The Karaoke Theatre Company: History

Alan Ayckbourn's The Karaoke Theatre Company premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in July 2016. It is a piece unlike anything he had written previously and, despite being a full-length work, it is not considered his 80th full-length play due to the improvisational elements within it. Instead the playwright has dubbed it a 'live entertainment' or a 'party'.
Behind The Scenes: Karaoke Fears
The original idea for The Karaoke Theatre Company goes back to at least 2005 when Alan Ayckbourn had an idea for an interactive and improvised piece called The Karaoke Play (and initially The Karaoke Theatre Company was known as The Karaoke Play). The reason for not producing the play was given by the actor Adrian McLoughlin, who noted the playwright had said to him: "I woke up in the night in a cold sweat and thought: 'Do I really want the audience on the stage with the actors?' No….". As with many of his discarded ideas, Alan would later return to it.
Alan came up with the idea for The Karaoke Theatre Company at least a decade prior to writing it; in 2005, a piece called The Karaoke Play was proposed by Alan and considered for the Stephen Joseph Theatre's summer season but ultimately not produced due to concerns about the audience interaction.

However, the idea of the piece continued to hold interest for the playwright and by 2015, it's time had come. Given the risk involved in producing something entirely unlike anything previously attempted by either the playwright or the Stephen Joseph Theatre, it is worth noting this was perhaps an odd choice of main house play given it was a difficult period for the venue: Alan's relationship with the Artistic Director, Chris Monks, was exceptionally strained by this point and between
The Karaoke Theatre Company being commissioned in 2015 and being performed in 2016, both Chris Monks and the Executive Director, Stephen Wood, left the company which was experiencing financial difficulties.

Behind The Scenes: Original Ideas
Alan's earliest notes on record for The Karaoke Theatre Company from 2015 feature only four actors and their stage manager (Karen, Anna, Rufus, Olly and Edie) having lost Kane to a freak accident with his fiancée Aisla having also left. The evening consists of three plays (The Plumber, The Sister and The Puppet) with all three plays restaged with audience members (although The Puppet's 'volunteer' is actually a planted actor). The Puppet, dropped from the final play, is described as a 'period fantastic' piece which during its second outing becomes increasingly macabre and bloody as revenge is sought for the dead member of the company.
One of the decisions which led to Alan writing the piece was the realisation that his entire 2015 company would be unavailable for the 2016 summer season at the SJT due to the New York transfer of Hero's Welcome; traditionally Alan casts three-quarters of a production with actors he is familiar with alongside several new faces. Given his need for an entirely fresh company, Alan decided to return to his idea for The Karaoke Play and write a piece unlike anything he had previously attempted which would require working with actors comfortable with the idea of improvisation.

The Karaoke Theatre Company was written in October 2015 for a summer 2016 production and originally featured three short plays performed in the first act, two of which would be re-staged with members of the audience taking over key roles in the second act. During writing, this was refined to four short plays and a magic act with one of the plays being re-staged in the second act with a member of the audience. The pieces covered a variety of genres: The Plumber (a farce), The Sister (a period drama - which is restaged), Whodunit? (a thriller), Horror Story (a gothic drama) and Find The Girl (a magic act). The evening begins with a mimed game of tennis to set up the idea of an interactive evening.

The conceit of
The Karaoke Theatre Company is it based around a fictional touring company - allegedly founded during a meeting with Alan - of five actors (Karen, Anna, Rufus, Alyssia, Oliver
and stage-manager Edie; a sixth actor - Kenneth - having mysteriously vanished). They present an evening of entertainment in which the audience are encouraged to contribute in some way, from providing sound effects to participating in the action. The piece is designed to work depending on various levels of interaction with the audience (from the shy to the lively). Whilst the hope is everyone will get into the spirit of the piece, there is no compulsion for any audience member to participate if they just wish to sit back and enjoy the evening.

Behind The Scenes: Saki Inspirations
The playwright admits he was heavily inspired by Saki's 1914 short story The Open Window for one of the short plays - The Sister - in The Karaoke Theatre Company.
The script, as written, features set sections (which must be delivered as written) alongside interludes which can be improvised. The four plays and magic act all have a set script with the material between these - during which the company encourage the audience to participate in the next piece - is intended for form the basis of an improvised interaction with the audience. Actors - for the first time in an Ayckbourn work - are allowed to go off-script so long as all the pertinent information needed for the next section is delivered. This interaction and improvisations makes The Karaoke Theatre Company unique amongst Alan's entire body of writing.

Behind The Scenes: Looks Familiar…
The Karaoke Theatre Company makes two distinct nods to Alan Ayckbourn's plays with an opening mimed tennis match inspired by the tennis match from Mr Whatnot. The gothic horror play is an adaptation of a rarely seen earlier work called Dracula, which was presented as part of the revue What The Devil! at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1975.
Not only did this mark an entirely new direction for the playwright in his writing, but it also necessitated a completely new way to approaching rehearsals with guests invited to attend; this offered the opportunity for the company to interact with and incorporate a live audience. Chief among the invited guests were the Premier Patrons; participants in a new event launched by the Stephen Joseph Theatre to help support new writing. In order to entice participants in the rehearsals to return to see the actual show, the final scene was not performed prior to dress rehearsals with the guests left at a cliffhanger moment during rehearsals. There was a practical reason for this decision, as the final scene involves magic cabinets which were too large to be moved into Alan's own rehearsal room and were left in situ at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Originally advertised (and written) as
The Karaoke Theatre Company, the SJT altered the title for promoting the work in late May 2016 to Alan Ayckbourn's Karaoke Theatre Company to emphasise the playwright's connection with the piece, which had largely been played down as part of the playwright's desire to build up the illusion the theatre company was a real organisation which had been inspired by the playwright himself; this even extended to the programme in which the characters are credited rather than the actors (their real names can be found subtly inserted into the character's fictional biographies) with no mention of Alan as director and with a programme note by Alan detailing how he came into contact with the company and inspired its creation. This did lead to a certain amount of confusion with some audience members, who believed the company was real and that it was not all a fiction created by the playwright; this is despite the fact a similar device had previously been used for Alan's revue 1998 Cheap & Cheerful.

Behind The Scenes: A Star Is Born
One of the plays, The Sister, requires that an audience member actually play one of the parts; the play is initially performed in its entirety with a volunteer watching, who then chooses which part they wish to play. It is then re-staged later with the volunteer appropriately costumed and led through the piece by the actor they have replaced, moving them into position and feeding them the lines via a flip-book. Every night, each volunteer was given a Karaoke Theatre Company T-shirt to mark their involvement in the play.
The Karaoke Theatre Company opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, on 12 July 2016 and was met with mixed reviews, although generally the reviews were enthusiastic about this new step for Alan Ayckbourn in tackling an interactive theatre piece. The audience reaction was predominantly positive and notable for bringing a younger audience into the venue; the anticipated issue of whether audiences would commit and participate proved not to be an issue with audiences willing and enthusiastic in their contributions to the performances with the company learning to judge which sections of the audience were open to joining in.

Given the nature of the work, it was inevitable that changes would occur and - with the playwright's approval - more improvised elements were incorporated into the four plays to accommodate and acknowledge the audience interaction.

The original production of
The Karaoke Theatre Company toured with the playwright's revival of Henceforward… to the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, following the end of its run in Scarborough. Although not published, The Karaoke Theatre Company (having returned to its original name following the Scarborough production) is available to perform by companies looking for a challenge and an Ayckbourn work unlike any other!

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of copyright holder.