House & Garden: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
House & Garden (National Theatre 2000 production programme note)
Generally, I write a new play each year for the theatre I run in Scarborough. Last year was my sixtieth birthday and it's become a bit of a custom that whenever I reach these significant landmarks I try to come up with something rather more than a play, what I term an event. In 1999 I produced House & Garden.
At the Stephen Joseph Theatre we have two auditoria, a 400 seat theatre in the round and a smaller 167 end stage auditorium. I decided to try and write a piece that would be performed in both spaces simultaneously, House playing in one whilst Garden was going on in the other. The plays would use the identical cast who would be required to move (or in some cases to run) between the two spaces as and when the action required. They would be performing essentially the same play albeit seen from two very different viewpoints.
I decided not to 'cheat' by having characters go off and hang around for hours before coming on again in the other theatre - after all that would have been far too easy. Instead it was planned that in many cases actors would have only just enough time to leave, say, House in order to turn up in Garden in time to play their next scene.
It was, as they say, nail-biting stuff. After all, who can predict how a live audience will affect a play? More important, it's a fact that no two audiences are alike. In this case, as we found, not even two audiences seeing the same play on the same night are alike. How much would the critical timings vary from night to night? The answer was that in the end not as drastically as I'd feared. Moreover, thanks to three "catching up" points - a scene change in the middle of both acts and the interval itself - we were able to bring the shows down at the end, generally within 5 to 10 seconds of each other, due to some very clever cue-ing and close collusion between the two DSM's [Deputy Stage Managers] actually running the shows. The most difficult moment was, in fact, the curtain calls which took a good deal of orchestrating.
For the actors it was, I think, a unique experience. A stage actor is used to playing their audience for the evening, to building a rapport, an understanding between the two of them, be they hero or a villain. But in House & Garden they frequently found themselves being perceived as both, depending on the perspective from which they were being seen. Moreover, the leading actor in one play became necessarily the small part player in the other - thus pursuing a theme I had long wanted to explore, namely that we are all of us walk-on players in other people's lives.
And the audience? Well, they soon joined in the fun of it, too. Indeed it was interesting how when they saw their second play (which could be either House or Garden - they can be seen in either order) they were seen to be eagerly joining together the missing pieces of the jigsaw they had been given from the night before.
Then there was also the little matter of an additional surprise which we threw in afterwards... But you'll need to see the plays to experience that.
It's a huge venture, occasionally nerve wracking but always exciting. I suppose all that live theatre's meant to be, really. Now we're about to do it all again. We must be mad. Olivier and Lyttelton, here we come. Danger! Actors in transit! Please don't block the stairways.
Alan Ayckbourn's introduction to Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 4
In 1999, to coincide with my sixtieth birthday, I came up with House & Garden. We were by then comfortably settled in our new home [the Stephen Joseph Theatre] and approaching our fifth year of occupancy I felt it was time, yet again, for another event. Having two theatres at my disposal was irresistible; why not a play this time that occurred simultaneously in both theatres? I had back in the seventies tentatively played around with the idea with the trilogy The Norman Conquests. But though these plays purported to be simultaneous of course they aren’t and indeed were never intended to be. They merely give the impression of running in parallel times.
But with House & Garden, times would synchronise, minute for minute in both theatres simultaneously. Both curtains would rise at the same time and, with any luck, both curtains would down within seconds of each other. A character would leave the stage in one theatre and seconds later would enter on the other stage.
I determined not to cheat. That is to say it would have been easy enough to achieve this if I allowed, say, thirty minute gaps between the exit and the subsequent re-entrance but that would make nonsense of the overall time frame besides negating the whole concept. I asked my stage manager to walk at normal pace from one space to the other, making the journey the characters in the play would make, and to time herself. She returned with the news that the journey had taken her one minute and thirty-three seconds. I decided to allow a safety margin and added another minute. Each entrance, either from the Round to the Mac or vice versa would be allowed that time to complete. No less, not a lot more. It was only later that I realised that it would take only a slight margin of error in the nightly running times in both theatres to throw these calculations entirely out of kilter. All it would take would be one minute to be lost in one theatre and one minute to be gained in the other for there to be a catastrophic series of non-appearances, resulting in extensive ad-libbing. To cope with such alarums we introduced the concept of ‘the emergency dog’. In case of someone in danger of being late for an entrance, the onstage performers would be alerted to slow down the scene by a burst of sudden unscheduled offstage barking from Spoof, the unseen hound who prowled the estate throughout the evening. I’m delighted Spoof was never called upon to bark, unscheduled, during the entire run. A great tribute to the actors’ consistency and most especially to the two stage managers running the shows, stop watches at the ready and permanently in radio contact.
The challenges of writing it were considerable. Apart from the sheer logistics of keeping the two plays in sync - I actually prefer to think of them as one play - it was essential, as the audience would be seeing only one half of the show, that both evenings should appear complete. Indeed, it was only on the second viewing when they took in the event from the point of view of the other auditorium, that they had any sense of an offstage life carrying on elsewhere in the building.
For the actors, of course, it was all one play. A normal night’s work over in two hours plus. But with occasional dashes from one auditorium to the other, from the set of House to the set of Garden or from Garden to House. Plus the unique experience of two quite separate audiences with often quite different responses to their character. Trish, for example, whilst definitely the sympathetic leading lady in House, on her brief visit to Garden is received a little more coolly, being the stand-offish rival to Garden’s own leading lady, Joanna.
I presumed that the play would end in Scarborough and never be seen again. I was therefore indebted to Trevor Nunn, then the National Theatre Artistic Director, who came to see the play at its final Scarborough double Saturday matinee / evening performance and who later brought it to the Lyttelton and Olivier auditoria. Due to the increased size of that building I had necessarily to extend the gaps between entrances but only by a minute or so.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.