Friday, May 19, 2017

60 Years At The SJT: 1982

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: 1982
1982 for Alan Ayckbourn and the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, is dominated by a single play.
Albeit a single play of epic proportions.
It opened on 3 June 1982 and would run in repertory until 1 October 1983 - although it would not be finished until 1 February 1983 nor seen in its entirety until nine months after it had first opened.
The play is Intimate Exchanges and it challenged the playwright, his actors and the his home theatre as no other play before.
The roots of Intimate Exchanges actually lay in the previous year's equally challenging - if in a completely different way - Way Upstream; this being a play which required a cabin cruiser moving through a flooded stage with rainfall. Technically as complicated as the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round was ever likely to get.
Astonishingly, the company toured Way Upstream to the Alley Theatre, Houston, during early 1983 during which, Alan Ayckbourn discovered he was to lose most of his repertory company and his initial plans for the 1983 summer season were spoilt. For various reasons, most of the company were either departing or taking a break and Alan was left with just two actors; but two very respected actors.
Whilst the playwright has subsequently noted he could have just recast or brought a new company in, he found himself left with two of the most experienced actors in the company.
He'd had an idea for a play for two people for some time utilising a concept he had begun exploring in 1980 with Sisterly Feelings. It would be a radical combination.

This seemed the perfect time to pursue an idea that had been haunting me ever since Sisterly Feelings, namely to write a large scale multi-ended opus in which choices genuinely lead to other choices in an increasing proliferation - one, two, four, eight, sixteen and so on. It was intended not merely as a vast gimmick, but to pursue a theory that I had long held that the tiny, often careless choices we make in our lives can lead to vast consequences. In Intimate Exchanges, during the overall canon, depending on whether or not Celia Teasdale decides to have a cigarette in the first five seconds, several people are divorced, start affairs, have children together, die, and even, very occasionally, live happily ever after.

Alan Ayckbourn's original structure for Sisterly Feelings with
eight permutations rather than four.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
In Sisterly Feelings, Alan had written a play which had randomly determined alternate scenes for the two middle scenes of the play, so the play had four potential variations. But this was a scaled down version of his original idea for the play, which would have been a branching play starting with a common first scene which branched at the end of each scene, leading to a total of eight possible permutations.
Alan decided to simplify this structure, but like so many of his ideas, it stayed in his mind waiting for the right moment to be developed. He now had that opportunity but on an even larger scale. A play that would ultimately have 16 different permutations.
The structure for Intimate Exchanges with all 16
possible permutations.
Copyright: BBC / Alan Ayckbourn
First and foremost though, he needed the co-operation of his two actors. Without them - without actors he trusted and knew were capable of meeting the challenge - the project would be a non-starter. Over two dinners in Houston, he proposed the idea separately to Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram. Added to the complex structure was also the final piece of this jigsaw. Each actor would play at least four different roles. The request was obviously flattering to each actor and both tentatively agreed to the idea, although Robin - recently a father - was not at all confident about what he had committed himself to. It was not long before the sheer scale of the play revealed itself.

"Here were two actors I'd worked with for years and years, two people who would actually trust me, and I could trust them, to do a play of an enormous nature."

Lavinia Bertram & Robin Herford
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Alan began with the structure, setting out the general course of each of the plays. The initial plan was to actually write the complete play in one go and introduce it entirely over the course of the 1982 summer season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.
This proved impractical and was altered to Alan writing four of the eight major variations for the summer season before writing and introducing the rest of the variations over the course of the following year. The plays would begin in June, run through the summer, come back into repertory for the autumn before taking over the theatre again from January to mid April coming back in the summer the following year.
Not only was it an ambitious idea, but potentially a very risky one. Eric Thompson, the director of the London production of The Norman Conquests, had once remarked of the trilogy that if audiences didn't like the first one, they weren't going to come and see the other two and they'd have not one but three flops on their hands. Here, the stakes were even higher. It was one play, but it was essentially a year's worth of programming for the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough.
If audiences did not like the idea or support the notion of visiting multiple times, it could be a very expensive risk for the venue.
The scale of the piece - and perhaps even the lunacy of the idea - had begun to become clear when rehearsals started in May 1982. Alan had completed three of the variants with one other largely completed. The summer season opened on 3 June with A Cricket Match, which went into repertoire with the other two completed variants. The rest were introduced over the course of the year ending with A Pageant premiering in February 1982. By this point Alan had written 31 scenes which incorporated approximately 16 hours of dialogue, ten characters, 12 major set changes and dozens of quick changes.
At the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, a huge diagram of the structure was hung in the foyer with lights to indicate the choices of that evening's performance (unlike Sisterly Feelings, the scale of Intimate Exchanges precludes an in-performance random element) and it was emphasised not only could the plays be seen in any order but that it was not necessary to see all the plays - or any more than one - but the more you saw, the richer the play and the characters would become.

"Intimate Exchanges is, hopefully, a project that grows on you. And grows. And grows…. You will appreciate that working on a canvas this size - with nearly 30 hours of drama - it was my intention that the characters should continually unfurl and spring, just occasionally, the odd surprise. I hope they'll always remain the same, in that they're true to themselves always, but will nonetheless develop as new pressures or situations present themselves."
Alan Ayckbourn with the diagram illustrating the structure of
Intimate Exchanges in the foyer of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
The audience reaction was key to the success of Intimate Exchanges, more so than the critical reaction. After all, positive word of mouth would keep people coming and talking about the play over the course of a year. A good review might bring people in initially, but it would not be read or relevant a week later - never mind fifty weeks later (particularly in a pre-internet era when it was not so simple to track down old reviews).
Fortunately, the audience response was overwhelmingly positive with people keen to return and see how the lives of the characters altered with the choices made. It validated Alan's decision to dedicate so much of a year's programming to the play and was, no doubt, gratifying to the actors who were having to learn so much dialogue.
The play's run ended on 1 October 1983, preceded in April by the Intimate Exchanges Grand Marathon, a much publicised sell-out event in which every possible permutation of the play was offered in 16 performances over 12 days.
Alan Ayckbourn, Lavinia Bertram & Robin Herford celebrate
100 performances of Intimate Exchanges in 1983.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
The size of the piece has meant that it has only ever been revived in its entirety one other time - although the various parts of the play have been performed individually, as pairs or with four combinations over the years.
The revival was, naturally, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, in 2006 when Bill Champion and Claudia Elmhirst undertook the ambitious challenge. But that production had its own issues when Alan Ayckbourn had a stroke two weeks before rehearsals began - and the story of that will be told in approximately 20 weeks as part of this 60 year celebration!
Back in the 1980s and Intimate Exchanges would go on to transfer to the Greenwich Theatre before moving to the Ambassador's Theatre in the West End, still starring Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram. Essentially their lives would be dominated by Intimate Exchanges from May 1982 to February 1985. Afterwards, Robin would retire from acting to concentrate on directing!
Intimate Exchanges remains to this day one of Alan Ayckbourn's most ambitious works and like Way Upstream the year before, clearly demonstrated that the playwright and his home theatre were committed to exciting and extraordinary theatre - for which the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round become well known for throughout this decade.

"It was a fascinating and very rewarding experience which I don’t think any of us will ever forget. Between Robin and Lavinia, they memorised thirty scenes, eleven different characters and sixteen or so hours of dialogue. I described it rather pompously as a Festival of the Art of Acting. Lavinia described it as an orgy."

Author's note: We'll be taking a short break from the 60 Years features and they'll return in two weeks on Friday 2 June.

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