Sisterly Feelings (—)This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn for a programme for an unknown production.
I am fascinated by chance in the theatre. The night the set fell down. The night the theatre cat wandered on stage. Often considered to be disasters at the time, later they become depressingly the only thing that many people remember about the show at all.
"I was in to see the show that night - I forget the play now - that night you - I don't remember the character you were playing - that night that tin of biscuits fell on your head." Virtually every actor has had some such exchange with their public. So much for his Master Builder or her Hedda.
And yet, on the brighter side, it does indicate one thing. That it is the liveness of theatre that people so often remember. And it is, after all, this very liveness that separates theatre from any other medium. Liveness is really the only element we have on offer that no one else has. The uniqueness which occurs every night when a different set of people settle down to witness what is in theory supposedly the same event. I say supposedly, except for those minute (and sometimes major) changes that a fresh audience brings to each performance by their own individual contribution (or lack of it!)
Go backstage in any theatre on any night and you will hear talk of 'them', the audience. How are they? Are they quiet? Are they cold? Are they friendly?
How can a bunch of six hundred total strangers adopt such a distinctive group personality?
Are they slow, laughing ten seconds after every laugh line? Are they manic, out of control, braying with mirth at the furniture? Why is it that all the people with no sense of humour decide to turn up on the same night? Is there an Association of Coughers and Sneezers who take regular outings together? Why don't they come on the same night as the League of Trumpeting Noseblowers? Why do people with Sleeping Sickness always sit on the front row?
All fascinating but totally unanswerable questions.
Anyway, I decided to write a truly live play where, on some nights, not even the actors themselves (let alone the stage management) would know how things were going to turn out. A play with genuine random alternatives. What is more, where things would be seen to be random. What better way to achieve this than for one of the characters in full sight of the audience to toss a coin to determine the future dramatic action?
On the first two nights in Scarborough where the play (like all my others) received its first production we played both versions, Abigail and Dorcas, before on the third night going totally "random".
I stood in the control box and watched as we reached the end of the first scene. The historic moment arrived when the coin would be tossed and the fate of the evening decided. The actor in question tossed the coin. It landed, would you believe? On edge, a chance in a million, and rolled like a thing possessed offstage into the wings. The actors, who hadn't much alternative, sheepishly followed it. Thus theatre history was made offstage and out of sight of everyone.
A few minutes later on that same evening, the stage manager apologetically informed me that we couldn't perform one of the second act alternatives because a vital prop had been broken.
I can't say I was vastly surprised. After all, what do you expect if you work in live theatre?
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.