Ayckbourn At 70: Event Theatre (2009)

This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd, was published in a souvenir programme to mark the Royal & Derngate Theatres' Ayckbourn At 70 celebration in 2009. It explores Alan Ayckbourn's event plays.

“These days, theatre needs events. I want people to say, 'Oh, something different's going on here.”
Alan Ayckbourn

It has become something of a tradition for Alan Ayckbourn that there is a major theatrical event every decade.
On his 50th birthday, he wrote the epic two part
The Revengers’ Comedies and for his 60th birthday, he penned House & Garden. Ayckbourn At 70 is, to all intents and purposes, the Ayckbourn event marking the start of his seventh decade.
Event theatre is an integral part of Alan’s play canon and something he feels is important not only for himself as a writer but for theatre too.

“I believe that a regional theatre needs to include something out of the ordinary every so often. Just to remind everyone that the theatre's still there!”

Making theatre into an event runs far back into Alan’s career to one of his most famous creations,
The Norman Conquests. Currently running on Broadway to great acclaim with The Old Vic’s transfer, this trilogy - written in 1973 - defined him as a writer willing to explore new directions and to create events which would draw audiences into theatres, hopefully multiple times.

“The Norman Conquests, although, I thought, quite well done on television, are essentially stage pieces and always will be. I mean, the fun is in going on three different evenings, not in switching on three different weeks.”

The trilogy explores the events of one weekend and six characters from three different vantage points; a theme picked up in 1999 with House & Garden. These two plays chronicle a day’s events during a fête at a country house but, unlike The Norman Conquests, they were intended to be performed simultaneously in two auditoria by one cast.

“I wrote the plays simultaneously to mark my 60th birthday, and I honestly thought it was a bit of fun. I'm always looking for ways to make theatre live. The most important thing to me is that it's an incredibly live event. Theatre is constantly being questioned these days - people ask what its relevance is when we've got such good virtual reality machines. Essentially the thing that distinguishes it is that it's live.”

What constantly runs through all of Alan’s ‘events’ is the idea that what is happening is both live and unpredictable; it is the spontaneity and transient nature of theatre he celebrates.

“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.”

Spontaneity is a frequent plot device for the playwright, as witnessed by
Sisterly Feelings, the first of his chance plays.

“I've always tried to express 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 adrenaline in the actors and makes the audience think, 'Hey, this play really is live!'”

With its alternate middle two scenes - one of which is determined by a coin toss - it paved the way for perhaps the most ambitious and epic of all Alan Ayckbourn’s theatre events,
Intimate Exchanges.
This features two actors playing ten roles. The opening scene is the same every night and everything else develops from a simple decision as to whether to have a cigarette or not leading to a myriad of wildly different outcomes for the characters with a choice of direction at the end of every scene.

“The play is about those tiny decisions we all make in our lives that lead to bigger consequences. It's a huge concept and is very difficult as there are just two actors playing a total of 10 roles. All the characters are very different and it is a feat of memory for the actors to learn about 16 to 17 hours worth of dialogue. After a production like this you don't have a nerve in your body because it can't get any worse!”

Unfortunately, the sheer scale and challenge of Intimate Exchanges, whilst making it an extraordinary celebration of theatre, has also made it very difficult to replicate despite the playwright’s fondness for it.

“I think it contains some of my finest writing, There are some nice gags and I did get an odd smile from myself when reading through the script, which is rare.”

Since it premiered in 1982,
Intimate Exchanges has only been re-staged once in its entirety (again by Alan with Tim Luscombe co-directing at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2005). Variations of the play are performed, but that it is not performed in its entirety more often is something the playwright regrets

“I thought it might be (re-staged) but I knew it would only be by me. They've been done in ones and twos but that's a bit boring. Why do one Norman Conquest when you've got three? We've got 16 endings here and I've only seen some of them once.”

Alan’s next major piece was The Revengers’ Comedies, which he wrote to celebrate his 50th birthday. The play, inspired by the film Strangers On A Train, runs over two plays for five hours. It is also the first time he really began talking about certain plays in terms of being events and, like Intimate Exchanges before it, he believes the scale of it allowed him as a writer to stretch himself.

“I'd made it to 50, so I thought I'd give people a present. You can't have an 'event' every year, or they become ordinary - but every two or three years, I like to do something a bit different.
“I wanted to do a big show, an event and you need to really challenge yourself now and again, otherwise you tend to churn out the same stuff. These feature two of the most complex people [Henry & Karen] I have ever written because I have been allowed to write them out over such a period of time.”


A decade later, Alan would challenge himself again with
House & Garden, the plays which he supposed would never be performed again, but which transferred to the National Theatre with great success and has since become a stalwart of professional and amateur groups alike.
Since then, Alan has written two loose trilogies.
Damsels In Distress comprises three plays utilising the same set (representing different locations) and the same company (playing different roles). Originally conceived as a duo of plays (GamePlan and FlatSpin), they were joined during rehearsals by RolePlay, making it even bigger than planned.

“RolePlay was triggered by several things. Obviously, an idea. But also the need to keep creating events: to wake the public up by giving them something different, as we did with House and Garden. And, if I'm honest, I wanted to stay part of that company a bit longer. There comes a point when, as writer or director, you have to walk away, but I wanted to delay the moment.”

There are three thematically linked plays written at different times: Haunting Julia (1994); Snake In The Grass (2002) and Life & Beth (2008). The connection being the supernatural theme and a shared company. These were staged together for the first time in 2008 during the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s celebration of Alan Ayckbourn’s final year as Artistic Director of the venue.
What all of these plays are intended to do is make audiences excited about and want to visit theatres. One suspects Alan approves of the idea of the
Ayckbourn At 70 celebration because by its very scale, it is nothing less than event theatre. He may have been talking about House & Garden at the time, but these words are equally true of the Royal & Derngate’s celebrations of both Alan’s 70th birthday and its own 125th anniversary.

“It's a huge venture, occasionally nerve wracking but always exciting. I suppose all that live theatre's meant to be, really.”

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.