Janie Dee & Co Speak Mind on Ayckbourn at Q&A
Alan Ayckbourn has been artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough for the last 36 years. His revival of Woman in Mind premiered at the Scarborough theatre last year as part of his farewell season, which also included new productions of his 71st and 72nd plays (See News, 10 July 2008).
One of the most prolific playwrights in British history, Ayckbourn has premiered almost all of his plays in Scarborough, though they don't usually stay there. Since his first London hit, Relatively Speaking, opened at the Duke of York's in 1967, more than 25 of Ayckbourn's plays have subsequently been produced in the West End, at the National or the Royal Shakespeare Company. These include Absurd Person Singular, Bedroom Farce, A Small Family Business, The Norman Conquests, and Things We Do for Love.
Janie Dee had arguably the biggest hit of her career with her 1999 performance as an android in Ayckbourn’s Comic Potential, which earned her Best Actress trophies at the Evening Standard, Critics’ Circle and Laurence Olivier Awards. Dee is also well known for her musical credits, which include Carousel (for which she won her first Olivier), My One and Only, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, South Pacific and Mack and Mabel.
In Woman in Mind, Dee plays forty-something Susan, who is starved of affection by her vicar husband and distant son. After an accident with a rake, Susan is confronted with not just her real family but also an imaginary one that’s far more devoted. Woman in Mind originally premiered in Scarborough in 1985, before its London premiere, also at the Vaudeville Theatre, with Julia McKenzie starring. The new production is booking for a limited season until 31 May 2009.
Last night’s discussion took place in the theatre immediately after the performance and was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. For more photos and feedback, visit our Outings Blog and for details of upcoming events, click here. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …
On working with Ayckbourn
Dominic Hecht: Many of us have worked with Alan several times. I can still count how many Ayckbourn plays I have done on one hand. It takes the whole hand though.
Paul Kemp: I think I am on five or six.
Bill Champion: I am way up there.
Kemp: It is a wonderful and amazing privilege though, to be in that position and to be asked to do shows with Alan. I remember talking to someone who had worked with Alan a while ago and he said “when you get the call, you will drop everything to do it if at all possible because he is genius and it is an unbelievable privilege to work with him while he is still in his prime”.
Janie Dee: Paul did a wonderful play with Alan a couple of years ago on Broadway, Private Fears in Public Places.
Kemp: I guess people talk about classics, and in 70-odd plays they can’t all be as brilliant as each other, but Alan is writing classics regularly. And I think that was a recent one that will go in to the top ten plays of his.
Dee: They loved it in New York, and they loved Bill too; he got a Drama Desk nomination for it.
Dee: I learnt a long time ago that if you ask Alan “do you think it would be a good idea if I did it like this?” then he will say no. If you just go for it, quite often he will sort of go with you and embrace it, but he doesn’t like to be asked.
Kemp: He is a doer. He won’t sit around the table and talk about it.
Dee: The up-and-coming directors sit around a table for days and just talk and talk and talk. I actually love it and think it is really useful but you don’t do that with Alan, it’s just not going to happen. He is the only director I know who comes on day one of rehearsals with the whole of the rehearsal schedule planned out from moment to moment. Page one at ten o’clock, page 26 at one o’clock and so on. You always get there. It’s amazing.
Kemp: I think he uses an almost mathematical structure. There are this many pages and we have this amount of time so this is what we need to do.
Dee: Famously, he also tells stories to help you understand. You will be sitting there having a biscuit and he will tell a story about something that sounds completely irrelevant but it isn’t.
Kemp: I learnt that the first couple of times I worked with Alan. You learn to listen to everything he says because it will come out as though it is by the by, but it is absolutely specific. It is a note. It may be for you or it may be for someone else, but you must never ignore it because any little story could be the key to the character.
Champion: John Branwell, who played Gerald in the Scarborough production, has always said that Alan directs by anecdote. You just have to listen to all his stories because your note will be in there somewhere.
Parr: He uses words very sparingly. He loves actors. I think that is why he’s so comfortable with letting you come into a room and do what it is that you think you need to do. If you get it wrong, he trusts that you will go home that night and realise it and then come back the next day and not do it again.
Champion: There will be whole days where he doesn’t really say anything.
Kemp: Sometimes you just get an impression that something was either right or wrong. You just get a vibe.
Hecht: I think it shows tremendous experience in any director when they just trust the actors that they have cast. Casting is hugely important to Alan. He has said it many times. I think that is why he often surrounds himself with actors that he knows how to work with. If you get the casting right, you are kind of home and dry. I have done a few revivals with Alan, and the other thing that has always fascinated me is that there is usually a script there in the rehearsal room. but he very rarely opens it. He doesn’t want to re-familiarise himself with it. The actors kind of bring it to life for him.
Dee: Do you remember that once in rehearsals he said ‘I wonder what the playwright meant by that’.
Parr: He is brave enough to say ‘I don’t know’.
Champion: You quite often forget that he has written it, which I think is quite an extraordinary tribute to him. He is not dictatorial. He is one of the few directors I know who trusts actors. Most directors don’t do that I don’t think. They feel they have to be on your case the whole time. I remember Alan saying that, if he has got an idea in his head about the way for a character to get from A to B within the play, as long as the actor’s route touches all the points that he needs it to on the way, then he is happy to let the actor find his own way. That is extraordinary. I think that is why so many of us just keep coming back. You know he employs nice people and he just trusts actors and lets them get on with it.
On getting involved with this production
Janie Dee: Alan has done over 70 plays. I had heard that Woman in Mind was one of his greats, and personally, after playing the Robot (in Comic Potential) and other young floozies in other things, I thought it would be great to play an Ayckbourn woman. I think that is what Susan is in all its glory: the vicar’s wife, somebody you think is one of those women who does her garden and does brilliant tea parties, who has problems with her husband but covers it up. But Alan goes deeper with this one and regurgitates all sorts of horrid stuff as well, which is great. Another great thing about it is that it is very accurate about women. It is scary to think that we have this stuff in our heads, but we do. After the first read-through, Joanna David (who played Muriel in Scarborough) and I just went out and got quite drunk and told each other everything.
Champion: Which would be good if you could remember it.
Dee: Alan and I have been talking about a reunion for about three or four years now. The first time that we were meant to do it was actually the year that Alan had a stroke. Luckily, he regained all of his faculties in about three or four months and he started planning this production as soon as he was better. But I suddenly realised that my daughter was starting secondary school so I had to write him a sorry note saying that I didn’t think she would ever forgive me if I wasn’t there. He said “well we can’t have your daughter upset so let’s do it next year”, which is now. We started it in Scarborough in September and October.
We didn’t expect anything from it. He told me that he couldn’t promise anything and I said “it doesn’t matter; I just want to come up to Scarborough and work on this with you”. It was a good experience, and a very exciting experience and it grew and grew and grew. On the press night, I was pretty sure there were no press in because it didn’t feel scary like it usually does. But the next day Perdita came galloping in as she does with the news of the reviews in the Guardian, Telegraph and The Times. The next thing that happened was that a producer who works with Bill Kenwright came in and said he would really like to bring the production to the West End. It is a lucky coincidence because the London premiere of this play was also at this theatre. Julia McKenzie played Susan then.
Perdita Avery: I was about two.
Champion:Oh, do be quiet!
Perdita Avery: I was here at the Vaudeville last year in Swimming with Sharks (with Christian Slater). It was my first theatre job so it is like coming home. It is really nice. It is really nice to be back here.
On transferring the production from Scarborough
Champion: There are some differences doing it here as opposed to Scarborough. We weren’t on the north face of the Eiger in Scarborough. The set they have built here is incredibly steep when you’re actually on stage.
Hecht: The thing about Alan is that although he always writes for the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, which is in-the-round, but he also instinctively makes it manageable in any type of space. The plays that do a run in Scarborough will often do a proscenium arch tour, and from my experience of re-blocking a show like that, there are often losses and gains. It is a compromise. A good example in this production is the fantastic sequence where the lines are being mouthed as Susan breaks down. In-the-round, it was brilliantly timed, but there were always going to be some people in the audience who couldn’t quite read it, whereas from what I have heard it is superbly effective on the stage here.
As an actor, when you’re transferring from the round to under a proscenium arch, you have to take quite big strides and force yourself out of old habits. I don’t know how the rest of you are feeling, but as time goes on, I have started discovering more and more dimensions that the proscenium arch allows me. Audience members that I know who have seen both versions say that there is a sort of clarity about the production at this theatre.
Champion: I must tell you the other main difference between working in-the-round and working here is that when you are in-the-round, Janie Dee can’t turn up stage and laugh at you.
On Ayckbourn’s return to the West End
Dee: I think that partly because Alan had achieved his recovery after the stroke everybody had a feeling of “wow, he’s back”. It was a bit of a wake-up call that we didn’t want to lose this person who has been such an inspiration and such a gift. So to get to work with him again was a real joy and then to transfer to the West End was fantastic. It wasn’t pre-decided or planned.
Kemp: There were reasons that Alan had not worked in the West End for a while. He did have some trouble with some producers that he worked with a while ago on Damsels in Distress and there was some sort of falling out. I don’t know how much the recent success of The Norman Conquests at the Old Vic has had to do with getting Alan to come back to the West End either. It is so wonderful and it must be so gratifying for Alan to be re-established in the mainstream West End theatre and quite rightly lauded as an amazing playwright. I think it is significant that this show is in London and that Alan is proud to be back in London with a show that he’s directed. He was very pleased with The Norman Conquests and that probably eased him back into it a bit.
On Ayckbourn leaving the Stephen Joseph Theatre
Champion: I can’t imagine what it will be like without Alan at the helm anymore. I think it is a voyage of discovery for everyone up there. I don’t think people know what will happen because it had such a strong ethos of how Alan thought a theatre should be run, and how the building should work. I will be very interested to see how everything changes and it inevitably will. He first went there in 1959 as a stage manager. So he has had a relationship with it for 50 years.
Kemp: He has done everything in the theatre. He has been an actor, a stage manager, a writer and a director. He just lives and breathes theatre. It is his life. He knows everything, even from a very technical point of view. We had what was supposedly a technical rehearsal, but it was basically just a run of the play because he had sorted out all the sound and all the lights already. He knows everything.
On discovering new depths to Ayckbourn’s work
Dee: I think that people have been looking at his work quite differently recently. I know I have. I approach it almost as though it were a Shakespeare play. I have done that ever since Comic Potential because I could feel that there was more there than just the funny gags. Of course, you don’t want to lose those, but I feel that he has got a lot of depth to his writing. I think that it is a combination of audience and actors and also the time that we are living in that is making us want to have another look at his plays and at his life.
- by Kate Jackson