House & Garden: Alan Ayckbourn Discusses Staging The Plays

It is quite unusual for Alan Ayckbourn to discuss the staging of his plays. However, due to its unique challenges it poses, Alan Ayckbourn has discussed some of the staging issues faced by productions of House & Garden. This page offers a compilation of some of the questions and answers about staging House & Garden taken from correspondence held by the playwright and from the Ayckbourn Archive at the University Of York.

How did you schedule rehearsals for House & Garden?
I initially blocked the plays one at a time. Over a four week rehearsal period I didn’t actually bring them together until the end of week three. By then we had run them individually a couple of times and with stop watches we were able to tweak them to get the timings roughly right. By week four we were into a series of ‘simultaneous’ runs.

Did you have any contingency plan for things going wrong, such as an actor not turning up on cue?
They oughtn’t go wrong, the published script by Samuel French is based on the National Theatre production which leaves about two and a half minutes minimum between exits and entrances, which should be ample for any production.
We never had anyone off in either production [Scarborough or London], I’m delighted to say, though we did have an “emergency dog” at the National Theatre who was supposed to bark if someone wasn’t going to make it onstage. The actor who was onstage then took this as a cue to slow down!

How much backstage communication was there between the two venues so that they could track each other's progress?
The two Deputy Stage Managers were in communication, of course. There were also sound and video links between both theatres which allowed actors to judge, as they came off in one theatre, just where the show had got to. They got very used to knowing from a glance at the monitor whether they needed to run or stroll between theatres.

How critical is the pace of both plays - is there some leeway or does the timing have to be precise?
Pace needs to be set and maintained fairly early on. In general, Garden is more flexible and can drift a bit if not watched (all that open air). But it’s amazing that the actors kept very accurately to their timings and rarely varied by more than a few seconds from night to night. Which shows they can do it when they have to!

Do you have any obvious staging tips to bear in mind?
Keep a very close eye on your timings of both plays, right from the start. The plays have been fairly thoroughly “road-tested” with regard to that. At the National Theatre I had to have a 90 second gap between both theatres - which is about a minute longer than we had in Scarborough. Nonetheless, you appreciate that if one play speeds up by 45 seconds and one slows down by 45 seconds then someone somewhere is going to be off…

What advice would you give to actors in House & Garden?
All my plays benefit from truthful playing. That is to say, don’t let actors get carried away with the idea that it’s all a laugh.
Try and refer to comedy as little as possible in rehearsals. Oddly, the laughs only come with most of my stuff when the characters are deadly serious. Well, that’s not odd really, that’s the basis of all good comic playing.

Tips On Directing House & Garden
On both occasions at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and at the National Theatre I directed it alone (though I did use two assistant directors at the NT just so there'd be someone where I wasn't!)
I rehearsed one show for a period first, then the other. It really doesn't matter really which order, but say for the sake of argument,
House first and then Garden. As we began to run the first play we started to make careful notes of the running time, at the bottom of each page. When we started on Garden, we did the same, but simultaneously transferring over the House running times into the Garden script in brackets so we could compare the two time scales and see where we were with one at any point compared to where we were in the other.
Providing the playing is comparably paced - not too many gratuitous pauses please! - then it should work. Just remember, although for the director, stage managers etc. it's two plays, for the actors it's one single play in two locations.
My advice is to get both plays running separately before embarking on running the two simultaneously. You will soon ascertain, after the occasional false start, where you need to pick up or slow down if required. I believe this is best achieved by a single principle director with an assistant.
One stage manager is sensible with two assistants (we had two DSM's, one on each play) who should be in continual radio contact so they can advise each other as to the state of each show at any given time. And then a number of ASM's on the floor, to help with props and quick changes etc. and occasionally to chivvy actors from one space to another if time is short for some reason.

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