Intimate Exchanges: Interviews

This section features interviews with Alan Ayckbourn. Click on the links in the right-hand column below to go to the relevant interview.

This interview with Alan Ayckbourn by Lynne Curry was published in the Scarborough Evening News on 9 April 1982; the interview was given just prior to Alan beginning writing Intimate Exchanges. It is of interest as, at this point, Alan seems to still be considering making the play one of his 'chance' plays with the decision of how the play progresses being decided through random choices every night (it has a possible 16 variations). When he began, Alan realised this was unfeasible and Intimate Exchanges became a 'choice' play with the decision about each performance's variant made and advertised in advance.

Triumph… Or Disaster

Occasionally, the ideas of the man who founded the Stephen Joseph Theatre tended towards the anarchistic.

One of them was that any responsible theatre self-destructed after about seven years before it bored its patrons to death.

Alan Ayckbourn, current Artistic Director at the theatre which
Stephen Joseph founded, is not entirely in accord with this theory. But he does think that a good theatre needs "upending" once in a while. So for this summer season there will be no re-runs of last winter's favourites. No late-night shows. No lunch-time revue. No new commissioned plays.

Practically the staple diet will be one, single solitary play, a new Ayckbourn. A solitary play with a multiplicity of endings, a multiplicity of middles, a multiplicity of combinations, a mountain of lines to be learned, a nigh-on impossible job for the props men, a filthy headache for the set designer.

The sort of play-in-the-making that made the principal man wake up in the middle of he night and teeter on the brink of getting up there and then and saying he had had second thoughts. Mr Ayckbourn has been waiting to have a bash at a play like that for years.

This year the opportunity came, when he was least expecting it, when he and the management and the company were already discussing a hefty load of plays and revues and skits and sketches. Suddenly he had a depleted cast. One announced that she was leaving, two more wanted some time at their homes in the south, two more wanted a break.

The National Theatre said how about putting on
Way Upstream here? The man who produces all the Ayckbourn plays in London said that he was interested in Making Tracks. As for the updated version of Sisterly Feelings - well, who with? [1]

Mr Ayckbourn decided on minor anarchy. One play. Two people. A gamble, a change, a risk. "It looks set for something I've wanted to do for a long time and I need lots of space to do it in," he said this week. "The only excuse I can offer is that it's 25 years since I came to Scarborough, so it's my silver anniversary or whatever you want to call it.

"I had two actors left whom I had worked with for a long time, Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram. I had a whole summer now to do a play. I was always keen on writing a two-hander, but always refused to do it because the rest of the cast would be out of work. Now I only have two actors. It's not an ordinary two-hander by any means.
Sisterly Feelings explored what I hope this play will carry on doing. That was my first attempt at exploring what I call variation in the theatre; at the end of scene one three of them toss a coin and that affects what happens from then on. None of the audience nor the actors know how it's going to carry on. But there were, in fact, only four variations. The problem there was that you went and saw the show twice and saw the lot.

"This play [
Intimate Exchanges] starts where that one left off. What I'm hoping - because I have two actors I have much more control of the material - is that there are going to be a lot of variations. The gimmick, if you like, will be that if you see the same play twice you can have your money back, because it's going to be that varied."

Sisterly Feelings had two possible endings. The new play will probably have about 16. Mr Ayckbourn will not tell the actors which scene to play. They can, if they want, do it by ear. [2] The physical parallel is of an upturned triangle. From the first scene there will be a choice of two second scenes, and from each of them again a choice of two, and so on.

"The theme of the play in most general terms - I hate talking about a thing until I've done it - will be the tiny decisions you make in the morning. Things like shall I take a coat or not. That leads you perhaps to take shelter in a doorway and meet someone and so it goes on. It's all decisions. What I've always thought about live theatre is that it's live in reality. The only thing we can really offer that TV or films can't do is the spontaneity. Obviously this is taking it to the nth degree. Every play is spontaneous and every play will differ from night to night.

"Sometimes all the people who have no sense of humour in Yorkshire turn up on the same night. Then another night you'll get people who howl all the way through. They're not a coach-load, they just happen to be there together. I hope I shall give the actors enough variety so that if they get a glum audience they can actually switch to low-key scenes and if it's a manic Saturday night house they can do the madder scenes."

There will be set-backs and he is anticipating them already.

"Backstage will be pandemonium. Even with
Sisterly Feelings they were standing with two sets of props and two sets of costumes and never knowing until four seconds before which they were going to need. With this one we're likely not to know which set we're going to be using for the second half. It's a small season in the sense that there's only one play. It's a very big season in that it's this play."

For Mr Ayckbourn and his two actors - it is in itself unusual that they should have worked together for so long - it is make or break, note or notoriety, a classic flop or a phenomenon in theatre. He had the same feeling about
The Norman Conquests, a trilogy that depended on audiences turning up three nights in succession. That worked. [3]

"I think we stand a chance of putting this together on the strength of an understanding of each other. It would be terribly difficult with three strangers. That was one of the ingredients of making me want to do it this year; two actors I know very well, nothing planned for the summer. It must have been meant."

There was, too, the smattering of the Joseph philosophy. "Stephen Joseph was a real anarchist. He preached the theory that all theatres should self-destruct after seven years. If we're going to do anything it should be to keep up-ending things. This season I said: 'What are we doing? Getting into a rut.' We have the flexibility in this theatre to throw caution to the winds and take a few risks. We're in the risk-taking business here. Our reputation has been based on people saying we must be mad. The audience will feel, I hope, that we're still on the helter-skelter a bit."

He will shut himself away in a few days time to write this, his 28th play, and emerge on 10 May to start rehearsals. The summer season starts on 6 June and goes into September. Mr Ayckbourn is counting on the new play arousing enough curiosity to make the audience come back and see what might have happened if Lavinia Bertram had not taken a coat, or had caught the bus, or had omitted the vinaigrette dressing from that night's chopped endive salad.
He hopes that a wild-sounding idea will turn out to be a success for the team who stay loyal to him even if they occasionally raise both eyebrows, gasp a bit, and silently doubt his sanity.

"I hope that most of the time I've steered them right, so they tend to be loyal and very trusting sort of people. They tend in general to leave the artistic policies to me."

Website Notes:
[1] It is not clear what this is referring to, but it seems likely 'updated version of
Sisterly Feelings' is a reference Intimate Exchanges rather than to be taken literally as a revised version of Sisterly Feelings.
[2] At this point Alan had only just begun writing the plays and it seems apparent, he believed the choices in Intimate Exchanges would be random and made on the night. By the time the plays went into rehearsal, this was not the case and the play no longer incorporated a random feature.
Intimate Exchanges, unlike Sisterly Feelings is not a 'chance' play. There is no random on the night element to the play (such as the coin toss in Sisterly Feelings). In Intimate Exchanges, there are 16 possible variations of the play and each performance's path is decided and advertised in advance. Audiences know which version of the play they will be seeing. Whilst, theoretically, the choice could be randomised during the performance, this is not the playwright's intent and - due to the huge differences in propping between the possible variants, would actually be a major challenge for stage managers.
The Norman Conquests does not depend on 'audiences turning up three nights in succession.' The piece was written with the intent that each play could be enjoyed individually without the need to see the rest of the trilogy - obviously the plays gain much from being seen as a trilogy but they were designed with the intent that an audience could enjoy them individually or together.

Copyright: Scarborough News. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.