Taking Steps: Articles by Other AuthorsThis page contains articles on Taking Steps by authors other than Alan Ayckbourn. The articles are the copyright of the respective author and should not be reproduced without permission.
No Dice in Barefoot Farce
by Robin Herford
There is an obscure theatrical superstition that it is unlucky for an actor to clear out his make-up box in the Dressing Room. Don't ask me where it comes from - I've no idea. Maybe it serves to reinforce the mystique of thespian eccentricity, or maybe it's just a jolly good excuse invented by a slovenly actor, but since no actor I know would ever go anywhere near his make-up box when he's out of work, these strange and individual receptacles tend to get opened only in the dressing room, and thus become - almost incidentally - accumulating time-capsules for an actor's life.
Modern stage lighting has done much to obviate the need for elaborate makeup, but the essentials are still always there. A corkscrew and bottle opener for the post-performance restorative, your agent's phone number scribbled in eyebrow pencil on the inside of the lid, two or three odd cufflinks, a broken collar stud mended with superglue and several faded receipts for make-up that you had promised your accountant you would keep for the taxman. Oh yes, and the odd stick of Leichner.
I also keep a dice in my make-up box, evidence not of my gambling instincts, nor of a certain fatalism after two years of Intimate Exchanges, but of my apprehension regarding self-control in humorous situations.
Let me explain. You may have wondered, as you sit watching an Ayckbourn play, why it is that the audience may be rocking with laughter and yet the actors remain untouched by the humour of the situation. Well, you reason, they have all become accustomed to the jokes over several weeks of rehearsal, they are all dedicated, seasoned professionals, they are deeply in character and thus subjectively experiencing the situation which we as audience can objectively perceive as funny. Also, the secret suspicion, actors don't have much sense of humour anyway. All this is true to a greater or lesser extent; (as to the last charge, humourless actors do exist, but they do tend not to work for long in Scarborough).
Nevertheless, there is a problem. Performing a play is not just pure repetition night after night. Actors are always experimenting, fine-tuning their performances, trying new inflections, making infinitesimal changes in their timing and delivery in an attempt to extract the maximum from the play. With a comedy, these minute adjustments can often have devastating results, releasing a laugh that has been undiscovered up to that moment. And then there's the audience, who will one night laugh at a certain line or piece of business and the next night will be totally unmoved by it. Sometimes the audience will talk quite audibly amongst themselves - "Edith" said one punter to her neighbour as I was about to go into a romantic clinch with Diane Bull, "Doesn't she remind you of Mrs Harrison's niece?" It was one of the longest clinches in stage history. And of course there is the unexpected.
The theatre cat who found his way on stage during Relatively Speaking was like a walking time-bomb as I waited for the moment when my fellow actors should catch sight of this new unscheduled member of the cast, Would he relieve himself in the flower bed or wander off to the bar? Theatre is never totally predictable and thus potentially hazardous. Add to all this the hysterically funny and yet bitterly truthful writing in Alan's plays, and it brings me back to the dice.
I first used it in Derby in 1973 playing William Featherstone in How the Other Half Loves, when, having exhausted all other conventional methods to stop myself laughing during rehearsals, such as biting my cheek from the inside and digging my nails into my palms, in desperation on the first night I placed this small sharp dice in my left shoe right up against the knuckle of my little toe. By pressing hard with the foot, one could achieve a fairly exquisite pain which focused the mind wonderfully without causing undue damage or being noticeable to the audience.
I was pleased with this little stratagem, and apart from the odd complaint from the wardrobe department about bloodstained socks, the device carried me through Mr Whatnot, Ten Times Table, Relatively Speaking, Joking Apart, and Sisterly Feelings, rarely failing to deliver the goods.
It was when we came to Taking Steps that the system fell apart. There is always laughter when working with Alan, but Taking Steps was altogether different. It was, and remains, quite simply the funniest play I have ever come across. We wept our way through the first reading, and it was only afterwards that I realized with horror I had to play the entire second Act in bare feet. The dice would not work! I would have to think of something else.
We started rehearsing the play, working intensively and at great speed. It was a joyful experience with a cast who had worked closely together for several seasons, and who were thus totally at ease both with Alan and with each other. Alan had only finished writing the day before we went into rehearsal, and directing it on stage was just the logical extension of the writing process. Alan directed this play with all his usual flair and inventiveness and more meticulously than ever. All we had to do was listen.
We got to the opening night - no previews in those days - confident that it was superbly funny, but quite unprepared for the gales of laughter that greeted the play. We put seventeen minutes on the running time between the final dress rehearsal and the first performance. They would not stop laughing.
Oh, the dice? I need not have worried. Working in bare feet on stage is always hazardous at the best of times. In a frantic farce, performing such improbable tasks as carrying John Arthur over a three piece suite at full speed while reciting nursery rhymes, put our feet at the mercy of every protuberance known to the set designer. We knocked chunks out of our feet. There was hardly a performance when one of us wasn't nursing some injury or other. Alison Skilbeck, never an actress for half measures, actually broke two toes when we were on tour with the play in Holland ... and all to keep herself from laughing. Incredible, isn't it? But worth a bit of pain.
Robin Herford joined the company as an actor in 1976, became Associate Director in 1979 and Artistic Director from 1986-88 when Alan Ayckbourn was on sabbatical at the National Theatre.
Copyright: Robin Herford 1990. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.