The Karaoke Theatre Company: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview between Simon Murgatroyd and Alan Ayckbourn took place on 24 February 2016.

Simon Murgatroyd: Your latest work is called The Karaoke Theatre Company, what can you tell us about it?
Alan Ayckbourn:
The Karaoke Theatre Company is an idea I’ve carried around in my head for a long time and it continues in my pursuit of the idea that theatre is live - and there’s nothing more live than The Karaoke Theatre Company!
It’s ostensibly about a small touring fringe group improvising their shows with the encouragement and participation of the audience. During the course of the evening, four short plays of varying genres are presented: a farce, a period-comedy, a sub-titled piece of BBC4 foreign drama and a full-blown gothic horror.
I’ve been working over the years towards defying the Stephen Joseph Theatre - and the audience - to know exactly what’s going to happen on any one night of my shows and
The Karaoke Theatre Company is certainly never going to be same any single night.

How do the audience get involved?
There are opportunities for everyone to join in at some stage, even if it is only producing sound effects when called upon to do so from your seat - with no more participation than you’d normally be expected to make in a theatre. I’m aware that by no means are 100% of the audience wanting to willingly jump up on stage to take part.
There are various degrees of involvement rising from that: operating Victorian sound effects machines to people with one line in a sketch right through to reading out subtitles for a character who essentially mimes to your badly written subtitles.
The prize of the evening is to be a central character in one of the sketches. At this point, you’ll have seen the sketch as played by the actors involved, who then turn to the member of the audience who has already volunteered and say, ‘which role do you fancy?’ Then we present the sketch again a little later in the evening with the role being played by the volunteer, who has by now been persuaded into a costume and is jostled around by the other actors while the actor they’re replacing holds up the lines for them with cue cards. That is the ordeal by fire for both the actors and the participant!

This is unlike anything you’ve attempted before, where did the idea come from?
The idea of The Karaoke Theatre Company sprang from an idea I had when I was doing a workshop for the National Student Drama Festival more than a decade ago. It was about how to direct a farce and - in order to facilitate that - I had the students contribute sound effects to it; creaking floorboards, door-slams and all that business. Afterwards, I thought that was fun and they seemed to enjoy it.
It is all a completely new experience for me and it’s not even billed as one of my plays as part of the fun - and also because I’ll have no idea which way the show will go any night! This is also quite a fun way to get round the fact it’s not the 80th play in the canon.
It is going to require a certain degree of nerve from the actors and confidence. We’ll certainly be including quite a lot of volunteers during rehearsals to give us the feeling of what it’s like to have live, unrehearsed people taking part and seeing how quickly we can get the actors to adapt and learn it.

Presumably, it may also need a different type of actor to those you’ve worked with before too?
Another reason I came back to the idea of The Karaoke Theatre Company - having had it in my head so long - is that none of my current company are in Scarborough, as they’ll be in New York with Hero’s Welcome & Confusions at the Brits Off Broadway festival. So I have to use fresh people and I thought if I have to start with fresh people, why not for something different? We already have Andy Cryer - who I’ve never worked with before except fleetingly in The Divide - and Leigh Symonds, who was in Roundelay. They’re both actors who like a bit of an usual challenge and I just have to find three women to match them.
But it does mean working with a different sort of actor. It’s not exactly young - but certainly young in attitude - actors. New generation actors, which will be an experience for me as well as the audience. I like to have everything prepared well before I go into a production, but I’ve prepared nothing for
The Karaoke Theatre Company, because I have no idea what is going to happen. I’ve left it all to the designer Kevin Jenkins - who I haven’t worked with before either - who’s young, bright and enterprising.

How does The Karaoke Theatre Company work as a script? How does it differ to how you normally write?
Essentially, the script is written in two bits. The dialogue for the sketches is written in stone - as a normal play would be. To this end, I have emboldened it on the page so if you’re reading it and suddenly big black type leaps out at you, it’s saying: ‘learn this and remember it at your cost!’ There are also huge chunks where it’s on light type, where I say, ‘please feel free to play with this speech and vary from it as long as you put in the salient points that are contained within it.’
We open each evening with a warm-up, which is a version of the
Mr Whatnot tennis match with the audience doing the sounds for the actors playing a foursome of tennis. It’s a sort of human video game really because if you give the sound too early, they will probably slice it and if you give it too late, they’ll miss it.

Any final thoughts on The Karaoke Theatre Company?
I very much hope it’s going to be quite a fun thing to be involved in. You will need to be on your toes as an actor and the audience though and woe betide those people on the front row who occasionally fall asleep. They’re in trouble!

Question & Answer with Alan Ayckbourn (29 June 2016)

What can you tell us about The Karaoke Theatre Company?
It was destined in the schedule to be play number 80, but it seemed a bit invidious having your 80th play produced! I thought what should I do? Should I write something incredibly serious and grave, some state of the nation piece or should I just write a really jolly comedy? And I thought, “Well, either of those leads to problems. For if the jolly comedy didn’t work and the grave one was off beam, they probably wouldn’t be a success.' So I decided to do something which I have dreamt about for a long time and it followed on from my passion for live theatre, which is what I've been involved in all my live. I’ve eschewed the offers of film and television and other media, always finding that, in the end, all my best ideas, were for theatre. So why bother to write your worst ideas! So I decided, in the end, to do a party. I thought what better way than for the actors and audience to sort of meet.

What has the reaction been like during rehearsals?
Our new Chief Executive, Steve Freeman, came in yesterday and at the end he said, “what was lovely was it started with the actors doing their stuff and the audience sitting there wondering what this was all about. Then they starting to lean in and then, by the end of it, they’d taken over the show. It was their show, the audience’s show.' Which is really what we intended. So every night it's the audience's party. That is the essence of live theatre really. Normally if you sit and watch a production you will have some effect on the performance, due to your reaction or non-reaction, but - in this case - we’ve just absolutely no idea what’s going to happen each night.

It must be quite an unusual rehearsal situation for you?
It’s complete anathema to me to have strangers in a rehearsal room because it’s a rather private, personal function between me and the actors. But in this case it’s been extraordinary. Hopefully, from the dozen or so people we’ve had in each time, it will not be too traumatic for the actors to step into the space in front of 400 people. That's going to be quite a different experience for them and no amount of preparation can prepare them, but at least they’re happy interacting with people in the audience thanks to the rehearsals, which is a big step forward. I’ve picked special sorts of actors, who I thought could do it and particularly had an element of quick fire improvisation. The show is largely scripted but there is a huge element of improvisation just depending on how the audience reacts. I’ve given the actors leeway so that if somebody ad libs - and we love those spontaneous moments - they can react appropriately. This is, for me, a tremendous departure.

How difficult is it for the actors having to interact and engage with 400 people?
I told the actors that as soon as they step into the theatre, they have to extend their welcome to the back rows. At the moment, they’re literally as close as we are but - eventually - they’re going to be 30ft away from some members of the audience, so you really have to have very open arms by the time you get to a 400 seat space. No matter what. I've said to them all along, 'You have to hit the ground running. It's BANG! and people go, 'oh, we’re in good hands.' But if you come on with 'hello', it's not going to work. It has to be 'HELLO!' There’s a difference between the two and you can sweep the audience along or you can be a little more tentative and let them slowly catch up, but if you do, you’ll have lost them for the first 15 minutes at that rate. They've got to really go for it and it is a huge energy drainer of a show for the actors.

It consists of several different pieces, were there any particular inspirations?
I pillaged my back catalogue! Anyone who knows it - my archivist Simon Murgatroyd knows it - will know I’ve pinched a sketch called Dracula which I wrote for a revue Bob Eaton put together in 1975 called What The Devil! A lot of it is forgotten Ayckbourn! The opening tennis match comes from Mr Whatnot certainly. One of the pieces I’ve flagrantly stolen from Saki, which is a rather good jokey ghost story he wrote called The Open Window, which I’ve always thought was a good story so I pinched it!

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.