Taking Steps: Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

In 2017, Alan Ayckbourn revived Taking Steps at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. Here he talks to his Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, about reviving the play.

Alan Ayckbourn & Simon Murgatroyd In Conversation

Simon Murgatroyd: You’ve been labeled a farceur throughout your career, yet you consider Taking Steps to be your only farce. How did you come to write it?
Alan Ayckbourn:
Two reasons really. It was a play I wrote as the result of some very ill-informed person making the statement that farce was impossible to do in the round. I thought, ‘well that’s absolute nonsense!’ His basic premise was that the round didn’t have doors, so how can you do farce without doors? I said, ‘very easily. Sam Walters at the Orange Tree demonstrated you just imagine them’. But I did at that time think, ‘well OK, I’ll show him. I’ll write a farce without doors but with floors.’

And the second reason?
I wrote it because I wanted to have fun at the time - and fun it’s proved to be wherever I’ve done it.

As you said, it was written to demonstrate you can play farce in the round - which, would you agree, also makes it practically unique in your play canon?
Of all my plays, I think, this one is an exclusively ‘round play’. I don’t honestly believe even half the effect is the same if it’s done in the proscenium arch; it can be done, because the story will hold it up. But to really appreciate it, it has to be in the round. The joke is in the floor and, in the round, the backcloth is the floor and because we are all looking at the floor everyone can see the floor and appreciate the joke.

This idea of three floors all on the same level playing across each other is one of the joys of the play, yet trying to explain it doesn’t convey near half the fun!
True, but one of the joys in writing plays for as long as I have done is that you are hard-pressed to over-estimate your audience. You can trust that if you lay out a concept quite clearly then 99% of them will buy into that concept and willingly go with it. Not only that, but they’ll enjoy going with it.

Would you agree it’s superficially similar to
How The Other Half Loves in this juxtaposition and the demands it makes of the audience?
It does hark back to How The Other Half Loves and it’s one of my conspiratorial attempts to involve the audience in a conceit and say, ‘this is what we are planning to do for this evening, are you with us?’ In both How The Other Half Loves and, certainly, Taking Steps, there’s a shared delight in staging it in the round because the audience is obviously in on the joke from the start, conspiring with the actors immediately to say, ‘let’s all pretend we’re on three floors.’ As a result, anyone who comes in at half-time during Taking Steps will have a hell of a job working out what’s happened!

You consider that
Taking Steps is your only attempt at writing a true farce - and is dedicated to the master farceur Ben Travers. Why haven’t you written more farces?
Farce is the most difficult thing of all to write because it has to be a riot from beginning to end. The trouble with writing a play claiming to be funny is everyone will soon tell you if it’s not! It’s far more difficult to define an unsuccessful tragedy than it is an unsuccessful comedy - which is almost immediately judged on the silence it receives. Whereas an unsuccessful or a successful tragedy can be received in total silence throughout! Audiences might be suppressing their tears or suppressing their boredom and it’s very hard to tell!

Finally, how do you feel you should approach directing
Taking Steps?
Taking Steps is a difficult piece to handle and I like a challenge - it requires the most delicate balance and the steadiest of hands to work. I love the characters, although there is not an awful lot of substance to the plot if you examine it for any length of time. I think it is one of the sillier plays I’ve written; it’s nice to be silly occasionally!

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