Intimate Exchanges (1986)

This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn for a programme for an unknown production in 1986.

Those with good theatre memories may recall a play of mine, a few years ago, entitled Sisterly Feelings. It was the tale of two sisters and depended on the toss of a coin and, subsequently, the choice that each of them made onstage during any one performance as to how the story unfolded. It was, in retrospect, a trial sprint, a mere warm-up over a few hundred metres. Intimate Exchanges, a few years on, was to be the marathon version.
In 1981, we at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round (of which I am, of course, director) had finished our Scarborough season with a trip to Houston, Texas where we filled the Alley Theatre with several thousand gallons of relatively untroubled water and performed
Way Upstream to bemused oil men. When we returned, it was with a reduced acting company of two. The rest had collapsed exhausted or wandered further south and crossed the Mexico border, not to be heard of again for several months.
This seemed the perfect time to pursue an idea that had been haunting me ever since
Sisterly Feelings, namely to write a large scale multi-ended opus in which choices genuinely lead to other choices in an increasing proliferation - one, two, four, eight, sixteen and so on. It was intended not merely as a vast gimmick, but to pursue a theory that I had long held that the tiny, often careless choices we make in our lives can lead to vast consequences. In Intimate Exchanges, during the overall canon, depending on whether or not Celia Teasdale decides to have a cigarette in the first five seconds, several people are divorced, start affairs, have children together, die, and even, very occasionally, live happily ever after.
It proved a far bigger task than even I had envisaged. Originally, we had planned, the two actors - Lavinia Bertram and Robin Herford - and myself, to open all the plays over the course of the 1982 summer months. By the time we started rehearsals in May, I had three versions completed, another nearly so; there remained four alternative second halves and eight alternative final scenes still to write.
We managed, eventually, to open three versions during the course of that summer, starting with
A Cricket Match; that autumn and winter came the remaining versions, finishing in February 1983 - nearly 1 year later with A Pageant. A total of some sixteen hours of dialogue, ten characters, thirty scenes, and dozens of quick changes. One fortnight, around Easter of that year, we performed the ultimate marathon - sixteen performances in twelve days which included all the possible permutations. I remain to this day awed by the patience and enthusiasm of the audience and eternally grateful to the cast.
As to whether they will all, one day, be done again - well, it will take another such group of reckless lunatics with a great deal of time and devotion on their hands ...
In the meantime, I do hope this sample tasting will both satisfy and whet the appetite for more.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.