GamePlan: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
Alan Ayckbourn's preface to Damsels In Distress (Faber edition)
In 2000, having recently reached my sixtieth year and rapidly approaching my 45th working in theatre, I began to yearn, once again, for a permanent acting company which during the 60's, 70's and early 80's were the mainstay of the Theatre in Scarborough. Recently, as with so many regional companies, we had begun to rely more and more on actors visiting us, short term, for one or maybe two productions. Spot casting in this way has its advantages. You tend to get just the right actor for the right part and, given the shorter nature of the engagement, a wider range of performers willing to tear themselves away from family, friends and other more lucrative London based work.
What you lose of course is the true company. The moment when a group of individual (sometimes highly individual) actors through familiarity, growing confidence and trust in each other forms that most unique of all theatrical achievements - a shared 'corporate' identity. The individuality remains - but the sum of the separate parts has generated something greater and stronger.
In my experience, some companies are highly stable and are happy to remain together for months, even years. These, ironically, are often made up of those who offstage prefer to go their separate ways. Their working lives are close-knit and shared; their personal lives are worlds apart. Conversely the group that eats, drinks, sometimes sleeps (and incidentally acts) together proves usually to be short lived and unstable. It is nothing you can plan for. Who can foretell whether X will take an instant dislike to, or have an overwhelming desire for Y? Personally, I try to put together companies consisting of people that I like and trust to luck that this common bond will prove a strong enough glue to hold the elements together.
It was with this principle in mind that I put together the 2001 Scarborough summer company of seven. The contract was technically from April to November but was in effect open ended. It was intended that we would stay together until the glue melted. As additional security I also retained the services of the experienced, trusted resident stage management team of three. Lacking an assistant director I fully knew the importance of having someone to provide after care, comfort and support if the going got rough.
I had written the company two plays, GamePlan and FlatSpin. Both were really entirely separate, linked by an identical cast size and the same set. The overall title I selected for them both though, Damsels in Distress, did reflect the fact that both were about women who one way or another had found themselves up against it in the modern world.
The plays were duly cast from actors some of whom I had worked with before and some, thanks to my invaluable casting director Sarah Hughes, new to me. The longest serving, Robert Austin, had worked originally with me way back in the seventies, creating amongst other things the part of Sven in Joking Apart in 1978 which transferred from Scarborough to London that same year. Jacqueline King and Bill Champion had also done a Scarborough to West End transfer twenty years later in Comic Potential. Of the more recent members, Alison Pargeter and Saskia Butler had both appeared a few months earlier in the 2000 Christmas show, Whenever, which I had written with composer Denis King. Finally, Beth Tuckey and Tim Faraday, neither of whom I had worked with before. New and old. Reassuring and unfamiliar, just enough to keep me, as director, on my toes. Final chemistry ultimately unknown.
In the event the balance was just fine. GamePlan rehearsed and opened successfully and, in what seemed like no time at all, (about 7 or 8 weeks) we were midway through rehearsals for FlatSpin. It was then that the 'company' effect began to take hold, like it had done in the past. As the group developed and consolidated so I began to get the desire to write something more for them. Mid-morning during a rehearsal, I announced that there could - possibly be - if they didn't mind - though it wasn't in any of their contracts - so if they did mind of course, then I wouldn't mind - there could be a third play for them to do ... Rather stunned they agreed. I don't, in retrospect, think it was much of a choice for them, though.
We opened FlatSpin on a Tuesday. I went home rather prematurely from the first night party. The following day, I started work on what was to become RolePlay. Just over a week later, on the following Thursday, I presented the cast with their new script. Damsels in Distress was now officially a trilogy. Same set, same actors but a totally fresh set of characters.
Although the plays can be seen individually and in any order, this last written piece by happy coincidence brought the entire company on-stage together in a seven handed scene for the first and only time. A fitting finale, I thought.
I suppose that one day these plays will be produced by others. I hope they will. Already there are productions planned for one or more of them, singly, here and there. But for me they will always remain an entity, born out of a company. Written for a small group of actors, with talent, stamina, a sense of teamwork and a taste for adventure. Here's to that original 'magnificent seven'.
Damsels In Distress (Stephen Joseph Theatre 2001 programme note)
Long, long ago when this company was very young and called something altogether different, we operated what was then termed the company system; a small, semi-permanent group of actors, writers, directors and stage managers who boxed and coxed between every conceivable job, the stage managers regularly acting, the writers running the Box Office, the directors occasionally painting the set and the actors designing (sometimes making) their own costumes.
Since those youthful fringe days we have grown up a bit. Nowadays it is not the done thing to do everything, for we live in the world of the specialist, the designated expert. And most of it, frankly, I don't miss. The stage managers were usually appalling (and reluctant) actors, the Box Office rarely balanced, the costumes were a mess and the director invariably got black paint all over everything.
But what I did grow to miss was the permanence of the acting company. The strength that can be drawn from the group rather than the individual; the team rather than a solo performer plus anonymous backing group. Yet all that's rather fallen into disrepute. Regular permanent companies are the exception these days, partly due to finance. After all, it's expensive to hold on to a team of eight actors if you opt to produce a four-handed play. On the other hand, if you can find two four handers...
To make such a company work requires a lot of planning and considerable ingenuity. It can be done but it usually demands that the plays are either improvised by the company or specifically written to fit their needs or numbers. It seemed to me I was in the best position to address this. I'm a director who is known to enjoy planning and I have a resident dramatist ready, willing and still relatively able.
So this is my attempt to return to an ongoing 'permanent' company. Inevitably, individual performers will change over the months (it threatens to be very hard work) but the group will go on, the repertoire will grow as I hope, with confidence and trust, will the quality of the work.
GamePlan and FlatSpin mark the start. Under the joint title Damsels in Distress, they were written for an identical seven-handed company.
They were also written to be performed on the same set. Economical? Yes, certainly (but at the rate things are going, I predict in a year or two all my plays will be played on the same set, but that's by the by). Yet also practical, both whilst in the repertoire here and when touring later - two shows, one fit-up.
Will it all work out? Who can tell? But as the director in me remarked to the writer in me only the other day, it's about time we both tried something new, isn't it?
Schoolday Memories (Stephen Joseph Theatre 2001 programme note)
From the age of seven I was educated privately at all-male boarding schools. During that period, I spent a third of my life at home and two thirds at school (which I gradually came to regard as home). Contact for the most of us with the opposite sex of our own age was rare or non-existent. Our knowledge of women, psychologically and physical, was, to say the least, sketchy. When one thirteen-year-old arrived back from the holidays with the surprising fact imparted by a friend of his sister's that mature women were physically incapable of raising their arms above their head, who were we to disprove him?
"It's to do with their breasts," he confided. "She told me and she should know." Some of us were doubtful; but none of us, come to think of it, could ever recall a single woman of our acquaintance lifting her arms fully above her head. Athletes did, yes. But they of course had had some sort of operation. But normal women? The dispute grew heated and in the end a committee was dispatched to the village shop where a certain surly but full-breasted assistant was in charge of the grocery counter. Our spokesman stepped forward. "We'd like, please," he requested sweetly, "some of those on the top shelf." He pointed high above her head at a tin of biscuits. She fixed him with a hostile eye and sighed. She looked at us and then at the shelf and then back at us. "Are you quite sure?" she asked suspiciously.
"They have to be those, do they?" "Yes, please."
There was now an air of tension. Would she summon a male assistant? Would she ask one of us to perform this, for her, impossible task? Or would her arms miraculously extend way up above her head to pluck the tin swiftly and effortlessly from the shelf? Instead, she walked to a far corner of the store. The Lobby for Restricted Female Mobility were already sensing victory. She returned with a small pair of steps, climbed them and with two perfectly horizontal arms brought the tin down; for which we, the Women's Freedom of Arm Movement Movement, as losers, were forced to pay.
Sadly, given this clear evidence, I was forced to concede that women were in many ways, poor souls, an inferior species. Actually, it wasn't until the beginning of the following term when my mother, both arms above her head, waved me off at the station, that I began to have fresh doubts.
An Afternoon With Alan (Pitlochry Festival Theatre 2016 programme note)
I've always been a director. I used to run, until very recently, the Stephen Joseph Theatre. I was the Artistic Director there for 40 years. There has always been a tradition of a company theatre there, as my plays will suggest. They are all company plays really, right from the very early ones. They weren't obvious star vehicles, though the idea of the Damsels trilogy wasn't that unusual. I chose seven actors who were cast in two plays, initially FlatSpin and GamePlan, and then because we were having such a good time and I was in a crazy mood at the time, I suggested I write a third one. They all looked a bit askance: so I said "Well, your contracts run until the end of the year, you can squeeze in a third one." It was interesting, seven actors playing twenty one roles and the only thing in common in the plays is the set itself, because I set them in a London riverside apartment, based on somewhere I used to live on the Thames, so we were used to the riverboats going backwards and forwards and the party boats and the tidal river coming up and down. So it's another character, the river.
But a different set of characters inhabit it in all three plays. The characters are not connected in any way. I'm fond of trilogies, ever since The Norman Conquests, which is the same set of characters set in three different locations - this is like mirror imaging it - different characters in the same location, so that was the idea. I know audiences love to see actors performing differently and l know Pitlochry works on that situation too, in that you can, if you see a lot of plays over a season, see actors you rather like coming back as totally different characters, playing villains and heroes and singing and dancing and all sorts of different things, so I think that's one of the magic elements of theatre.
All three plays have a darkness to them: my writing has progressively, over the years, got darker. At the time I was writing this, 16 years ago in 2000, it was certainly into the dark side, but I hope I have clung on to the comedy of the stage - all three plays are quite funny as well, quite darkly funny. My feeling is that if you write comedies, they're a bit like Chinese meals, really. If you get out of a theatre having purely laughed for two hours, you may well have had a really good time, but by the time you are half way home in your car, you suddenly get a bit hungry again for something more serious. So I'd love to leave the audience in all these cases with a little bit of weight, and it's just getting the balance between the weight, the substance and the fun of the performance.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.