Friday, June 9, 2017

60 Years At The SJT: 1984

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: 1984
1984 saw the premiere of a play that is now considered an classic of the Ayckbourn canon, yet it had the potential to be very different.
We have already seen in 1982 how Alan Ayckbourn nearly wrote a thriller, Sight Unseen, but then changed his mind, salvaging only the characters and location to write Season's Greetings.
Two years later, he had another idea and although the basic concept always remained the same - a play set around a newcomer joining an amateur operatic society - the actual form it could have taken was wildly different from what was originally written.
Rehearsing for the world premiere of A Chorus Of Disapproval.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
The roots for A Chorus Of Disapproval go back to January 1984 when Alan received an enquiry from Peter Hall, Artistic Director of the National Theatre, whether he had any ideas for a new play for The Olivier at the venue.
This was the largest space at the NT and Alan took the opportunity to conceive an idea which would fill the stage with an amateur dramatic company and its production of Rudolf Friml's The Vagabond King....
I know what you're thinking, A Chorus Of Disapproval is centred around John Gay's The Beggar's Opera.
But not originally.
Alan had read The Vagabond King and admits it 'amused me no end' - and not in a particularly good way.

"It's one of the funniest Samuel French scripts in existance, because the songs have all got very, very painstakingly detailed stage directions on choreography: 'Man 2 and Man 13 run five paces down to L. and kneel, while Woman 15 dashes across to Man 4 and grasps him by the hand.' I had this image of this director, trying to direct the thing from a French's edition. As with all amateur societies, five of them hadn't turned up, two of them are standing in for others - you know, the comic results could be enormous!"

The ludicrous stage-directions would have obviously have had comic potential, but Alan had even grander ideas for the play - the first of his plays to include unexpected interaction from the audience.

"There would have been a large amateur choir, who would be scattered through the auditorium, reducing the audience capacity from its usual 303 to about 215 seats. There'd be about 85 singers, completely incognito, sitting in scattered seats, and at various points starting to sing from their seats - thus causing the person next to them to look absolutely alarmed."
A scene from the world premiere of A Chorus Of Disapproval.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
It should be noted that in Paul Allen's biography of Alan Ayckbourn, he notes it would have been 20 people in the audience, but 85 or 20, it's still a fairly ludicrous amount of audience plants within a play.
To make this work for the original production in Scarborough, Alan needed more actors than he could possibly have afforded to pay, so he decided to turn to Scarborough's amateur community itself; creating a play about the amateur community populated by members of the amateur community - no possible chance of conflict there....
To this end, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round placed an advert in the Scarborough Evening News, looking for budding amateur operatic members to appear in Alan's new play with the advert reading:

"He [Alan] is anxious to meet AMATEUR SINGERS who would be interested in taking part in this venture. Some Soloing experience is required at least sufficient to cope with the demands of the average Light Opera Society Repertoire."

The Scarborough Evening News advert
Auditions actually took place with Alan Ayckbourn and leading members of the amateur community helping. Or rather not. At one point, Alan was shocked to see an auditionee begin singing before being abruptly told to leave. When Alan thought this had been done too harshly, he was told it was best not encourage them!
It was at this point that the whole project began too unravel and, perhaps, this was a blessing for the playwright who was uncertain about the direction the play was taking.

"Several things conspired to thwart the original idea. The Rudolph Friml Estate, fearing for their play, refused to release the rights. For which I didn't blame them one bit. Simultaneously, those members of the local Scarborough Operatic Society whom I had approached seemed reluctant to accept anything but leading roles, for which I didn't blame them either; and finally Equity, the Professional Actors' Trade Union, declared the whole idea of including amateurs in this way unacceptable. Which forced me into swift solutions, all of them, it transpired, blessings in disguise."

Alan returned to the script and abandoned The Vagabond King, which he later admitted was 'a load of garbage' and found instead a piece which he genuinely loved and was inspired by, John Gay's The Beggar's Opera.

"I greatly admired and had always wanted to produce, Gay's The Beggar's Opera. Which in turn provided the missing piece to the whole venture. Gay's play had a plot which echoed almost perfectly the one I intended to write and provided the perfect mirror image on which to build my own dramatic structure. Moral: always work with something you admire and not with something which you only set out to make fun of. That way you might even manage to raise your game rather than lower it."
A scene from the world premiere of A Chorus Of Disapproval.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
With Equity having forcibly refused Alan's desire to have 85 amateurs in the company - presumably misguidedly believing Alan was about to employ 85 extra professionals - he jettisoned the grand scale for a small professional company and the play as we know it today began to take shape.
It was not all a wasted experience though as although Alan has frequently emphasised no-one in A Chorus Of Disapproval is based on a real person, his experiences with the amateur community did provide plenty of inspiration particularly for Pendoan Amateur Light Operatic Society's Artistic Director, Guy ap Llewellyn.
Alan, meanwhile, had written to Peter Hall and informed him of the changes to the play he had initially proposed.

“Needless to say, the play is vastly different from the one I described to you on the phone a few weeks ago. No chorus of amateurs. Just a few good singers. (Equity intervened there). I had to go back to John Gay as his agent was the only one who didn’t raise an objection.”

Extract from Alan Ayckbourn's original letter to Peter Hall.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
On 2 May 1984, A Chorus Of Disapproval opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, much altered from its original concept and none the worse for it. It would prove to be tremendously popular both in Scarborough and, the following year, at the National Theatre.
It would go on to become one of the most revived and popular plays in the Ayckbourn canon - and much beloved by amateur companies, which is not something the playwright would ever have predicted.

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