Sisterly Feelings: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
Sisterly Feelings (unrecorded production programme note)
I am fascinated by chance in the theatre. The night the set fell down. The night the theatre cat wandered on stage. Often considered to be disasters at the time, later they become depressingly the only thing that many people remember about the show at all.
"I was in to see the show that night - I forget the play now - that night you - I don't remember the character you were playing - that night that tin of biscuits fell on your head." Virtually every actor has had some such exchange with their public. So much for his Master Builder or her Hedda.
And yet, on the brighter side, it does indicate one thing. That it is the liveness of theatre that people so often remember. And it is, after all, this very liveness that separates theatre from any other medium. Liveness is really the only element we have on offer that no one else has. The uniqueness which occurs every night when a different set of people settle down to witness what is in theory supposedly the same event. I say supposedly, except for those minute (and sometimes major) changes that a fresh audience brings to each performance by their own individual contribution (or lack of it!)
Go backstage in any theatre on any night and you will hear talk of 'them', the audience. How are they? Are they quiet? Are they cold? Are they friendly?
How can a bunch of six hundred total strangers adopt such a distinctive group personality?
Are they slow, laughing ten seconds after every laugh line? Are they manic, out of control, braying with mirth at the furniture? Why is it that all the people with no sense of humour decide to turn up on the same night? Is there an Association of Coughers and Sneezers who take regular outings together? Why don't they come on the same night as the League of Trumpeting Noseblowers? Why do people with Sleeping Sickness always sit on the front row?
All fascinating but totally unanswerable questions.
Anyway, I decided to write a truly live play where, on some nights, not even the actors themselves (let alone the stage management) would know how things were going to turn out. A play with genuine random alternatives. What is more, where things would be seen to be random. What better way to achieve this than for one of the characters in full sight of the audience to toss a coin to determine the future dramatic action?
On the first two nights in Scarborough where the play (like all my others) received its first production we played both versions, Abigail and Dorcas, before on the third night going totally "random".
I stood in the control box and watched as we reached the end of the first scene. The historic moment arrived when the coin would be tossed and the fate of the evening decided. The actor in question tossed the coin. It landed, would you believe? On edge, a chance in a million, and rolled like a thing possessed offstage into the wings. The actors, who hadn't much alternative, sheepishly followed it. Thus theatre history was made offstage and out of sight of everyone.
A few minutes later on that same evening, the stage manager apologetically informed me that we couldn't perform one of the second act alternatives because a vital prop had been broken.
I can't say I was vastly surprised. After all, what do you expect if you work in live theatre?
Sisterly Feelings (National Theatre 1980 production programme note)
This is a play about two sisters and the choices they make (or have made for them) over the course of a few months.
Ever since The Norman Conquests, I have been intrigued by writing a piece that contained variable scenes that could be spontaneously chosen during the action.
In Sisterly Feelings I have combined (at 'chance' performances) one totally random factor, the tossing of a coin on stage at the beginning of the play with, later on, an opportunity for an actress to make her spur of the moment choice of second acts.
If this is your first visit to the play, perhaps you have chosen a 'chance' performance. If so, once you've seen whatever it is you will see - and at the start no one knows that - I hope you will return to see a version you didn't get. To make this possible, we are also doing performances where the course of the action is pre-determined, and you know which version you are at in advance.
To help find your way through the ifs and buts, overleaf (click here) is a map of the possibilities. This shows the play can be staged in four different ways - though each can be enjoyed singly.
Alan Ayckbourn's introduction to Sisterly Feelings & Taking Steps
When Sisterly Feelings (1978) and Taking Steps (1979) were first produced in Scarborough, I called Sisterly Feelings a comedy and Taking Steps a farce.
The residents of Scarborough, it appeared, had no quarrel with these categories, though when the plays reached London in 1980 their descriptions provoked (as indeed I should have known they would) much lengthy and somewhat tedious discussion as to what precisely defined farce and where the boundaries should be drawn between that and comedy.
At the risk of adding another tube of lighter fuel to the bonfire, here are my own descriptions of what I consider to be the three main categories of play.
First, there is the drama or straight play which is usually rather short on humour but filled with Insights and other Serious Things and is thus, when successful, regarded as a Very Good Thing to See. Comedies, on the other hand, are straight plays with a sense of humour, often saying much the same thing only more enjoyably and therefore to a wider audience. A very few comedies can occasionally achieve the Very Good Thing category but generally only if (a) the director has removed all the humour from it by playing it with funereal solemnity or (b) the author is long dead, foreign, or preferably both. If the author is foreign, the chances are the translator will have killed off most of the humour anyway (cf. Moliere, Goldoni). If very long dead, then most of the audience don't understand the jokes anyway (cf. Shakespeare).
Thirdly, there are farces which set out to be, and often are, funnier than comedies, though in order to achieve this, the author has necessarily had to jettison one or two things like deep character analysis or Serious Things. Good farce explores the extreme reaches of the credible and the likely. It proceeds by its own immaculate internal logic and at best leaves its audience only at the end wondering how on earth they came to be where they are now. In other words, it takes the basic illusion of theatre whereby, as in all plays, the dramatist first creates a world and then convinces his audiences of its credibility - farce takes this illusion and stretches it to the limits and outside them.
For me, farce begins when I feel that I am now leading an audience into realms beyond the laws of human probability.
Thus, Sisterly Feelings contains nothing that couldn't happen. Taking Steps, frankly is, as a bare plot, unlikely and for its credibility it depends entirely upon its telling.
Sisterly Feelings is, or rather are, plays concerned with choice. Their distinctive feature is their variability whereby four combinations of alternative versions are possible depending first, on a toss of a coin at the end of the short prologue, then halfway through on a decision made by one or other of the sisters during the course of the action.
This device has the effect of stimulating actors, irritating stage managers and infuriating box office staff. By way of an apologia, I can only point out that the device is not employed merely out of cussedness. As I say, the plays are about choice. How much do we really control our lives and do we really make decisions or just think we do? In Sisterly Feelings, the last scene is always the same, though the emphasis in playing differs. Not that this is saying that I'm a believer in predestination and the inevitability of fate, but rather that I do believe that mostly we finish up with the friends and the partners in life that we deserve.
Of course, this variable device is an extremely theatrical one. It is not something that would work in any other medium. Which reflects my own total preoccupation with the liveness of stage writing. For the fact is that, of the other media, radio only attracts me slightly as a writer, films but mildly and television not at all.
At least with a stage play, with any luck, there will be a second and even third, fourth and fifth chance. There is always the slim possibility that, one night somewhere, the chemistry will be right. The right cast will meet the right audience in the right theatre and something rich and rewarding will be shared between them.
As a final footnote to this, I have resolved with any future plays I write to give them no description at all. Henceforth, they will all be plays. I will leave others to brand and pigeon-hole them if they want to. Ultimately, what matters is whether the play is good or not. Unfortunately, it's possible to gain only an inkling of a play's merit from reading it. The real test occurs on a stage or rather on several stages after many performances in different productions. Only then can a stage play's true quality begin to be assessed.
Sisterly Feelings (unrecorded production programme note)
Sisterly Feelings is, or rather are, plays concerned with choice. Their distinctive feature is their variability whereby four combinations of alternative versions are possible depending first, on a toss of a coin at the end of a short prologue, then halfway through by a decision made by one or other of the sisters during the course of the action. The plays all start and end the same but the middle two scenes of each piece are interchangeable. Thus, it is possible to view the plays both diagonally and straight across.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.