The Karaoke Theatre Company: BackgroundAlan Ayckbourn's The Karaoke Theatre Company premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in July 2016. It is a piece unlike anything he has written before 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'.
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. However, Alan felt the play's time had come when he was commissioned to write a piece for the 2016 summer season at the SJT and realised that his 2015 company of actors would be entirely unavailable to him as they were on tour with a transfer of Hero's Welcome to New York. Faced with the prospect of bringing together an entirely new acting 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,
The Karaoke Theatre Company is based around the idea of a fictional touring company of five actors presenting an evening of entertainment (four short plays and a magic act) 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!) and whilst it's hoped 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.
The script, as written, contains four short plays of which the script is set and was intended to be delivered as written (although once in repertory, the company soon began to improvise elements depending on the reaction of the audience). The material between the plays is intended to form the basis of improvisation though as the actors interact with the audience. It allows actors to go off script so long as all the pertinent information needed for the next section is delivered. These interactive and improvisational elements make the piece unique in Alan Ayckbourn's canon of work.
Not only is this an entirely new direction for the playwright in his writing, but it also necessitated a completely new way to approaching rehearsals with people invited to attend, to allow 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; this was also due to the fact it featured a substantial prop that could not be fitted into Alan's rehearsal rooms!
Originally advertised (and written) as The Karaoke Theatre Company, the title was slightly altered by the SJT 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. The desire to create an illusion the company was real 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 - although a similar device had previously been used for Alan's revue 1998 Cheap & Cheerful.
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 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.
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.
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