Sisterly Feelings: An Introduction by Alan Ayckbourn

Unusually, Alan Ayckbourn has written an in-depth background to how Sisterly Feelings came into existence. This article is reprinted below alongside additional background notes by Simon Murgatroyd.

Writing About Sisters
by Alan Ayckbourn

In 1974, Peter Hall invited me to write a play for the nearly completed
National Theatre on London's South Bank. I visited the building during the final stages of its completion. It seemed vast. The two main auditoria, the Olivier and the Lyttelton, were empty shells without seats or stage walls. The tiny, temporary theatre-in-the-round which I was running in Scarborough (and where I initiate all my plays) would have fitted comfortably into either of them, twenty or thirty times.

I felt a little daunted. Peter suggested the Lyttelton, the proscenium stage, as being the more suitable of the two for my purposes (the National's very much smaller studio space, the Cottesloe, was still a hole in the ground with no fixed completion date). For my part, I determined that I should not break with tradition but adopt the same procedure for the National as I had been following in the past with the commercial theatre: that is premiere anything I wrote at the Scarborough theatre first. The result was
Bedroom Farce, which Peter and I co-directed and which became one of the first really big new play successes that the NT had in their new building.

Inevitably, there had to be a sequel. This time, it was felt I should tackle the biggest of the theatres, the Olivier. This thousand-seat auditorium, with a semi-thrust stage, really did present a challenge, especially to someone used to writing (mainly for economic reasons) for casts of six to eight in tiny spaces. I had solved the size problem at the Lyttelton by writing a play set in three rooms side by side, thus effectively dividing the stage into three. The Olivier wasn't going to be so simple.

Again, I decided to launch the play in Scarborough and once more I was to work with a co-director, on this occasion the experienced and very supportive Christopher Morahan who had earlier directed the television version of the NT's
Bedroom Farce.

As I considered ideas, I came to the early conclusion that to best accommodate the space, I should write something set outdoors. First, it was bigger and secondly I always welcomed the chance to write an exterior play, anyway, and still do. I'd already done several with garden settings. But this time it needed a setting that was potentially bigger than anything I had ever demanded before. The garden of a stately home? Or possibly a public space, say a public common?

So I set about writing
Sisterly Feelings for the winter season of the 1978 Scarborough season. We had moved from our original home… to a slightly larger (only slightly larger), more flexible conversion in the old Grammar School at Westwood [the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round] where we are today [the company moved from this venue in 1996 to the Stephen Joseph Theatre]. Here, it was possible to alter the normal four sided auditorium into a near three sided one. By removing most of the seats from one block (but still leaving a few) it would be possible to create a giant grass bank, going up twelve feet or so. The play, you may gather, started life very much influenced by its physical requirements.

But then I have always been of the firm belief that a play is, in essence, a meeting of several ideas, rarely just a single notion. Like rabbits, put a few of them together and things start to breed if you're lucky. And though, of course, one of these ideas must be the theme of the play, theatre is and this often seems forgotten a visual as well as a verbal medium. Characters should not only discuss what they've done or what they're about to do (in fact the less they do the better) but should also be seen to do it….

Simultaneously whilst contemplating a setting I was also considering how, as a writer, I could make best use of the National Theatre itself a company with larger resources and greater flexibility than the West End could offer. How to construct a play to take advantage of this flexibility? I started to consider an idea I'd been nursing for some time, the possibility of a play with limited 'random' action.

It is clearly apparent that the only real difference that theatre has to offer to, say, TV or film is that it's live. Every performance is unique and, certainly in the best theatre, is subject to a million different variations dependant upon the mood of the performer, the audience and the rapport that is established between them. And anyone who thinks that audiences don't vary has never done a run of more than one consecutive performance!

Yet another ingredient was the fact that I'd wanted for some time to write about two sisters. The affection, the jealousy the love hate but ultimately the love that existed between them. A story of how they would fight over the same, apparently ideal man. And how his personality subtly altered in response to each of them. And how they themselves altered with him. And how, in the end, ideal men - ideal anybodies, come to that - belong only in our dreams. Tall bronzed, athletic Simon would appear at first to Abigail and Dorcas like a hero from a comic book. But in the end, it would be Patrick to whom Abigail would return in need of his strength and humour; impossible Stafford to whom Dorcas would irresistibly, for better or worse, return to nursemaid. For Dorcas needed a relationship where she was at least an equal partner. Ultimately, she could never submit to Simon's appalling brand of paternalistic chauvinism. As for Abigail, Simon's attempts to put her on a pedestal, although worship may be fine for goddesses, was going to prove equally unsatisfying.

Having sorted out the principle protagonists, it was then a matter of deciding how and when the play would vary. Obviously, if people were going to see the piece twice (and I hoped they would) I needed to make the scenes that were common to both plays i.e. the ones that people would need to sit through more than once, as short as possible.

There was no way I could vary the first scene at all. I had to make it as short as I could, just long enough to introduce ten characters and set up the basic premise. At the end of it comes the first choice which I made as obviously random as possible by employing the toss of a coin. A random decision not only had to be made but more important had to be seen to be made.

This led naturally to the twin cores of the play and progressed, at the end of the first Act, to another possible shift of affections.

I decided to keep the first Act variations within sight of each other. There are a lot of overlapping events the same picnic (I'd always wanted to write a picnic scene), some identical dialogue, even the same wasp! This, as you might imagine, went down better with audiences than it did with actors who had a nightly dread of going into the wrong variation or, worse still, the wrong set of sandwiches.

In Act Two, events really diverge. Simon, our hero or anti hero depending on how you see him is beginning to show his real colours. Abigail, I felt, would have the night scene. I bought a small tent and set it up in my living room whilst I worked out the camping scene. For Dorcas, I chose to make full use of the hill. A cross country race seemed like fun and, given the competitive nature of Simon, would serve the dual purpose of further highlighting the choice Dorcas is faced with between him and Stafford. The only problem was how to get rid of the other 90 per cent of the cross country competitors.

The last scene is, like the first, always the same but it is possible, by change of emphasis and attitude especially from the protagonists Abigail, Dorcas, Stafford, Patrick and Simon, to play it in at least four different ways.

The structure having formed, it was then a matter of weaving in the various related counter themes. Apart from the central five, Uncle Len, of course, plays a central role in both Abigail's and Dorcas' infidelities. Auntie Rita, apart from being pivotal in the picnic scenes, adds general family colour whilst Ralph gives the whole family a focal point around which they revolve.

And Brenda and Mel? Well, I needed amongst all the choppings and changes of our main characters, to have one constant private steady relationship. Something that says, we're not all like this, some of us just get on with life quietly. Both sisters are overprotective towards their younger brother; both are critical of Brenda and underestimate her entirely typical, really, of older sisters. But in the end, Brenda and Melvyn have the last laugh. Abigail and Dorcas, on the other hand, are left a little sadder and wiser and resigned, for a time at least, to settle for what they already have. Maybe, after all, like most of our relationships, we get what we deserve.

Further Background notes

Sisterly Feelings was written in November 1979 and incorporated the longest rehearsal period yet for an Ayckbourn play running throughout December to early January - to accommodate the extra scale of the play and its random elements. The extended rehearsal period cut into the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round's Christmas schedule (geared towards morning and matinee performances for schools) and, as a result, some rehearsals had to take place at Scarborough Spa Theatre during early December.

The set features a hill - down which both a bike memorably plunges and a cross country race tackles - which saw most of one of the seating blocks removed during its original run at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round , Scarborough. Technically speaking, this means the original production was performed three-sided / thrust, rather than in-the-round as is usual for Ayckbourn productions in Scarborough.

It opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, on 10 January 1979 for a sold-out run before embarking on a short European tour to Holland, Belgium and Germany in association with the British Council. The play then returned to Scarborough for the summer season.

The production is one of the first to feature an almost cinematic use of incidental music by Alan Ayckbourn in the original production. The theatre's musical director Paul Todd was asked by Alan to create two themes for the sisters, which could be played both separately and together. Paul Todd composed a theme for flute for Abigail and for oboe for Dorcas. Alan would increasingly use incidental music in his productions over the following years.

Sisterly Feelings marked the first of Alan Ayckbourn's 'chance' plays (the others include It Could Be Any One Of Us and Roundelay), which have become a recurring theme throughout the playwright's career. The random elements of the play are not used as commonly as perhaps might be expected. Given the need for theatres to ensure the public can see more than one variant, it is not unusual for many performances to be set in advance to ensure audiences get to see a specific variant (hopefully having seen a random variant before hand). During the National Theatre production, Alan has noted one in three shows tended to be random giving people a chance to see a random show and then the variant they did not see.

The pivotal coin toss at the end of the first scene did not go quite as planned the first time the play was performed with a random element (the first two performances had been rigged to allow the press to see both major variants; the third performance was the first time the coin would be flipped and the result used to determine the course of the play). The coin was flipped, landing on its edge and rolled at speed out of the auditorium towards the theatre bar - followed by two of the actors!

Alan Ayckbourn has often noted how it was the first time one of his play titles managed to offend the public; famously a member of the public told the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round box office, they would not pay to see a play about lesbians.

Infamously, during the National Theatre' production of the play, the actors Michael Gambon and Stephen Moore secretly created a double headed coin which they could surreptitiously use to determine which 'random' scene - one which they preferred to perform - would take place. At the end of the original run, the coin was presented to Alan by the actors.

As with
Bedroom Farce before it, Sisterly Feelings suffered controversy from being staged at the National Theatre. There had been a substantial critical backlash against the 1977 production of Bedroom Farce as it was argued there was no place for such a commercial playwright as Ayckbourn in the subsidised National Theatre (somewhat ironic, given all but one of Ayckbourn's canon was originally written for and produced by subsidised regional theatres). This argument continued with his second production at the National Theatre, Sisterly Feelings, except this time not only did the critics question why the subsidised National Theatre should stage commercial work, but also why was the National depriving such overtly commercial work from being in a West End apparently starved of quality plays.

Following the end of the run of
Sisterly Feelings in 1981 at the National Theatre, a national tour was launched in January 1982 from the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford, directed by Peter Barkworth and produced by Duncan Weldon and Triumph productions. Sadly, this production marked the first time the random element was completely removed from the play - something which has become common over time. The production presented 'The Abigail Play' and 'The Dorcas Play' on specific nights with no opportunity to see the plays performed as they were initially intended with the coin toss at the end of the first scene.

Sisterly Feelings is, unfortunately, one of the few Ayckbourn plays of this period which has never been frequently revived, no doubt due to the cast size, the requirements of the staging and - of course - the chance element. Despite this, it has proven to be a popular production during its revivals and will always be of importance in the play canon, if only for being the first of his 'chance' plays.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.