On 4 September 2001, the final part of Alan Ayckbourn’s acclaimed Damsels In Distress trilogy premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
RolePlay would go on to become the most praised play of the trilogy and has proved to be one of the playwright’s most popular works of the ’00s. The following year, all three plays would transfer into the West End with the original Scarborough company.
To mark the anniversary of RolePlay, today’s blog has an article by Alan Ayckbourn on how the trilogy came to fruition and how its original company was so pivotal to its success.
Damsels In Distress by Alan Ayckbourn
In 2000, having recently reached my sixtieth year and rapidly approaching my 45th working in theatre, I began to yearn, once again, for a permanent acting company which during the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s were the mainstay of the Theatre in Scarborough.
Recently, as with so many regional companies, we had begun to rely more and more on actors visiting us, short term, for one or maybe two productions. Spot casting in this way has its advantages. You tend to get just the right actor for the right part and, given the shorter nature of the engagement, a wider range of performers willing to tear themselves away from family, friends and other more lucrative London based work.
What you lose of course is the true company. The moment when a group of individual (sometimes highly individual) actors through familiarity, growing confidence and trust in each other forms that most unique of all theatrical achievements – a shared ‘corporate’ identity. The individuality remains – but the sum of the separate parts has generated something greater and stronger.
In my experience, some companies are highly stable and are happy to remain together for months, even years. These, ironically, are often made up of those who off-stage prefer to go their separate ways. Their working lives are close-knit and shared; their personal lives are worlds apart. Conversely the group that eats, drinks, sometimes sleeps (and incidentally acts) together proves usually to be short lived and unstable. It is nothing you can plan for. Who can foretell whether X will take an instant dislike to, or have an overwhelming desire for Y? Personally, I try to put together companies consisting of people that I like and trust to luck that this common bond will prove a strong enough glue to hold the elements together.
It was with this principle in mind that I put together the 2001 Scarborough summer company of seven. The contract was technically from April to November but was in effect open ended. It was intended that we would stay together until the glue melted. As additional security I also retained the services of the experienced, trusted resident stage management team of three. Lacking an assistant director I fully knew the importance of having someone to provide after care, comfort and support if the going got rough.
I had written the company two plays, GamePlan and FlatSpin. Both were really entirely separate, linked by an identical cast size and the same set. The overall title I selected for them both though, Damsels in Distress, did reflect the fact that both were about women who one way or another had found themselves up against it in the modern world.
The plays were duly cast from actors some of whom I had worked with before and some, thanks to my invaluable casting director Sarah Hughes, new to me. The longest serving, Robert Austin, had worked originally with me way back in the seventies, creating amongst other things the part of Sven in Joking Apart in 1978 which transferred from Scarborough to London that same year. Jacqueline King and Bill Champion had also done a Scarborough to West End transfer twenty years later in Comic Potential.
Of the more recent members, Alison Pargeter and Saskia Butler had both appeared a few months earlier in the 2000 Christmas show, Whenever, which I had written with composer Denis King. Finally, Beth Tuckey and Tim Faraday, neither of whom I had worked with before. New and old. Reassuring and unfamiliar, just enough to keep me, as director, on my toes. Final chemistry ultimately unknown.
In the event the balance was just fine. GamePlan rehearsed and opened successfully and, in what seemed like no time at all, (about 7 or 8 weeks) we were midway through rehearsals for FlatSpin. It was then that the ‘company’ effect began to take hold, like it had done in the past. As the group developed and consolidated so I began to get the desire to write something more for them. Mid-morning during a rehearsal, I announced that there could – possibly be – if they didn’t mind – though it wasn’t in any of their contracts – so if they did mind of course, then I wouldn’t mind – there could be a third play for them to do… Rather stunned they agreed. I don’t, in retrospect, think it was much of a choice for them, though.
We opened FlatSpin on a Tuesday. I went home rather prematurely from the first night party. The following day, I started work on what was to become RolePlay. Just over a week later, on the following Thursday, I presented the cast with their new script. Damsels in Distress was now officially a trilogy. Same set, same actors but a totally fresh set of characters.
Although the plays can be seen individually and in any order, this last written piece by happy coincidence brought the entire company on-stage together in a seven handed scene for the first and only time. A fitting finale, I thought.
I suppose that one day these plays will be produced by others. I hope they will. Already there are productions planned for one or more of them, singly, here and there. But for me they will always remain an entity, born out of a company. Written for a small group of actors, with talent, stamina, a sense of teamwork and a taste for adventure. Here’s to that original ‘magnificent seven’.
You can find out more about the Damsels In Distress trilogy at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here.
Article by Alan Ayckbourn and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holders.