House & Garden (2011)This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn for the introduction to Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 4.
In 1999, to coincide with my sixtieth birthday, I came up with House & Garden. We were by then comfortably settled in our new home [the Stephen Joseph Theatre] and approaching our fifth year of occupancy I felt it was time, yet again, for another event. Having two theatres at my disposal was irresistible; why not a play this time that occurred simultaneously in both theatres? I had back in the seventies tentatively played around with the idea with the trilogy The Norman Conquests. But though these plays purported to be simultaneous of course they aren’t and indeed were never intended to be. They merely give the impression of running in parallel times.
But with House & Garden, times would synchronise, minute for minute in both theatres simultaneously. Both curtains would rise at the same time and, with any luck, both curtains would down within seconds of each other. A character would leave the stage in one theatre and seconds later would enter on the other stage.
I determined not to cheat. That is to say it would have been easy enough to achieve this if I allowed, say, thirty minute gaps between the exit and the subsequent re-entrance but that would make nonsense of the overall time frame besides negating the whole concept. I asked my stage manager to walk at normal pace from one space to the other, making the journey the characters in the play would make, and to time herself. She returned with the news that the journey had taken her one minute and thirty-three seconds. I decided to allow a safety margin and added another minute. Each entrance, either from the Round to the Mac or vice versa would be allowed that time to complete. No less, not a lot more. It was only later that I realised that it would take only a slight margin of error in the nightly running times in both theatres to throw these calculations entirely out of kilter. All it would take would be one minute to be lost in one theatre and one minute to be gained in the other for there to be a catastrophic series of non-appearances, resulting in extensive ad-libbing. To cope with such alarums we introduced the concept of ‘the emergency dog’. In case of someone in danger of being late for an entrance, the onstage performers would be alerted to slow down the scene by a burst of sudden unscheduled offstage barking from Spoof, the unseen hound who prowled the estate throughout the evening. I’m delighted Spoof was never called upon to bark, unscheduled, during the entire run. A great tribute to the actors’ consistency and most especially to the two stage managers running the shows, stop watches at the ready and permanently in radio contact.
The challenges of writing it were considerable. Apart from the sheer logistics of keeping the two plays in sync - I actually prefer to think of them as one play - it was essential, as the audience would be seeing only one half of the show, that both evenings should appear complete. Indeed, it was only on the second viewing when they took in the event from the point of view of the other auditorium, that they had any sense of an offstage life carrying on elsewhere in the building.
For the actors, of course, it was all one play. A normal night’s work over in two hours plus. But with occasional dashes from one auditorium to the other, from the set of House to the set of Garden or from Garden to House. Plus the unique experience of two quite separate audiences with often quite different responses to their character. Trish, for example, whilst definitely the sympathetic leading lady in House, on her brief visit to Garden is received a little more coolly, being the stand-offish rival to Garden’s own leading lady, Joanna.
I presumed that the play would end in Scarborough and never be seen again. I was therefore indebted to Trevor Nunn, then the National Theatre Artistic Director who came to see the play at its final Scarborough double Saturday matinee/evening performance and who later brought it to the Lyttelton and Olivier auditoria. Due to the increased size of that building I had necessarily to extend the gaps between entrances but only by a minute or so.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.