House & Garden (2000)This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn for the programme for the National Theatre's production of House & Garden in 2000.
Generally, I write a new play each year for the theatre I run in Scarborough. Last year was my sixtieth birthday and it's become a bit of a custom that whenever I reach these significant landmarks I try to come up with something rather more than a play, what I term an event. In 1999 I produced House & Garden.
At the Stephen Joseph Theatre we have two auditoria, a 400 seat theatre in the round and a smaller 167 end stage auditorium. I decided to try and write a piece that would be performed in both spaces simultaneously, House playing in one whilst Garden was going on in the other. The plays would use the identical cast who would be required to move (or in some cases to run) between the two spaces as and when the action required. They would be performing essentially the same play albeit seen from two very different viewpoints.
I decided not to 'cheat' by having characters go off and hang around for hours before coming on again in the other theatre - after all that would have been far too easy. Instead it was planned that in many cases actors would have only just enough time to leave, say, House in order to turn up in Garden in time to play their next scene.
It was, as they say, nail-biting stuff. After all, who can predict how a live audience will affect a play? More important, it's a fact that no two audiences are alike. In this case, as we found, not even two audiences seeing the same play on the same night are alike. How much would the critical timings vary from night to night? The answer was that in the end not as drastically as I'd feared. Moreover, thanks to three "catching up" points - a scene change in the middle of both acts and the interval itself - we were able to bring the shows down at the end, generally within 5 to 10 seconds of each other, due to some very clever cue-ing and close collusion between the two DSM's [Deputy Stage Managers] actually running the shows. The most difficult moment was, in fact, the curtain calls which took a good deal of orchestrating.
For the actors it was, I think, a unique experience. A stage actor is used to playing their audience for the evening, to building a rapport, an understanding between the two of them, be they hero or a villain. But in House & Garden they frequently found themselves being perceived as both, depending on the perspective from which they were being seen. Moreover, the leading actor in one play became necessarily the small part player in the other - thus pursuing a theme I had long wanted to explore, namely that we are all of us walk-on players in other people's lives.
And the audience? Well, they soon joined in the fun of it, too. Indeed it was interesting how when they saw their second play (which could be either House or Garden - they can be seen in either order) they were seen to be eagerly joining together the missing pieces of the jigsaw they had been given from the night before.
Then there was also the little matter of an additional surprise which we threw in afterwards... But you'll need to see the plays to experience that.
It's a huge venture, occasionally nerve wracking but always exciting. I suppose all that live theatre's meant to be, really. Now we're about to do it all again. We must be mad. Olivier and Lyttelton, here we come. Danger! Actors in transit! Please don't block the stairways.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.