Friday, April 28, 2017

60 Years At The SJT: 1979

2017 marks the 60th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn joining the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1957. Alan has been indelibly associated with the company since that time as actor, writer, director and Artistic Director.
To mark this anniversary, the blog will be running a weekly feature highlighting each year's significant achievements and events relating to Alan Ayckbourn alongside notable photos.

60 Years At The SJT: 1979
If there is a single 'fact' that has been perpetually mis-reported during most of Alan Ayckbourn's long career as a playwright, it would be he is a farceur.
He isn't. Never has been. Never will be.
True, he has written plays with elements of farce within them but works frequently cited - such as The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular, Relatively Speaking and - yes - Bedroom Farce - are assuredly not true farces.
They're comedies - mainly tragicomedies, occasionally high comedies - or, as the playwright like to note, just plays. Generally, Alan Ayckbourn likes to make you feel more than one emotion during the course of an evening.
However, there is an exception to this rule. For out of the 81 full-length plays he has written, one is indisputably a true, no doubts about, farce. Just one though.
Alan Ayckbourn circa 1979.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
Taking Steps, which Alan himself dedicated to the master farceur Ben Travers when it premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 1979.
Twenty years after he began writing - with the now withdrawn first play The Square Cat being as close to farce as Alan ever came between 1959 and 1979 - Alan decided to set himself the challenge of writing a farce, which fully met the conventions of the genre.
Why a challenge? Because as the playwright notes, he considers farce one of the hardest genres to write in, which explains the lack of them during his career,
“They [farces] are the most difficult plays to write because you are asking for a seemingly logical string of circumstances to lead to something totally illogical and unlikely without the audience for a moment looking back, and saying, “Oh no, wait a minute, this couldn’t happen.”…. The more wild the journey the more crafty and crafted the play has to be. I mean, this is no mistake, that most farce-writers are quite old dramatists, if not in years at least in experience.”
At the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, the summer of 1979 had been dominated by Alan's random choice play Sisterly Feelings, which could be produced any one of four ways depending on the flip of a coin and the whim of an actor. It was a huge and ambitious production for the Scarborough theatre.
But arguably, it wasn't the defining production of that year. That came at the end of the summer season with a play that was neither scheduled nor advertised in the main brochure. At the end of August, a promotional flyer was printed advertising a new Ayckbourn.
“A little earlier than usual comes Alan Ayckbourn’s 'annual' play. This, his 23rd [actually 24th], opens on Friday 28 September and plays for only four performances during this run before the professional company takes a month’s break. At the moment all we have is the title, but rest assured the script will arrive in time for rehearsals, so don’t miss this opportunity to be the first audience ever to see the new offering of this phenomenally popular and entertaining writer.”
Whilst this may seem a strange way to promote a play at a month's notice, it was actually all too common at the Scarborough venue given Alan's predilection for writing his plays to the latest possible deadline; generally a day before rehearsals began.
Alan Ayckbourn's sketch of the set for the world premier
of Taking Steps taken from his original manuscript.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
So it was not unusual for the theatre to not know what the play was either about or like until rehearsals began. In this case, early September by which point the four performances had sold out.
Except, even as rehearsals started, no-one truly knew what this play was like because he hadn't finished writing it. Describing it as "a pig to finish" Alan couldn't find a satisfactory climax before rehearsals were due to begin!
"The only time I fell down on the job was over Taking Steps. Farce is the most difficult thing of all to write because it has to be a riot from beginning to end. I was a couple of days late with it this year and strayed into my rehearsal period."
Having missed most of the first week of rehearsal - with inspiration only coming after he apparently slept on the problem - was Alan's play ready for its first read-through.
Which did not go quite as planned.
For while the actor Robin Herford recalls that most of the company “wept our way” through the reading, one actor was less than impressed and declared themselves not happy with their role. Quite possibly unique in the history of Alan's plays, this led to a confrontation between playwright and actor, which saw the actor leave the rehearsal room and the company, never to return.
Fortunately, a replacement was quickly found and rehearsals from that point proceeded smoothly and Alan began to reveal details of the play to the public.
Alan Ayckbourn (right) during rehearsals for Taking Steps.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
“[This is] me in cheerful vein. I wrote it as a humble tribute to Ben Travers. I’m rather superstitious and produce my plays only in winter and spring. This time I decided to try a jolly autumn one for a change.”
Not only was Alan making a rare excursion into farce, but also writing a play specifically for the round; it is often forgotten that Alan has written the vast majority of his plays for theatre-in-the-round, although only Taking Steps (and, to an extent, How The Other Half Loves) are designed to specifically work only in the round.
“It [Taking Steps] is perhaps one of the archetypal ‘in the round’ plays because the floor is vitally important, and the floor, of course, in the round is like the backcloth is in the proscenium, everyone sees the floor and the joke is based around the floor.”
Robin Herford & Lavinia Bertram in the world premier
production of Taking Steps.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Taking Steps opened on 28 September 1979 and despite the fact its success was almost guaranteed, there was still an anxious wait to see how a play so different to Alan’s most recent creations would be received. The response was unexpected for both Alan and the acting company.
"I find the cast sitting in the tiny green room in stunned silence. The applause is still rattling through the tannoy speaker on the wall. Finally it dies out. There is a pause. Then one of them says, 'It’s a bit frightening this really, isn’t it?'"
Apparently the first night ran 17 minutes longer than it had in dress rehearsals due to the sheer volume of laughter. Alan’s first true farce was a hit. Following its short run, it returned in repertory from 30 October to 12 January becoming one of the Scarborough theatre’s biggest hits since it opened in 1955.
Alan would also note to his agent, Margaret 'Peggy' Ramsay that "It's just had three of the best receptions that I've ever had for any play of mine in Scarborough."
It also became the first play to run for more than 100 performances when it returned for the 1980 summer season; memorably the Scarborough Evening News reported “Taking Steps Clocks Up 1,000 Shows" - nearly there, just not quite.
Nearly right...
Copyright: The Scarborough News
Despite all its success in Scarborough, the West End production - which ran concurrently with the 1980 Scarborough production - was largely an unmitigated disaster in the playwright's eyes, as this memorable account from Paul Allen's biography of Alan Ayckbourn, Grinning At The Edge shows.
“On the London opening night of Taking Steps the Act 1 curtain arrived to almost complete silence, in contrast to the aching roar greeting it in Scarborough, and things were not much better at the end. Alan was aware of the sound of [his partner] Heather sobbing beside him. 'She was more upset than I was. I just went out into the night,' he says, but I suspect his upset was simply buried at once.”
The disappointment of the production marked the final time he would let anyone but himself direct a London premier of a new work. His only comfort was that his own production was running simultaneously in Scarborough with the polar opposite reaction.
“It’s very interesting: it’s the first time that a play of mine - Taking Steps - opened in London while it was still running in Scarborough. I’ve never done that before. It was like looking at two pictures. And you say: 'Well, I don’t care what they say down there and whether they think this or that. There’s a whole group of people in here who are having a marvellous time.' And in that sense one was perhaps able to survive the buffers of that experience better.”
Alan Ayckbourn & the Taking Steps company celebrate its
100th performance in 1980.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Of the more than 600 productions staged by the Stephen Joseph company in its three homes since 1955, Taking Steps undoubtedly deserves a place as one of the most significant. And you don't have to take my word for it, for you can judge Alan's Ayckbourn's only farce this summer when it returns to Scarborough, directed by Alan Ayckbourn, at the SJT.

Taking Steps, directed by Alan Ayckbourn, can be seen at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from 13 July to 5 October. Further details and bookings can be found at www.sjt.uk.com.

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