Ayckbourn Talks: Premiere Patrons (2016)

This talk between by Alan Ayckbourn was given as part of the Premiere Patrons event at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in June 2016. During the talk he discussed his plays for the 2016 summer season, The Karaoke Theatre Company, Consuming Passions and Henceforward….

The Karaoke Theatre Company
The Karaoke Theatre Company was destined - in the schedule - to be play number 80, but it seemed a bit invidious having your 80th play produced - although I’ve written more than that. I thought what should I do? Should I write something incredibly serious and grave or some state of the nation or should I just write a really jolly comedy? And I thought, “well, either of those leads to problems." For if the jolly comedy didn’t work and the grave one was off beam, it probably wouldn’t be a success. So I decided to do something which I have dreamt about for a long time and it followed on from my passion for live theatre, which is what I've been in all my life.

I’ve eschewed the offers of film and TV and other media, always finding that, in the end, all my best ideas, were for theatre. So why bother to write your worst ideas! I’ve stuck with theatre and over the years - more than 50 years now - occasionally we would stop and ask ourselves: ‘Why the hell are we doing this? There’s no money in this, at least not much. Not to compare, but the average actor can do an episode of a daytime soap and earn more in a day that he or she could earn in a month in theatre. It’s the same with the writing, there’s enormous money to be made out there, film-wise. I know writers in Hollywood who have never had a screenplay produced, they’ve just written drafts. I met a guy who was a dollar millionaire just in terms of having not written anything! For us '80 players', it’s quite a difference. I have done pretty well from theatre and I have to say that is just because my strike rate has been very high and a lot of the plays are done a lot of the time and in a lot of places.

I decided in the end to throw a party. I thought what better way than for the actors and audience to sort of meet. Our new Executive Director, Steve Freeman, just came in to see it yesterday and at the end he said, “what was lovely, it started with the actors doing their stuff and the audience sitting there a little bit wondering whether what this was all about. Then starting to lean in and then, by the end of it, they’d taken over the show. It was their show, the audience’s show." Which is really what we intended. So every night, it’s their party. That is the essence of live theatre really.

Normally if you sit and watch a production of, say,
Othello, you are to some extent still very important to the show, nonetheless, you might feel you are slightly peripheral as a fellow is strangling Iago for the 98th time. So you wonder if you have any effect on the outcome! And the answer is probably not. But you will have an effect on the performance, due to your reaction or non-reaction and a lot of the talk of the show after a show is always how the actors felt it went with the current audience. So in this case, we’ve just absolutely no idea what’s going to happen. Even in rehearsal - we’ve been rehearsing for ten days with people coming in and interacting with us. It’s complete anathema to me to have strangers in a rehearsal room because it’s a rather private personal function between me and the actors. But in this case it’s been extraordinary. Hopefully, from the dozen or so we’ve had in, it will not be too traumatic for the actors to step into the space and hopefully get about 400 people watching. It’s going to be quite a different experience and no amount of preparation can prepare them, but at least they’re happy interacting with people in the audience, which is a big step forward.

I’ve picked special sorts of actors, who I thought could do it and particularly had an element of quick-fire improvisation. The show is largely scripted but there is a huge element of improvisation just depending on the audience. I’ve given them leeway so that if somebody ad-libs they can deal with it - such as yesterday someone came out of the action, which was great fun and we love those spontaneous moments which will probably not be repeated because that audience member will not say that particular thing at that particular time again. This is for me a tremendous departure.

I told the actors that as soon as they step into the theatre, they have to extend their welcome to the back rows. At the moment in the rehearsal room, they’re literally as close as we are but eventually, they’re going to be 30ft away from some members of the audience, so you really have to have very open arms by the time you get to a 400 seat space. There was one day when they all came back from a two and a half day break and they started off and the energy meter was 10% down and I said to them afterwards you started with your energy down and Rachel Caffrey said: “We had a couple of drinks at the weekend.” And I said, you have to hit the ground running. Bang and people go, 'oh, we’re in good hands.' But if you come on with “hello”… It has to be "HELLO!" There’s a difference between the two and you can sweep the audience along or you can be a little more tentative and let them slowly catch up, but you’ll have lost them for 15 minutes at that rate. So that’s what they’ve got to do. Two of them when we finished yesterday just flattened out on the floor. Absolutely drained. It’s a huge energy drainer.

It’s an interesting state of sexuality in this country that 50% of the time anyone chooses a member of the opposite sex to play in one part of the show. We’ve had a couple of women playing the men and a couple of men playing the women. There’s something strange going on with the British public!

I pillaged my back catalogue for
The Karaoke Theatre Company, anyone who knows it - like Simon [Murgatroyd] knows it - will know I’ve nicked a sketch called Dracula from a revue Bob Eaton put together and which I wrote for called What The Devil! A lot of it is forgotten Ayckbourn! The opening tennis match comes from Mr Whatnot certainly. One of the pieces I’ve flagrantly stole from the author Saki, which is a rather good jokey ghost story he wrote called The Open Window, which I’ve always thought was a good story.

Consuming Passions
Consuming Passions is officially play 80. Most of my plays are written with an intention in view and one of the intentions with this was to get back to normality again after The Karaoke Theatre Company.

Secondly, when I ran this theatre years ago, we carried on the tradition of lunchtime shows from our previous home in the restaurant; my argument being that auditoria, like large churches, are rather daunting for practising atheists to go into - particularly theatre for certain levels of society. The thought of going back and being made to look a fool and not knowing what to do exactly.

Despite all my shouting that theatre is for everyone, people do hang back a bit from going into a formal auditorium situation quite often - although I think this theatre has done more than many to break that barrier down, there’s still a huge percentage of people who walk down the main street and 1 in 50 will not ever have visited the SJT or even know the theatre and that’s rather strange.

When we opened the SJT in 1996, we had a mass of television up here and they marched down the high street doing vox pops and asking people what they thought of the new theatre and people said 'I’m not going, I wouldn’t do that.' And then they said, it is a cinema too and people said: 'Oh, I’ll go to the cinema!' In that intent of people saying theatre is not for me, we opened the lunchtime shows in a non-theatrical situation in the bar or the bistro. We encourage people to come in and watch quite a lot of cutting edge stuff actually - funnily enough a lot of our new stuff and on occasions, some rather classical pieces.

One year I was standing at the back saying all these people have come in for a pie and a pint and they’re watching George Bernard Shaw for God’s sake! I didn’t want it to be a totally different experience from the theatre though, so it was sort of the same but the theatre was slightly more informal in that there weren’t reserved seats and you were sitting in the play, which was closely related to what we were doing in the main house.

Lunchtime shows, for some reason, fell into disrepute, Chris Monks - my successor - in his 'wisdom' decided that he didn’t want to do lunchtime shows in the restaurant as it was distracting - the whole point is it’s distracting as any time you try to do a serious line, a bloody fire engine went past - but the principle was obviously lost in translation and he moved them up to The McCarthy, which was a totally different experience. Whereas you might wander into the theatre and get a glass of shandy and a pie, going up into the space where you’re only allowed plastics and you’re suddenly sitting in a darkened auditorium watching a play, was a much more formal experience and not really conducive to a lunchtime audience.

Consuming Passions was written partly following my experiment a couple of years ago with Farcicals, which brought theatre back into the restaurant. These are restaurant plays [Consuming Passions consists of two parts Premonitions & Repercussions]. It’s a play in two parts and you really do need to see the in the right order. I call it my Hitchock-ian phase. It’s a sort of comedy, yet it’s a thriller with a 'did she, didn't she?' It’s got a lot of the Hitchcock motifs: the ice blonde at the centre who has murderous intentions, the hapless lover etc. It’s set in restaurants, which is fortunate as it’s being played in the bistro!

Again, I revisited one of my old haunts, the Ristorante Calvinu which features two of the same waiters. The Ristorante Calvinu was, of course, featured in
Time Of My Life where the Stratton family celebrated the wife’s birthday. This ethnic restaurant, vaguely everything from Turkish to Spanish. A vague heritage of dishes, most of which were coloured blue I remember. I always think the British have a rather strange attitude to food, it’s rather summed up by Michael Winner, who turned into a restaurant critic late in life. The British love going to restaurants, but they never really mind too much about the food, they really love it when they’re recognised. The Italians have latched onto this so there are bistros up and down the country now with beaming propeiters saying: “Hello Mr Jones, please come in.” And Mr Jones is very pleased and then gets served rubbish food! The important thing is to be recognised, as opposed to the French who don’t care if they’re recognised or not and only care what the food is like. So we’ve been sitting around a lot of the time eating second rate food, just because we’ve been recognised. This is a strange restaurant, one of those sub-standard ethnic restaurants. That’s the first half. The second half is very, very posh and we’re in the bar area of a Mayfair restaurant with an Etonian waiter.

I’m doing a revival of a 1987 piece called Henceforward…, in which I tried to predict the future as it is now. I got quite a lot of it right, some of it wasn’t. We just thought that it was enough futuristic and enough germane to the present situation as it is to merit revival. I was also encouraged with the Germans who have had it translated for a long time and had a massive success with it in Hamburg only a year ago and my German agent kept writing to say how massive it was. That was nice, so I thought it probably has legs.

It revisits my passion for androids, which I love and I’ve visited once or twice over the years. I think most notably in
Comic Potential, when the android Jacie first stepped onto the stage, the 'actoid' who discovered two basic faults: one that she had a sense of humour which was a flaw in the programming because androids aren’t supposed to have senses of humour. And the other, which I think is closely aligned to that laughter, she fell in love as well. Two flaws which she identified and tried to correct within herself and diagnose to her eternal frustration.

So I like androids and artificial intelligence, particularly when it's put against human intelligence, because it sort of highlights what we are by nature and what we can't make from machines. In the case, of
Henceforward…, its a creative machine. This is a play about the nature of creation really, basically it’s about a composer. Mostly when you see a play about people creating things, it’s a bit boring really. I did a play about the Brontës once and they just sat, walked round the table or were hunched over the table saying “it was far too wet to think of going for a walk today.” Which is not very interesting visually.

Hollywood tried making movies about composers and there’s one classic one where Beethoven is sitting out in a field with his manuscript paper trying to think of the pastoral symphony and the rain drops started dropping onto the manuscript mimicking the music. ‘Oh, that’s good,’ said Beethoven. ‘Thank you.’ If you’ve ever lived next door to a composer, they play the same bar over and over. But in the end, they then come up with something really unusual.

So this play has a musician because, by that time, just coming in was this cutting edge technology in the form of sampling. I talked to my then resident composer Paul Todd about how feasible it was to get a recording of sampled sounds which was something really new. We found a computer in London, privately owned by this firm that did state of the art computing and we went along. There was this very nice girl there, who I remember very well, Jasmine. Paul talked to her and she gave us access to the computer after hours, so we went in at 6pm when it had closed up and all the staff had gone home and it was a thing the size of this room, vast. Big screens and we fed in stuff and she was probably the only person in the country at that time, who could operate it. So we were in Jasmine’s hands and we’d say, ‘could you do this, Jasmine?” and she’d go, ‘Oh yes, sure’ type for a bit and so we did it. Now, today, the kids could do it on an iPad! So the technology’s shot ahead. I had not envisaged that and as a result we’ve had a look at Jerome’s composing machine, which at the time filled most of the stage and we now have it on a laptop. So the set’s shrunk, which has pleased the management.

We’ve had to rethink that but on the other hand, my android technology is just about nearly there. You can see little breakthroughs happening. Much to my amusement, there’s this real robotic lawyer online who’s won 60,000 cases against parking tickets and it’s a fairly basic legal thing, you appeal and if you’ve got the facts, the lawyer - who would normally charge a fortune - is replaced by the robotic lawyer who does it for nothing and works it out for you and has appealed thousands of cases and he’s won 64% of them, which is brilliant. So we are moving forward. I guess by the time you’ve got a robotic divorce lawyer, we’ll be really there! That’ll be interesting.

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