FlatSpin: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn


Alan Ayckbourn's preface to Damsels In Distress (Faber edition)
In 2000, having recently reached my sixtieth year and rapidly approaching my 45th working in theatre, I began to yearn, once again, for a permanent acting company which during the 60's, 70's and early 80's were the mainstay of the Theatre in Scarborough. Recently, as with so many regional companies, we had begun to rely more and more on actors visiting us, short term, for one or maybe two productions. Spot casting in this way has its advantages. You tend to get just the right actor for the right part and, given the shorter nature of the engagement, a wider range of performers willing to tear themselves away from family, friends and other more lucrative London based work.
What you lose of course is the true company. The moment when a group of individual (sometimes highly individual) actors through familiarity, growing confidence and trust in each other forms that most unique of all theatrical achievements - a shared 'corporate' identity. The individuality remains - but the sum of the separate parts has generated something greater and stronger.
In my experience, some companies are highly stable and are happy to remain together for months, even years. These, ironically, are often made up of those who offstage prefer to go their separate ways. Their working lives are close-knit and shared; their personal lives are worlds apart. Conversely the group that eats, drinks, sometimes sleeps (and incidentally acts) together proves usually to be short lived and unstable. It is nothing you can plan for. Who can foretell whether X will take an instant dislike to, or have an overwhelming desire for Y? Personally, I try to put together companies consisting of people that I like and trust to luck that this common bond will prove a strong enough glue to hold the elements together.
It was with this principle in mind that I put together the 2001 Scarborough summer company of seven. The contract was technically from April to November but was in effect open ended. It was intended that we would stay together until the glue melted. As additional security I also retained the services of the experienced, trusted resident stage management team of three. Lacking an assistant director I fully knew the importance of having someone to provide after care, comfort and support if the going got rough.
I had written the company two plays,
GamePlan and FlatSpin. Both were really entirely separate, linked by an identical cast size and the same set. The overall title I selected for them both though, Damsels in Distress, did reflect the fact that both were about women who one way or another had found themselves up against it in the modern world.
The plays were duly cast from actors some of whom I had worked with before and some, thanks to my invaluable casting director Sarah Hughes, new to me. The longest serving, Robert Austin, had worked originally with me way back in the seventies, creating amongst other things the part of Sven in
Joking Apart in 1978 which transferred from Scarborough to London that same year. Jacqueline King and Bill Champion had also done a Scarborough to West End transfer twenty years later in Comic Potential. Of the more recent members, Alison Pargeter and Saskia Butler had both appeared a few months earlier in the 2000 Christmas show, Whenever, which I had written with composer Denis King. Finally, Beth Tuckey and Tim Faraday, neither of whom I had worked with before. New and old. Reassuring and unfamiliar, just enough to keep me, as director, on my toes. Final chemistry ultimately unknown.
In the event the balance was just fine.
GamePlan rehearsed and opened successfully and, in what seemed like no time at all, (about 7 or 8 weeks) we were midway through rehearsals for FlatSpin. It was then that the 'company' effect began to take hold, like it had done in the past. As the group developed and consolidated so I began to get the desire to write something more for them. Mid-morning during a rehearsal, I announced that there could - possibly be - if they didn't mind - though it wasn't in any of their contracts - so if they did mind of course, then I wouldn't mind - there could be a third play for them to do ... Rather stunned they agreed. I don't, in retrospect, think it was much of a choice for them, though.
We opened
FlatSpin on a Tuesday. I went home rather prematurely from the first night party. The following day, I started work on what was to become RolePlay. Just over a week later, on the following Thursday, I presented the cast with their new script. Damsels in Distress was now officially a trilogy. Same set, same actors but a totally fresh set of characters.
Although the plays can be seen individually and in any order, this last written piece by happy coincidence brought the entire company on-stage together in a seven handed scene for the first and only time. A fitting finale, I thought.
I suppose that one day these plays will be produced by others. I hope they will. Already there are productions planned for one or more of them, singly, here and there. But for me they will always remain an entity, born out of a company. Written for a small group of actors, with talent, stamina, a sense of teamwork and a taste for adventure. Here's to that original 'magnificent seven'.

FlatSpin (Stephen Joseph Theatre 2001 programme note)
Stephen Joseph's passion for encouraging writers from within the company is well documented. At one stage the two front runners for the Most Produced Playwright in a Season Award was shared between David Campton and myself. Sometimes our plays literally alternated in repertoire for months on end - his blend of light comedies and 'comedies of menace' with my own early frenetic farces.
Besides writing we also performed regularly in each other's plays. It soon became matter of honour to try and write each other the ultimately unplayable, unrewarding acting role - preferably as humiliating and physically uncomfortable as possible. We also became adroit at creating for each other unrecognisable or oft repeated cue lines combined with long tortuous speeches with impossible thought changes.
But I have to concede that David was clearly the winner in all this. My own lame attempts to cause him discomfort by having his character regularly struck with blunt instruments or drenched in water, flour, treacle, soot and other substances (all strictly to further the dramatic action, you understand) was as nothing compared to his own sadistic streak when it came to writing roles for me. Amongst these, a one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed barman who, quite apart from having to stand on one leg for 40 minutes, was also required to dispense rapid drinks one-handedly whilst engaging in quick-fire repartee with the customers (those of them I could actually make out with my restricted vision). Another time I played an entire two hander with a paper bag on my head opposite an actress similarly attired. (A tip: try never to move your head. If you do, the paper tends to crackle and you can't even hear what you're saying, let alone your co-star). I can still taste soggy brown paper to this day (Thanks David). No wonder my acting career never took off.
Probably the best / worst role he ever wrote for me, though, was a homicidal, 108 year old female cook / nanny trapped in a nuclear bomb shelter with two young protégés (the cook had long ago served up their parents for dinner).
The character talked incessantly in a series of totally un-learnable non-sequiturs that made Beckett seem straightforward by comparison. I wore a ton of padding including foam rubber legs the size of tree trunks, an unyielding starched uniform, an off the peg grey wig and a false nose that regularly dropped off as the perspiration flowed down my mottled yellow make-up. Great role. Great prospects.
And people continue to ask me, do I still want to act?

An Afternoon With Alan (Pitlochry Festival Theatre 2016 programme note)
I've always been a director. I used to run, until very recently, the Stephen Joseph Theatre. I was the Artistic Director there for 40 years. There has always been a tradition of a company theatre there, as my plays will suggest. They are all company plays really, right from the very early ones. They weren't obvious star vehicles, though the idea of the Damsels trilogy wasn't that unusual. I chose seven actors who were cast in two plays, initially FlatSpin and GamePlan, and then because we were having such a good time and I was in a crazy mood at the time, I suggested I write a third one. They all looked a bit askance: so I said "Well, your contracts run until the end of the year, you can squeeze in a third one." It was interesting, seven actors playing twenty one roles and the only thing in common in the plays is the set itself, because I set them in a London riverside apartment, based on somewhere I used to live on the Thames, so we were used to the riverboats going backwards and forwards and the party boats and the tidal river coming up and down. So it's another character, the river.
But a different set of characters inhabit it in all three plays. The characters are not connected in any way. I'm fond of trilogies, ever since
The Norman Conquests, which is the same set of characters set in three different locations - this is like mirror imaging it - different characters in the same location, so that was the idea. I know audiences love to see actors performing differently and l know Pitlochry works on that situation too, in that you can, if you see a lot of plays over a season, see actors you rather like coming back as totally different characters, playing villains and heroes and singing and dancing and all sorts of different things, so I think that's one of the magic elements of theatre.
All three plays have a darkness to them: my writing has progressively, over the years, got darker. At the time I was writing this, 16 years ago in 2000, it was certainly into the dark side, but I hope I have clung on to the comedy of the stage - all three plays are quite funny as well, quite darkly funny. My feeling is that if you write comedies, they're a bit like Chinese meals, really. If you get out of a theatre having purely laughed for two hours, you may well have had a really good time, but by the time you are half way home in your car, you suddenly get a bit hungry again for something more serious. So I'd love to leave the audience in all these cases with a little bit of weight, and it's just getting the balance between the weight, the substance and the fun of the performance.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

Damsels_sponsor