart and spend some time rehearsing chronologically. Ultimately, we reassembled it into the scripted order but there were a few “what happens next?” moments right up until the opening night. And, as an extra challenge, the restaurant’s owner and all four of the waiting staff (his relatives) are played by the same actor; thus we didn’t have only “what’s next?” moments to deal with, there was also a healthy dose of “who am I now?” moments too.
As a final example I’d pick out the futuristic play Henceforward… in which I got to do the double (appear in and direct it). At the time the use of video in a play (now seemingly ubiquitous) was then in its infancy and seemed highly revolutionary. I played pessimistic Lupus, who regularly called up the protagonist (think prototype Skype) to bemoan his lot in life. At one stage he ends up in hospital and this was location filmed and then cut into the onstage action at appropriate points. I recall being wheeled around on a bed through the corridors of a local private hospital which had given filming permission. As a director I had the luxury of several takes– never an option live onstage – and it was quite a satisfactory feeling sitting in the auditorium and seeing the puzzled looks as the audience tried to work out how I could apparently be in two places at once.
As a director (whether of Ayckbourn pieces or not) I have tried to employ the sort of methods I was able to observe first hand when attending summer schools up in Scarborough and seeing the great man at work. Watching him in action I was struck by the fact that is that it is barely noticeable that any direction is going on – certainly there is no telling people where to stand, when to move or how to deliver the dialogue. Rather there is often a seemingly unconnected anecdote which is used to subtly inspire an actor to come at something from a different angle. Thus, the actor gets to “own” the character and their action/reaction rather than a director imposing their will. It perhaps comes down to the same thing in the end but makes for fun rehearsals and an atmosphere in which it is easier for an actor to create their best work. “I hope that if I have a quality as a director it is the ability to make rehearsals as easy as possible; easy in the sense that actors feel free to create in them. I tend to lead from behind and act as a sounding board.” Amen to that!
For the other two parts of the trilogy please click Watching Ayckbourn or Acting Ayckbourn
For more about the life/works of Alan Ayckbourn please visit http://www.alanayckbourn.net/