Friday, May 12, 2017

60 Years At The SJT: 1981

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: 1981
When it comes to 1981 and Alan Ayckbourn's time at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, there is really only one thing to discuss.
But then, when you announce a play that will essentially turn a small regional theatre into a canal, it's quite hard for anything else to compete!
Welcome toAlan Ayckbourn's play Way Upstream.
Alan has become well known over the decades for his fondness for what he terms 'event theatre'; productions which celebrate theatre, particularly its liveness and offer an experience that can only be truly appreciated in the theatre.
His first of these was arguably The Norman Conquests trilogy at the Library Theatre in 1973. Way Upstream marked his first major theatrical event at the company's second home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, and it pretty much went for broke.
The inspiration for the play is surprisingly prosaic and didn't - initially - necessarily involve the idea of the most challenging setting to have yet appeared in an Ayckbourn play.

"I wanted to write a play about the nature of leadership, and why some members consider themselves to be leaders and others don't, and the ones who do consider themselves to be leaders are obviously the ones who shouldn't be anyway, and the ones who don't consider themselves to be leaders would probably make very good ones if they put themselves forward. It's an ironic twist. Just to write a play with five or six people sitting in a living room discussing it would probably be very boring, but I got the idea of setting it in a cabin cruiser on the River Thames, because that is where the nature of leadership always comes out. You see these red-faced men in yachting caps shouting at their reluctant families 'Come along darling, tie up, tie up, come on!' That was three or four ideas in one play."
Easy notes for the play including a different name for the boat -
the Hadforth Maid II - and Alistair and Emma were originally
named Adam and Edie.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
Of course, it wasn't such a simple step as just deciding to write a play and fill your stage with water, you need to be sure it's practically possible and here Alan had the good fortune of discovering the theatre - based on the ground floor level of a former school - was blessed with concrete floors. Previously, Alan's original production of Time And Time Again had seen the pond develop a leak into the reading room below the Library Theatre on the first floor of Scarborough's public library.
Here, if water spilt or leaked, it was only going to flood the theatre rather than the metal-working classes held in the floor below by a local college!
Way Upstream was scheduled to open on 2 October 1981 and Alan began writing it on the 11 August As was common at the time, it meant that when the play was being publicised, Alan had not written a single word of the script and there was a suitably nebulous description in the summer brochure.

"At the time of going to press all we have is the title and a brief description that the play is a tale of mutiny and piracy set aboard a cabin cruiser on a sleepy English river, but rest assured that the script will arrive in time for rehearsals, so don’t miss the opportunity of being among the first audience ever to see this new play from Alan Ayckbourn."

In an interview from the time, Alan himself was equally coy about what he was creating, except to say that it was going to be quite different to anything he had written before.

"It is for me quite a departure. Whatever else I'm being accused of, I don't think I'm trotting out the same old play again."

Of course, one would imagine that when contemplating the most adventurous and challenging production to have yet be staged by the company, preparation and planning would begun some months in advance.
Or not.
Alan finished writing the play in early September and - approximately four weeks - before the play was due to open, spoke to his designer - Edward Lipscomb - about the precise needs of the play.
This essentially boiled down to building a tank to enable the flooding the auditorium, creating a watertight and movable boat and having a localised downpour. Just another day in the life of a designer and theatre production team!
An early sketch by Alan Ayckbourn showing his design for
set - essentially a cabin cruiser!
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
Edward's first step was to contact a water effects specialist. Byll Elliot, who was responsible for the water effects at the Paris Lido. The job of his company -  Watersculptures of Lancaster - was to create a rainstorm as well as creating realistic waves spray out from the bow of the boat and a wake from the boat's stern.
The depth of the water, concealed by a specially formulated powered to make the water murky, was just nine-and-half inches, which had to cover anything required to move the boat as well as hiding the platform the boat would be built upon.
For this, Edward turned to the local firm Archer Industrial Systems, who built a revolving plate which was placed on a trolley which moved along rails installed within the tank - all of which had to be built without knowing the precise dimensions and weight of the finished boat; they had just three weeks to achieve this!
The boat itself came from a local boat builder, Colin Wigglesworth, based at Riggs Head near Scarborough. Edward explained they needed a boat without a bottom and could they help?
Fortunately, the firm had old moulds for cabin cruisers - no longer in  demand and last used in 1965 - and from there were able to construct a boat in three sections  measuring 19ft in length; each section had to fit through a four ft, nine inches door to get into the auditorium.
Back in the theatre, thick - but flexible - plastic sheeting was laid creating a watertight pool around the auditorium which had removed the first row of seats to build up to the necessary depth. Onto the plastic heating went the rails constructed by Archers. Electrics were then installed, which obviously involved a great deal of isolation given the proximity to a body of water!
Watersculptures had meanwhile installed a simple pump with a pipe running up to and across the ceiling ending in a shower which could create the rain effect.
The boat was brought into the theatre on Sunday 28 September and assembled onto the plate which was now on the rails. A motor to move the boat / plate was installed which proved to be too small and blew up. A new larger motor was order from Leeds, which arrived the day before the show was due to open, but when installation was completed at 4am, it also did not work; the problem fortunately discovered to have been a short in the terminal box.
On the Tuesday, the Yorkshire Water Authority arrived to fill the tank using two high powered fire hoses to fill the entire tank. All the while, carpenters and the production team were working on the boat to finish it.
Designer Edward Lipscomb on the set of Way Upstream, sat
on the Hadforth Bounty in a flooded stage.
Copyright: To be confirmed.
The boat was finally ready by the Friday when it was decided to test out the water effects for the first time; the water was turned on and a monsoon appeared which was so heavy that the water bounced off the boat into the auditorium seats. It was decided not use the rain during the first performance as adjustments were made for more of a drizzle than a storm!
Despite the water technicians creating a rainstorm, it was realised too late they had not accounted for one thing which broke the illusion of the play. A dripping shower head. After the storm, the water did not completely shut off and dripped onto the boat.
This was solved by the theatre's master carpenter Frank Matthews, who simply rigged a string operated cup by the shower head that could be released to cover the head once the rain had stopped, catching any drips.
The issue with the motor meant a dress rehearsal was lost and the technical rehearsal did not take place until the actual opening day, finishing just 25 minutes before the show had its opening! Despite all this, as Alan testifies, it was all very much worth the stress and pressure experienced by everyone involved in bringing it to the stage in time.,

"It was exciting with the Way Upstream experience when various elements pulled together. We asked a local boatyard to provide a 'sawn off' boat, for instance, and local interest certainly caught fire with this show. It was not an easy project, and it was trial and error. It was a new technology to move bottomless boats with motors through water - albeit only ten inches of it. With a varying number of people on board it required a great deal of work with gears and motors. If the motor was too strong the boat shot water everywhere, and if it was too feeble it started to catch fire. Our poor engineer was rushing backwards and forwards trying different strengths of motor and various gearing When it worked, which thank heavens it did on the first night, there was a sort of sigh of relief from the entire audience followed by a huge round of applause. A sort of 'thank you, God' followed by applause."

With the exception of the cancellation of the first preview to accommodate the technical rehearsal, it is remarkable to think no performance was cancelled during the play's original run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round and that it was a technical triumph achieved on a shoestring budget.
The play was a resounding hit with Scarborough and apparently the sight of the 'lake-in-the-round' when audiences first entered the auditorium was hugely exciting.
The play enjoyed a sell-out run at the theatre and the first night audience - full of Scarborough people who had worked on everything from building the cruiser to designing the winch system for movement - apparently cheered as the boat moved away from its moorings for the first time.
Way Upstream is notably the first of Alan Ayckbourn's play to leave the suburban household and marked a new phase of his writing. It was hardly a tentative step into the world at large!
Of course, the question is, how do you follow something of this scale?
Well, initially, Alan decided to tour the production. To Houston. Way Upstream transferred with the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round company across the Atlantic in February 1982 for a month long residency. Way Upstream was staged at the Alley Theatre in a water-filled stage complete with moving boat and rainstorm and went incredibly smoothly on a limited budget.
Somewhat ironic given that the National Theatre with a huge budget and all its technical resources was not initially able to achieve this the following year with its infamous staging issues.
Alan Ayckbourn at the wheel of the Hadforth Bounty at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
And after touring Way Upstream? What could Alan possibly follow this up with at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round?
Only a two-hander play.
Albeit a two-hander which happened to have sixteen different endings, more than 30 hours of dialogue, 10 characters and took more than a year to unveil in all its glory....

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