Writing About Sisters (part 1)

On 10 January 1979, Alan Ayckbourn premiered his most ambitious play yet with Sisterly Feelings.

The play was his first to incorporate a random element which would affect the course of the play each performance. In this case, at the end of Act 1, scene 1, a coin is tossed, the result of which determines the choice of which scene follows. In fact there are two choices made with alternates for both there second and third scenes.

It was an extraordinarily ambitious play which was also conceived with the National Theatre in mind as it was commissioned by the NT, despite its premiere production being at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough.

In the first of a two part article, the playwright talks in-depth about writing the play and the challenges it posed.

Writing About Sisters (part 1) 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.

Sisterly Feelings world premiere poster (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

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 at the National 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 conclusion that in order to utilise the space most effectively, I should write something set outdoors. I have always welcomed the chance to write an exterior play and had already done several with garden settings (Relatively SpeakingTime and Time Again, one of The Norman Conquests and Joking Apart). But, on this occasion, I 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 and the birth place of Bedroom Farce, Scarborough’s Library Theatre, to a slightly larger (only slightly larger), more flexible auditorium in the Old Grammar School at Westwood, where we are today. 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), we were able 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 firmly of the belief that a play is rarely just a single notion – rather it is, in essence, a meeting of several ideas. Put a few of them together and, like rabbits, they will 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.

It all forms part of my aren’t-we-in-the-wrong-room? theory. Simply, the acid test of a good play is whether the dramatist has put us, the audience, where we can expect the best view of the parade. The more he makes us feel, ‘I’m sorry I missed that bit, I wish I’d been there instead of here’, the more we experience an overwhelming curiosity as to what’s going on backstage, the less well constructed his play is. Playwriting, at its most basic, is the business of arranging for the right people to be in the right place at the right time – without – and this is the difficult part – an audience being aware of it.

Find out more about Sisterly Feelings in part two of the interview on the blog later this week.

This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn and is copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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