Ayckbourn Talks: Taking Steps (2017)

This is a transcription of Alan Ayckbourn's introduction to Taking Steps for the Stephen Joseph Theatre company prior to the first read-through of the play for its 2017 revival at the SJT.

Taking Steps is one of my few farces. I was known in the early days as a farceur, but in fact I never wrote farces, I wrote comedies; there is a fine line between the two and this was indeed my first attempt at a farce. It bears an unashamed tribute to one of my heroes, at that time the 92 year old Ben Travers, who was still going strong and gave us all hope as fellow farce writers that we could go on that long!

Taking Steps grew out of the fact that someone at the Arts Council said, grandly, 'farce is impossible to do in-the-round.' I thought, 'no, it isn't.' When asked a question about that, he said, 'in-the-round has got no doors and farces is entirely reliant on doors.' And I thought, 'no, it isn't.' So Taking Steps is reliant on floors. For doors, read floors, and it has three floors.

This is the one show I'm positive in my own heart that I've written which is impossible to do in the proscenium arch. This is a 'round' play and it sits in-the-round because of its joke with the floors and the enjoyment of spatial playing. We have three imaginary floors, for those of you who don't know it, and each floor is represented by the same floor. We have on the set two staircases and when the actors canter up the staircases, they remain on the same level but they are on another floor. And if this is complicated, let me tell you, wait until you see it.

There is one tiny anecdote I want to tell. When we did it first in 1979, I was terrified that it would not register with the audience what was happening and I sat chewing my nails watching the first show for the first 20 minutes. Slowly the audience learnt the geography and because - in our old theatre - the vom 1 entrance was the only way the audience could come in and out of the auditorium; they all came in this way and walked across the set when they took their seats - which was a stage manager's nightmare, of course.

The set, when you walk into it, looks like a used furniture store. You have no idea what the furniture is doing and what it is doing in relation to each other. However, when we got to the interval, half the audience all plunged out for a drink walking back out across the stage. The miracle was, as I was watched them, they all went down the stairs religiously and through the invisible doors. We taught them our game and it was just marvellous.

I was likening it to Headingley cricket ground. When you see a game there, once the professionals go off, the guys rush on and fence it all off and say stand back. In Scarborough Cricket Club, which is a marvellous ground, it's quite the reverse. When the professionals come off, everybody gets down off their seats and starts playing cricket! There's thousands of games of cricket playing on the player's space. It's a shared space and I love the idea that the round is a shared space. What
Taking Steps also does is it demonstrates what fun you can have with a floor. And hopefully, will lead to people having more fun with floors!

The characters themselves are very much farce traditional characters. I was reflecting this morning that if you questioned four of these six characters, asking what the play was about, they would answer 'me.' There are four supremely egotistical characters in this play and two nice people. And you have to guess who they are! I think I was fantasising asking these characters to write their own biographies and I think they would all - Lizzie, Mark, Roland and Bainbridge - exclude anybody else.

So that's the secret of this play. Selfishness and then goodness triumphs. In the end and it all ends happily.

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