Taking Steps: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
Taking Steps (Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round 1979 production programme note)
I have written very little true farce. Some of my comedies have touched on the farcical but Taking Steps is really my first since How The Other Half Loves. It was written, like all my plays, for the Theatre in the Round at Scarborough. In this type of theatre, doors, the staple of most farces, are really impractical. So I’ve substituted floors instead. This is, I hope, a play you can enjoy on many levels at once….
Taking Steps (unrecorded production programme note)
I’ve written very little true Farce. The trouble with Farce is that it is either successful or it isn’t. Not a lot of leeway for error.
There are plenty of Straight Plays that aren’t all that marvellous; but at least they’re interesting. Whoever heard of an interesting farce? It’s either funny or it isn’t funny. And if it isn’t funny you can hear the silence that reigns instead and that isn’t at all funny.
You can have a Comedy that’s fairly funny. Not funny all the time because, being slightly better bred than common old Farce, being a Comedy it has one or two things of Deep Importance to say which require that we endure a rather reverential bit occasionally (referred to in the musical hall world as the “But seriously now, folks…” moment). This is known as the Dramatist making a Serious Point (see also Bid For Posterity).
But with Farce, you’re on a hiding to nothing. You don’t get fairly funny Farces. Well, not after the second night, you don’t. The Game is Up. Everyone knows what you so lamentably failed to achieve. A great deal of laughter. Unlike the Comedy writer who can smile mysteriously when confronted by a member of his audience who failed to crack a smile all evening. “Ah,” he can murmur, “but maybe you were never intended to laugh, had you considered that?”
Taking Steps is a Farce. It’s meant to make you laugh. If it doesn’t, I’m sorry. If it makes you cry, have a word with the director as I refuse to take responsibility for that as well.
It was written to be played in-the-round, originally. Which is why it is, unusually, a Farce with absolutely no doors. Instead it has floors.
Alan Ayckbourn's introduction to Sisterly Feelings & Taking Steps
When Sisterly Feelings (1978) and Taking Steps (1979) were first produced in Scarborough, I called Sisterly Feelings a comedy and Taking Steps a farce.
The residents of Scarborough, it appeared, had no quarrel with these categories, though when the plays reached London in 1980 their descriptions provoked (as indeed I should have known they would) much lengthy and somewhat tedious discussion as to what precisely defined farce and where the boundaries should be drawn between that and comedy.
At the risk of adding another tube of lighter fuel to the bonfire, here are my own descriptions of what I consider to be the three main categories of play.
First, there is the drama or straight play which is usually rather short on humour but filled with Insights and other Serious Things and is thus, when successful, regarded as a Very Good Thing to See. Comedies, on the other hand, are straight plays with a sense of humour, often saying much the same thing only more enjoyably and therefore to a wider audience. A very few comedies can occasionally achieve the Very Good Thing category but generally only if (a) the director has removed all the humour from it by playing it with funereal solemnity or (b) the author is long dead, foreign, or preferably both. If the author is foreign, the chances are the translator will have killed off most of the humour anyway (cf. Moliere, Goldoni). If very long dead, then most of the audience don't understand the jokes anyway (cf. Shakespeare).
Thirdly, there are farces which set out to be, and often are, funnier than comedies, though in order to achieve this, the author has necessarily had to jettison one or two things like deep character analysis or Serious Things. Good farce explores the extreme reaches of the credible and the likely. It proceeds by its own immaculate internal logic and at best leaves its audience only at the end wondering how on earth they came to be where they are now. In other words, it takes the basic illusion of theatre whereby, as in all plays, the dramatist first creates a world and then convinces his audiences of its credibility - farce takes this illusion and stretches it to the limits and outside them.
For me, farce begins when I feel that I am now leading an audience into realms beyond the laws of human probability.
Thus, Sisterly Feelings contains nothing that couldn't happen. Taking Steps, frankly is, as a bare plot, unlikely and for its credibility it depends entirely upon its telling.
As a final footnote to this, I have resolved with any future plays I write to give them no description at all. Henceforth, they will all be plays. I will leave others to brand and pigeon-hole them if they want to. Ultimately, what matters is whether the play is good or not. Unfortunately, it's possible to gain only an inkling of a play's merit from reading it. The real test occurs on a stage or rather on several stages after many performances in different productions. Only then can a stage play's true quality begin to be assessed.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.