Intimate Exchanges: Articles

This section features articles by Alan Ayckbourn and other authors. Click on the links in the right-hand column below to go to the relevant interview.

This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, was written during 2018 for The Circle Newsletter for the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.

Small Theatre, Huge Ambitions

1981 had been the year which demonstrated just how far you could go with theatre-in-the-round with Alan Ayckbourn’s extraordinary creation Way Upstream.

1982 was then arguably the year which demonstrated just what a remarkable company Alan had around him in Scarborough, typified by two events.

As the most recent Circular article noted, 1982 opened with a short revival of
Way Upstream before the company transferred the production to… Houston.

Consider this. This was the play that became notorious for its problems and practically flooding the National Theatre in 1982 despite all the finances and technological know-how available.

Yet earlier that year, Alan toured the show from Scarborough across the Atlantic without any notable or substantial issues on a budget which would have been minuscule compared to the National Theatre’s budget.

This was Scarborough showing the world just how good its theatre was.

The tour was to the Alley Theatre in Houston, which was also a theatre-in-the-round of a similar scale to the SJT. The company visited for a month with Way Upstream and a revival of
Absent Friends, which Alan directed specifically for Houston and which was never seen anywhere else. The Alley Theatre arranged the practicalities for Way Upstream - such as creating the boat and the tank under guidance from Scarborough - which apparently went relatively smoothly despite the distance.

The tour was considered a great success although Alan, truth be told, was never entirely certain how Way Upstream had actually been received. Feedback ranged from audiences walking out in disgust at the nudity in the play to one person making the perceptive observation he felt he had just seen the Bible told in reverse (actually, quite a valid interpretation of the play).

Whatever the case, Alan was both proud of his transfer but also slightly sad. This marked a watershed of sorts for the company with many of the actors who had been in repertory for several seasons deciding either to move on or take a break from Scarborough.

Alan’s hopes of bringing
Way Upstream back to the SJT during the summer were thus scuppered.

But two of the most experienced members of the company were staying and this piqued Alan’s interest. Rather than bring in a new company for a
Way Upstream revival or start from scratch, he had an idea which would push the SJT and its acting company to the limits and demonstrate, once again, the ambitions of this small regional theatre.

To this end, he took each actor - Lavinia Bertram and Robin Herford - separately out for dinner in Houston. There he made a proposal to each of them to perform in a production which would span the course of a year featuring two actors in ten roles with more than 16 hours of dialogue. The play itself would have 16 possible variations. It was either an actor’s dream or nightmare!

The play, of course, was
Intimate Exchanges and Alan’s starting point was simple enough.
What impact - if ultimately any - has choice in our lives? It was inspired by Alan’s contention he had never made a deliberate career choice in his life, he was just offered the right opportunities at the right time from actor to writer, director to Artistic Director.

The result was a play which began with the same opening scene but which featured a choice at the end (to smoke or not to smoke a cigarette), this led to an option of two different scene twos, each of which also had a choice at the end and so on and so forth. So from a single opening, the play could diverge into 16 often wildly different plays.

Having received the backing of Lavinia and Robin - who was already apparently regretting the decision having only recently becoming a father - Alan began plotting the structure of the piece and setting out all its different courses.

The initial plan was to write the complete play in one go and introduce it entirely over the course of the 1982 summer season, but this proved impractical and Alan only completed four of the eight major variations.

The scale of the piece - and perhaps even the lunacy of the idea - began 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 and 1983 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.

Within the theatre foyer a huge diagram of the structure was hung with lights to indicate the choice of that evening's performance to help explain the play to audiences, making it clear that the play was not random nor did the public have to see any more - although the play undoubtedly becomes richer the more variations you see.

The audience response proved to be 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.

It capped off two years of incredible ambition by the company and it did not escape the national critics’ attentions that the place to see an Ayckbourn play was no longer in the West End, but in the vibrancy of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in Scarborough where Alan Ayckbourn was directing the, inarguably, definitive productions of his plays.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.