Playing Comedy & Farce

Last week we looked at Alan Ayckbourn discussing staging The Norman Conquests as he perceived it during 1978 for Amateur Stage magazine.

Whilst researching the article, I came across another article by Alan for Amateur Stage from the same year in which he discusses acting farce and comedy; which still seems very pertinent today.

This then is Alan Ayckbourn’s views and advice on acting farce and comedy – particularly in relation to his own plays – from 1978.

Playing Comedy & Farce by Alan Ayckbourn

Going back to my great idol, Buster Keaton – everything followed logically; he behaved completely within his own mad world as a normal human being would behave. The mistake that’s made is that people imagine that somehow farce has to be played louder, faster, broader – and suddenly they throw all credibility away. I have a campaign at the moment for slow, quiet farce. I don’t see why farce has necessarily to be loud or fast. It has to be paced well, but that does not necessarily mean all loud or all fast.

Alan Ayckbourn in 1975 with a portrait of his ‘idol’ Buster Keaton
(© Christopher Davies)

The middle act of Absurd Person Singular is sometimes a trap, but one should bear in mind that all the characters are in their own terms acting totally logically. Leave it to us, the audience, to laugh, if we see the funny side; and leave it to the dramatist, if he’s done his job properly, to point the absurdity. The actors don’t need to react; they can continue to play their own role within that scene . . . there’s still a woman trying to kill herself, which she is still quite serious about, and there’s still a man trying to unblock a sink. What turns an audience off, I think, is when actors are in effect saying ‘Aren’t I funny?’

Farce playing is not as mysterious as it’s sometimes made out to be. It’s difficult, but there’s a sort of mystique about farce, which makes everyone very nervous about it. Some of the best performances I’ve had in farce and comedy are from actors who’ve never played it before.

The second scene from the world premiere production of
Absurd Person Singular in 1972 at the Library Theatre, Scarborough.
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

I had a girl who came into the company to play Evelyn in Absent Friends; on the first night she delivered the lines as she had been doing in rehearsals and the audience just fell about. So I popped round in the interval because I thought she’d be really thrilled about this as it was her first job with us, and she said, ‘I can’t stop them laughing. I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry – that’s just what we want.’ ‘Is it?’ she replied. She had no idea. Maybe I hadn’t explained it, but I had been talking about it as a character – I hadn’t thought to talk about the laughter. Three nights into the run I went to see it again – and she was practically standing on her head to get laughs. I said, “You don’t need to do any more – you’ve already got the laughs.”

This was the most clear example of how to play comedy – be real; and she had instinctive timing on how to play the lines for real. There was someone with very little experience playing comedy beautifully, and taking it a little further, why not farce the same way?

Eileen O’Brien & Janet Dale in the world premiere production of
Absent Friends in 1974 at the Library Theatre, Scarborough.
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

A lot of my plays start quite low key, and I slowly ‘jack them up’ into quite high-key stuff. The Norman Conquests has a sort of climax in the middle, where it becomes quite broad – though it should still be played as comedy, not farce. Of course one can have big moments, but you must have explored the truth in order to reach them. What often happens with an actor who is not naturally an expert farceur is that he has seen somebody playing farce and then tries to copy the externals.

He forgets that the great farce players have a sort of inner logic and truth about them that makes them, for the time you are watching, totally believable. So many actors go wrong in trying to play farce because of certain “distractions”. For example, Ralph Lynn had very large hands and a
very comic personality, and he did things truthfully from his own viewpoint, but which any other actor copying would be phoney. But he uses his own particular physical peculiarities to create laughter. People following him think he got laughs by doing ‘funny things’ – but in fact he got laughs by doing things his way.

Article by Alan Ayckbourn and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.

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