Roundelay: Probable Fiction (2014)This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd, was published tin the programme for the world premiere of Roundelay at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2014.
Chances are if you arrived early tonight, you’ll have seen the drawing of the Roundelay balls in the theatre bar.
This, in case you are wondering, is not some archaic Ayckbourn pre-show ritual or a visit by the National Lottery, but an integral part of the performance.
It marks Alan Ayckbourn’s latest experiment with chance in his plays, which dates back to 1979, and ensures that - in all probability - the majority of performances at each venue will be different.
Roundelay consists of five short, loosely related plays; the order they are performed is determined by the lottery draw. So with a 120 possible combinations of five plays, there’s a good chance there’ll be a different experience each night - the order you see the plays affecting how you perceive the characters and events.
It’s all part of Alan Ayckbourn’s repeated mantra about celebrating what makes theatre unique.
“I've always tried to emphasise the fact that theatre is live. If that means two people tossing a coin to decide which way they're going - well it keeps the actors’ adrenaline flowing and makes the audience think, 'Hey, this play really is live!’”
The coin toss refers to Alan’s first random event in a play when he wrote Sisterly Feelings in 1979. This radical idea saw every performance begin the same way before a coin was flipped at the end of the scene determining which one of two second scenes would be performed. The actors themselves then chose between a choice of two third scenes before the play culminated in a common final scene.
Sisterly Feelings made explicit that theatre is spontaneous and unpredictable - here given emphasis by the coin toss and which, famously, led to a totally unexpected incident at the first performance.
“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 off-stage and out of sight of everyone.”
Intriguingly, the original idea for Sisterly Feelings was far more complex with notes in the archive showing a play with a common opening scene leading to a choice of second scenes, which each had a choice of third scenes and so on. If this sounds familiar, it was later repurposed in 1982 for Intimate Exchanges.
Now this epic play cycle is not, as some writers have suggested, a chance play. Although it deals with the idea of how chance and our decisions can affect and change life, the play itself is not random as the evening’s many choices are made in advance. This is not to say it couldn’t be random but it would be a nightmare for any but the most courageous of stage managers and not what the author originally intended.
The next play which featured an element of chance was It Could Be Any One Of Us, which premiered in 1983.
This was a whodunnit but no simple thriller as each night one of three people could be the evening’s murderer; the choice of protagonist decided in a card game which then affected the rest of the play.
“The murderer is completely random and chosen by the drawing of a certain card during a game in the first scene. That character assumes the role of the murderer for that evening and the text is subtly altered by the murderer, who imparts bits of dialogue which will give the audience the chance to spot the guilty party.”
The main issue with this, from a writer’s perspective, was Alan had to make every character a potential homicidal maniac, which perhaps slightly stretches credibility!
The epic Ayckbourn chance play came in 1988 when he began to start writing for family audiences with Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays.
It sees the evil Mr Accousticus - longing for a quiet life - stealing sounds and hiding them in The Cabinet Of Sounds. When young Suzy’s dog, Neville, has his bark stolen, Suzy determines to sneak into Mr Accousticus’s house to retrieve it.
The second act of the play has the audience guide Suzy through the house with each room offering a choice of exits; the decision of where to go next being put to the audience. Not only is the path through the house randomly decided, but the location of the Cabinet can also change. The direction of the play is completely in the audience’s hands, who then have to remember - in reverse - the decisions made to get Suzy safely out of the house!
"I wanted children to be aware of theatre, about how live it is, about what made it for me more exciting than television or the movies. So I wrote a play in which the audience's input was very obviously needed. They had to choose which way the girl and her dog went. I said, 'Look, kids, you can change this play just by your vote.’”
It’s been a while since Alan dipped his toe into a random world, but this brings us full circle to Roundelay and an intriguing experiment in which we will all experience the same content, but each night’s audience will have a differing perspective of those events.
Of course, all these plays only serve to emphasise the original point, but which is often over-looked. Every performance is different in the theatre, no matter what play we choose to see. The words may be the same, but every performance is subtly affected by the actors and audience. There is a perpetual element of unpredictability about theatre because it is live and immediate.
This is what Roundelay puts front and centre tonight and what makes every trip to the theatre so exciting.
“What I've always thought about live theatre is that it's live in reality. The only thing we can really offer that TV or films can't do is the spontaneity.”
Author's note: This article was slightly amended following helpful input by a rather better informed person than myself, Martin Barber, who kindly wrote to the website explaining the maths behind Roundelay: essentially that with 120 possibly permutations of the play, you need only have 14 performances before it's more likely than not there will be a repeated sequence. Many thanks to Martin for help with this and, similarly, absolutely no thanks whatsoever to the 'trivially offensive' Leeds University professor who communicated on the same subject in the most patronising and offensive email ever received by this website and to whom this author feels very sorry for their students if the email reflects their 'teaching' abilities.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.