The Karaoke Theatre Company: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview between Samira Ahmed and Alan Ayckbourn was broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Front Row on 11 July 2016.

Samira Ahmed: Alan Ayckbourn loves playing with drama, his The Norman Conquests trilogy straddled a story across three different stages and through time whilst the more recent Roundelay used a nightly lottery to put 120 different combinations of story and character before his audience. For his next play, he’s diving deeper into real audience interaction. It’s called The Karaoke Theatre Company, as the title suggests audience participation is the name of the game - although no actual singing is involved. When I went along to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough I was, well, quite relieved not to be called on to perform myself but my fellow audience members were not shy. And the professional actors, posing as fictional players, send up a range of genres including a suburban set farce, an 18th century Rivals style comedy and a badly dubbed Scandi-noir Agatha Christie. Even the programme is a spoof clearly written by Ayckbourn with fake biographies for the actors and their history in radical theatre groups. So why, at the age of 77, is Alan Ayckbourn taking such child-like pleasure in playing with theatrical convention?

Alan Ayckbourn: I pursued, for many years, a policy of trying to emphasise the liveness of theatre in a lot of plays right back to Sisterly Feelings years ago, by trying to make them spontaneous and live. Because that, I thought, was our USP [Unique Selling Point] - as they call it - of live theatre. It’s just its liveness. This play really goes one step further, for me anyway, in the fact that it invites the audience onstage to interact with the actors.

Tell me what was the vision then, what were you hoping it does?
As you know, we work in-the-round and that has already broken the boundary between audience and actors in the sense that the proscenium arch never could do; they both sit in separate rooms with a huge light barrier between them and a huge safety curtain threatening to come down at any minute. Once we’re sitting in the same room, we can then take that final step, that small step from the front row onto the stage; which is at stage level, obviously. So what I really wanted to do was just suddenly break the boundary, just for this one production. I think I’ll probably go back to more conventional theatre. I just wanted for this play to just do the jump.

Even reading the programme for The Karaoke Theatre Company, you've clearly written it all. It’s kind of spoof , all the biographies of the actors are spoof, their background in kind of radical feminist theatre and so on. It feels as though this has come on as fully-formed, that you’ve been developing it for years in your mind.
Well I was doing that last winter just to keep me amused and I thought what if the actors don’t accept these biographies? Because they are, after all, working actors with real names . But I persuaded them to put their real name somewhere in the biography, if only as their mentor ‘to whom I owe everything - insert real name’. You know, it was fun .

There is a lot of required audience participation as you say and they’re being called on to do all the sound effects, to provide voices for certain parts and even in one case to act a whole part after they’ve seen it done once - sort of The Generation Game style. There were a couple of very keen children when I came to the first preview, but otherwise I sensed some reluctance as the play went on and I wonder how far the audience will go for it. Indeed what has been the reaction on subsequent nights?
Well, we’ve had interesting reactions. We’ve had a matinee when we had a woman who just came down and played a blinder. She played Peregrine the suitor and she came on with full powdered wig and the jacket and her own jeans and she was terribly, terribly funny and it was a good shot and then in the evening, we had playing the father, a retired psychologist and the cast offered him the voice of male and female roles and he said, rather guardedly, ‘I’m quite content with my own sexuality, thank you.’ So you know, you get all sorts and if you don’t want to get up on stage, keep your head down!

Good advice. You spoof lots of different story-telling formats over the course of the evening, the farce, the horror story, a sort of Scandi-noir take on Agatha Christie, and particularly with the farce with lots of double entendres, I wasn’t sure whether you genuinely love all these formats or you are mocking them.
I love them really, they’re the sort of things I couldn’t actually sustain for an entire evening. I couldn’t write a Georgian mannered comedy with asides and all that rather flowery language for an entire evening, but a 10 to 15 minute sketch is fine. And the same with the hark back to a good old fashioned seaside farce with double entendres flying, as you say, and the horror story is absolutely ripe for spoof. I suddenly thought these terribly badly dubbed films with obviously passionate performances going on and these rather inadequate voice-overs from a rather bored actor reading slightly badly translated subtitles is a wonderful cause for merriment!

I’m interested in this idea that theatre isn’t something you should just sit and watch passively through a proscenium arch.
I think I’m one of the first people to sit at the back and pray, please don’t ask me! Ever since I was dragged on stage at the age of four by a clown and but him in the hand, I’ve hated interactive theatre. But I just thought,’ come on, it’s in the wind at the moment and it’s more and more improv and text free and just break all your rules and throw away the gangplank and jump overboard.’ That’s what I’ve done.

I also watched you sitting in the back row looking down on it all with this big smile on your face and it felt like something delightfully childlike and charming about you watching , almost your toys setting off on their own on the set. Not being quite able to control what they do.
Well, it’s very frightening. I’m a natural control freak, which I do acknowledge readily. I’m a director who likes to direct his own plays and I like them to be just so. And I’m quite specific and I think, ‘oh dear, that is so anal’ and I’ve no control over it! And I’m going got see the actors today and I have no real notes to give them except, ‘carry on’. I’m happy to just be a passenger on my own ship.

What’s really interesting is that you’ve said earlier, you’ve been influenced by the rise in immersive theatre which has grown massively among young people who grew up on video games. They go and see these shows playing with stories they already know and there are things like secret cinema which build elaborate experiences before you see a film and the audience dresses up and they have adventures. I’m interested in that you seem to be very aware off that and have brought that sensibility into this.
I’m aware as I get older as a dramatist and I’m now getting on for 80s, so my audience is commensurately growing older with me and I really want to reach back and find a younger audience really. And, indeed, I think the theatre needs to find a younger audience. There is a great interest in theatre amongst the young but they don't necessarily engage with professional, conventional theatre, in the sense they go off and do their own thing. I’m just hoping I can do something that interests them.

What next then?
I’ve already written the next one and I start rehearsing on Wednesday. Its called
Consuming Passions and it’s a sort of Hitchcockian comedy thriller. I think that’s conventionally play 80 and The Karaoke Theatre Company is the Kayleigh which precedes it!

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