Communicating Doors: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
A Little Thing Entitled… (Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round 1994 programme note)
I have always had a bit of a problem with titles, I have to confess.
Way back in the dark old days when I wrote plays overnight and was in rehearsal the following morning, long ago when at a first reading the cast had no idea whether their character even survived past page ten, in those days the title came well ahead of the play. Advance publicity dictated it did.
Sometimes, if I was lucky, the title still bore some passing resemblance to the play when it eventually got to be written. I was especially proud when I could later weave the actual title into the dialogue of the play itself; Time And Time Again, for instance, or Absent Friends or Just Between Ourselves.
Sometimes, the token title was vague enough to serve whatever I subsequently wrote. Absurd Person Singular was a serviceable, hand-me-down title which I'm ashamed to say one or two students with enormous ingenuity have vainly attempted to link to the play itself. As for Confusions, that can cover virtually anything.
Then there are the ones that got altered - and sometimes altered and then altered. Like my first big West End hit, Meet My Mother. Surely you've heard of that? No wait we changed it, didn't we, to Meet My Father - does that jog your memory?- or maybe, yes, wait, for the West End we changed it again to Relatively Speaking. Or three plays later, The Story So Far... later re-titled, Me Times Me Times Me, later re-titled Family Circles. Or that somewhat unpromising pair, Fancy Meeting You and Make Yourself At Home, a year later re-titled, Table Manners and Living Together which along with Round And Round The Garden came to be known as The Norman Conquests.
Later, as my writing deadlines became fractionally less frantic, I actually had time to consider a title around the same period as I was writing the play. I'm sure I still don't get it right all the time and people are always suggesting better ones - or at least what they consider are better ones. (Inside everyone there's a really good title, longing to come out.) But at least Time Of My Life, Wildest Dreams or Dreams From A Summer House relate in some small way to the contents.
I draw comfort from the fact that there can never, in the entire history of drama, have been more off-the-shelf all-purpose, I-don't-know-what-the-hell-I'm-going-to-write-yet-but-here's-something-for-your-blasted-publicity, than As You Like It, All's Well That Ends Well or Much Ado About Nothing.
Thus I proudly unveil my 46th play entitled A Word From Our Sponsor - sorry - Private Fears In Public Places - no - Communicating Doors. That's the one. Well, it does have doors....
Communicating Doors (Unknown venue 2000 programme note)
When we first produced this play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough back in 1998, we played a game called 'spot the film reference'. There are the obvious ones, of course: a passing reference to the famous shower scene in Psycho, a touch of Vertigo and even a small tribute to Back to the Future, though that last movie is, of course, one long tribute in its turn to a whole host of time travelling tales from dozens of long forgotten science fiction magazines.
I think, in my youth, I must have read most of those stories. I devoured science fiction whenever I could lay my hands on it. It captivated me, all these tales of what we might become and what we could have been if only. Most of the stories, certainly the Time Travelling ones, served as thinly disguised cautionary tales for today. If we don't stop so and so now, then behold what almost certainly will happen tomorrow. Others concerned the possibility of going back - of putting things right, things left undone. Not just world events, stopping the rise of Hitler, but more personal ones like taking back an impetuous act that caused your small brother such unhappiness, perhaps.
Personally, I don't really believe that we will ever be able to travel back. Or, if the day comes that we miraculously can, that we will be able alter our past. We'll simply stand by powerless watching our same foolish mistakes unfolding again and again before our horrified older eyes. Which is possibly, if it has been invented in some distant future, why we never meet a single Time Traveller from our own future. With such a depressing sense of powerlessness, who would bother to travel?
As Communicating Doors puts it, though, it is quite possible to alter our future, any time we want, if not in the way Poopay achieves it, at least through the actions we choose to take here and now. The future, as the old cliché has it, is in our own hands. Which just goes to prove, really, that there's nothing new. Not even in science fiction.
Communicating Doors (Stephen Joseph Theatre 2010 programme note)
Communicating Doors was one of the earlier plays when, encouraged by my first experiences in writing my Christmas ‘family’ pieces which generally tended to be set in fantastic and undreamt of worlds, in my adult work I stepped cautiously outside the four walls of the real house or the actual garden fence. Into the realms of heaven-knows-where …
In writing for a younger audience (and the best of them do this from Brothers Grimm to JK Rowling or Pullman) as we grow older and consequently further away from that very age with which we wish as writers to engage, we tend to create our own presumed reality.
That is, new worlds in which we are all in a sense initially strangers. Worlds which, if we agree to enter them, we also automatically choose to accept their unfamiliar local rules and the abnormal laws that govern them.
Which, provided that these are not too outrageously hard to swallow, that they still bear some relationship, however distantly, to the known world and that, most importantly, things remain logical in themselves, however illogical, people are generally happy to go along with them. Especially when they’re still young with a sense of play and even though they’re guiltily secretly telling themselves they’re old enough to know better.
But, as the old cliché has it, there’s a child in all of us somewhere, however deeply buried which explains all the fun, the joy, the love along with a lot of the jealousy, the spite and cruelty and a large proportion of the wars.
The genre for this form of writing used to be referred to as Science Fiction though sadly that’s become a little unfashionable as a description (if not, in some quarters, downright unpopular!) and is now generally replaced these days by Fantasy which sounds slightly loftier and smacks less of little green monsters or sounds of magnetic boots clanking on the hulls of distant spaceships.
In the early days, I was brought up against a post-war background of sci-fi films and magazines where some of the best, most imaginative, most exciting contemporary writing was to be found. Writers like Bradbury, Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K Dick, Heinlein, Aldiss and Ballard were an essential part of my boarding school, under-the-bedclothes reading.
‘What if…?’ was the question their stories generally asked. Along with ‘Just supposing …’
Communicating Doors comes into the ‘what if …’ category. What if, it asks, we could start our lives again? Would we choose to change them? And if so how?
In this play, unlike the rest of us, the heroine, Phoebe (Poopay) actually gets this opportunity, all due to some mystical gizmo to do with interconnecting hotel doors. (Don’t even ask, I’ve no idea, myself). My tip though when dealing with Science Fiction is if you don’t want people dropping asleep in Act I never ever try to explain inexplicable Science, stick to the Fiction. Leave all the rest to Hawking. He’ll probably be able to explain it, even if the rest of us still don’t understand.
But in this instance I threw a few more ingredients into this pot as well as “what if …” I included elements of my other big childhood love, elements of 1940’s / 1950’s black and white film noir. So there’s also the chance to play spot the reference. No prizes.
Communicating Doors also contains my other strongly held belief that your own good fortune often resides in the people you meet on the way. It’s good luck to have met them; it’s good sense knowing the ones to listen to.
It’s not, of course, all one way. For every person who’s affected me, my faint hope is there’s been someone for whom I’ve been an influence. I guess that some of them may have been listening, you live in hope.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.