Thursday, August 26, 2010
San Diego's Cygnet Theatre takes on the theatrical version of a triathlon - the "Norman Conquests." The three comedies by acclaimed British playwright Alan Ayckbourn are rarely staged together, but Cygnet is performing them in repertory and, at times, all on the same day!
The three plays in the Norman Conquests are running in rep through November 7th at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. On Sept 18 and Oct 9, all three plays can be seen in one day.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. If you’re a KPBS-TV watcher, you are no stranger to British comedy. So you may be interested to know there is a veritable overflow of British wit taking place onstage at Cygnet Theatre. Renowned playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy of sex and manners at an English country house, titled "The Norman Conquests" is being presented sequentially, although that's hard to pin down. And on some occasions, all at once. Here to explain what I’m talking about are my guests. Sean Murray is artistic director at Cygnet Theatre and he is directing “The Norman Conquests." Sean, good morning. Thanks for coming in.
SEAN MURRAY (Artistic Director, Cygnet Theatre): Good morning. Thank you for having us.
CAVANAUGH: Actor Albert Dayan plays Norman. Good morning.
ALBERT DAYAN (Actor): Morning.
CAVANAUGH: And actor Jo Anne Glover plays Annie in Cygnet's "Norman Conquests." Jo Anne, good morning. Welcome to These Days.
JO ANNE GLOVER (Actor): Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Sean, why did you decide to present all three of the Norman plays?
MURRAY: We were looking for some kind of a repertory experience that we could offer our playgoers and “The Norman Conquests” just had a pretty successful run in New York and won a Tony for Best Revival. And the plays, the three different plays, the way they work together, each one works individually. A person really only needs to come see one play to have a wonderful time but all three plays intersect and work together in a way that creates a theatrical experience that is pretty rare to see onstage, and I felt that doing just one of them was doing the whole project a bit of a disservice. I thought we really needed to see all three to get the total effect.
CAVANAUGH: And do you have to see the plays in any particular order?
MURRAY: It’s an amazing piece of playwriting. You do not need to see the plays in any particular order. You don’t need to see all three of them. You only need to see one of them. Because all three plays take place simultaneously, on top of each other, in different parts of a house over a country weekend. And so in order to get the full experience, you know – by seeing other productions, you know what’s going on in other parts of the house that gives information about what’s going on in the play that you’re seeing that night. So you – It’s an amazing little puzzle that he’s put together that works independently and as a cohesive piece but there’s no order. Alan Ayckbourn swears there’s no order to it.
CAVANAUGH: Right. In fact, he had some pretty funny advice on the…
MURRAY: That’s right.
CAVANAUGH: …order he wanted people to see them in. Can you sort of paraphrase what he said?
MURRAY: He suggested that you definitely see “Table Manners” first but you may also need to see “Garden” first in order to understand “Table Manners” better but then you’d probably want to see “Living Together” first so that you understand what’s going on in the “Garden.” But you don’t want to see the “Garden” last unless you see the “Table Manners” first. He made such a confusing explanation to it to really make a humorous point that it’s really not necessary…
CAVANAUGH: And you have to see them all first.
MURRAY: You have to see them all first or all last, yes.
CAVANAUGH: Can you give us a quick overview, Sean, of what these plays are about?
MURRAY: It’s about a family in England. It’s three siblings, two sisters and a brother, and their married partners. And it’s what happens when one of the two sets, one of the three sets of people decide to have a weekend away, kind of a tryst against every – behind everybody’s back. And when that becomes known and it explodes into a weekend where all of these in-laws and other guests are sort of stuck in a country house over a weekend and there’s all sorts of broken hearts revealed and love revealed, passions and crushes, and it’s just a big old wonderful scandal. It’s a big, fun, sexy romp through the garden at night in moonlight with a lot of homemade wine.
CAVANAUGH: That sounds pretty good.
CAVANAUGH: Now tell us a little bit about Alan Ayckbourn. I’ve heard him described as the world’s – the most prolific living playwright. Is that…?
MURRAY: Possibly, yeah. Yeah, he was the artistic director of a small theatre in Northern England, and he wrote his own plays for his company and so he’s been writing plays for his company for many decades. I would say there were – he’s got more than 80, 90 plays out there. And, yeah, he was – he – a lot of his plays tend to be incredibly witty. When he first started writing, he had a very comic view of the world that has a bit of an undertone of melancholy to it. “Norman” has a lot of his elements in it. But as he grew as a playwright over time, his world view, on stage anyway, grew a little bit darker and more and more darker as time progressed. And so most of his plays are a wonderful mix of very funny but there’s a lot of dark sadness behind them, which makes them richer, a richer experience than just your traditional sort of British sit-com.
CAVANAUGH: He’s been described as the British Neil Simon. Are there parallels?
MURRAY: Well, he was described as the British Neil Simon in the earlier part of his career. This last revival of “The Norman Conquests” in New York, a lot of the New York critics started to see his – the arc of his career a little bit more in line with the Pinters and some of the more darker British playwrights. So I think a lot of his really bright early comedies is where he got that nickname. And he’s – It’s taken him a long time to sort of grow out of it.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Sean Murray, artistic director at Cygnet Theatre, director of “The Norman Conquests." And I want to move on now and speak with a couple of the actors in “Norman Conquests,” Albert Dayan and Jo Anne Glover. Albert, let me start with you. You play Norman.
CAVANAUGH: Describe Norman for us.
DAYAN: Oh, my gosh.
MURRAY: Good luck.
DAYAN: Norman is sort of a Quixote-esque assistant librarian, want-to-be lothario. And he actually has some success at it despite the fact that he’s a very unlikely lothario. And he’s somebody who, I think, he’s – this character, he’s the one who shows up for this illicit tryst with one of the sisters, with his wife’s sister, actually. And he’s somebody who does all of these awful, awful, awful things in hopes of making people happy. Himself, included.
DAYAN: But also the people to whom he’s doing these things. He believes that somehow or other these actions he’s going to take are going to make their dull, colorless lives better.
CAVANAUGH: Is it hard to maintain that sense of sincerity when admits to all these terrible things that Norman does, all these blindspots he has towards what his actions are really doing to people?
DAYAN: Absolutely. It was one of the big challenges of playing the part, is that ultimately he’s – For all that he does, I think he’s somebody that needs to be a lovable man. And the audience spends a lot of time with him. And in order to do that, you have to continually go back to the fact that what I’m doing here, what Norman is doing here, is trying to brighten Annie’s life or trying to make – pull Ruth out of a depression or trying to, you know, whatever it is. He’s trying to make these people happy. And I find that when I hold true to that, that’s when the play comes to life.
CAVANAUGH: Right, right.
DAYAN: That’s when you really see that this is not a despicable person. It’s just somebody who makes a lot of bad decisions, okay.
CAVANAUGH: Jo Anne, you play Annie, and we just heard mention. Tell us about her.
GLOVER: Well, she is the youngest sibling, Norman’s wife’s sister, and is single with a next door neighbor who they’re – who has a sort of connection but still is not a real boyfriend. And I am left at home to take care of our ailing mother by myself, and so very lonely and longing for something new and different and, hence, I think, falls for Norman’s…
CAVANAUGH: Sympathetic efforts.
CAVANAUGH: Now these people sound pretty miserable and yet this is a comedy. Sean.
MURRAY: That’s right.
MURRAY: It’s – The thing I love about this play is that it’s about people who are at that point in their lives where they need more affection, they need more excitement. They’ve gotten into that sort of lull, they’ve got into a dull spot in their lives. They need something bright, need something exciting to happen. They need to know that they’re loved. They need affection. And they’re not getting any of it from their spouses. The people have been married too long or they take each other for granted. And so when Norman stirs all this up, suddenly you’re seeing people who are reaching out to feel things again. And it’s a – What’s, I think, wonderful about it and what is funny about it is that if you don’t recognize yourself somewhere up there, you will recognize somebody else that you know up there, that these people are real people. Because the play – because of the three plays and how much time you get to know these characters, these characters are really rich and you see a whole wide range of emotional situations that they’re put into and so you get to know these characters in a way you kind of don’t in a lot of other plays. I mean, you really spend time with them and you see them at their funniest and their darkest and their brightest and it’s like a real experience. It’s like a real family. It sounds like real families fighting, talking, loving, gossiping. And it’s – You can see yourself up there, I think.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Albert and Jo Anne, you’re going to be doing a scene for us as Norman and Annie. Do we need to set that up in any way?
MURRAY: Maybe a little bit. They – this is the very first moment that we see – a part of the first moment where you see Annie and Norman together and the plan has been that Annie was going to have her brother come down to take care of mother and then she was going to leave for the bus station and meet Norman so that nobody knew what was going on. Norman, out of his enthusiasm, shows up and sort of spoils the whole plot. And that’s about where Annie discovers him in the garden.
CAVANAUGH: This is a scene from “Norman Conquests.”
(audio of Albert Dayan and Jo Anne Glover performing a scene from “The Norman Conquests”)
CAVANAUGH: That was wonderful. I can see the problems happening. Albert Dayan and Jo Anne Glover in a scene from “Norman Conquests.” That’s – They are – It is at Cygnet Theatre as we speak. And I wonder, you know, considering that these are three plays, all the same storyline, all – you play the same characters. How easy would it be to confuse the lines of the three different plays and sort of inject lines from one play out of sequence? Let me ask you, Albert.
DAYAN: You know, there’s a – We’ve got a funny story. The stage manager actually has posted all over the backstage area: Today’s performance is… And it’s all over the place so that when you turn the corner you don’t forget, all right, am I – What play am I in? Because it’s definitely – it can happen. And, you know, like Sean was saying, it’s – the plays take place over the same period of time and it’s the same events essentially, that you’re talking about. So you have to tell the story every time and so there are many similarities and I do find myself – I’m somebody who has a pretty good memory and I don’t normally have to refer to my script when I’m doing a show but in this show, I keep it open backstage to the next scene that I’m going to because I’m terrified that I’m going to walk out there and start doing a performance from a different play.
CAVANAUGH: Right. And, Jo Anne, tell me a little bit more. How do you keep it straight in your head?
GLOVER: I’m similar to Albert. I do keep my script with me backstage and pretty much keep ongoing tabs on where we are, what’s happening. And it’s an interesting thing because each character has certain turns of phrases or speeches that they do use repeatedly throughout all three plays, which in some ways actually makes it a little bit easier because you’re in that same world of speech but I think it has taken a little bit of time to feel really confident in keeping each play separate from – separate yet intertwined.
CAVANAUGH: Now during most of this run, people can choose to see “Table Manners,” “Round and Round the Garden,” and what’s the last…
MURRAY: “Living Together.”
CAVANAUGH: …”Living Together”…
CAVANAUGH: …on separate occasions, separate nights.
CAVANAUGH: However, Sean, you have scheduled some marathon performances of this entire trilogy. Tell us about that.
MURRAY: Right. Well, the way the performance schedule works, the three plays run alternating every night so that you could see three shows in a row on three days, you could see a Fright night show and then see a matinee and a Saturday night show and see them over two days. There’s a lot of different con – permutations you can see it. And you can call the box office and get the schedule for that.
CAVANAUGH: Sure. Right.
MURRAY: But we had – On our opening night, we did all three shows. We do a twelve o’clock show, a four o’clock show and a eight o’clock show. And we have two more of those “Norman” marathons that we’re doing. And, unfortunately, I don’t have the dates on the top of my head. Do you have them?
CAVANAUGH: …September 18th and October 9th.
MURRAY: Right. And those dates, we have – there’s a nice time in between the shows to go have a wonderful lunch in Old Town, a nice dinner in Old Town. We have worked out restaurant – with the restaurants in the area different kind of prix fixe packages so you could really plan a day of theatre. And it was truly, on the opening day, it was truly exciting the way the story builds in momentum when you see them all in one big go. There are little jokes that kind of run between the different shows that when you know what’s going on between them, the joke takes on a whole new energy. And when you have an audience who has seen all three of them in the day, the humor of the play starts to build on itself and you have people who have seen it all day laughing at some things that other people who don’t know what’s going on back in the other part of the house aren’t laughing at. And there was one particular bit on opening that got applause and those people that weren’t privy to it were staring in disbelief with their jaws down. Why is that trash can so funny? And it’s that kind of wonderful sense of being in on something. And, you know, as a wonderful little incentive, if you see all three of our shows and you don’t have to see them on one day but if you just see all three, we have a fabulous “I Conquered Norman” tee shirt that has become amazing collector’s item all throughout San Diego. And we want to get people wearing them because it’s such fun to see these three plays. It is truly an experience you’re not going to see anywhere else. It’s not been done, all three of them, in a quite long time.
CAVANAUGH: I want to talk just a little bit more about the marathon…
CAVANAUGH: …because it’s all well and good to talk about the restaurants and hardy members of the audience but what about the actors? Three plays in one day. What’s that like, Jo Anne?
GLOVER: It is challenging. We found on opening that I think we all, you know, took rests in between. Luckily, there are places to nap in the green room so we all really rested in between and kept our energy going, you know, kept ourselves fed and watered and really – but it’s definitely fun for us as well to be with an audience all day as well.
CAVANAUGH: That’s a kind of an experience that an actor doesn’t usually get, is it, Albert?
DAYAN: No, never. I mean, I learned so many things on that opening day that I will never use again in an acting career. You know, I mean, you spend so much – As an actor, when you open a show, you spend both physical and emotional energy, a great deal of it, in opening a show. And, you know, we opened with “Round and Round the Garden.” And we finished that show, it went really well, felt very excited. I finished that show and I was exhausted. I thought I’ve got two more shows to open today. It’s like nothing else in the world. And it’s like nothing else in the world in that it’s fatiguing and it’s like nothing else in the world in that it’s, like Sean was saying, it’s fantastic. The audience teaches you so much. Normally in a show, over time, you sort of learn where the laughs are…
DAYAN: …in a show and you come to anticipate them, leave a little room for them. You never really know in this show because you don’t know who’s in the audience. Are they going to do the laughter that you would get if they’re just seeing this one show for the first time? Or are you going to have a pocket of people who have seen one of the other shows and they’ll laugh at that stuff. It’s just fascinating.
CAVANAUGH: And it must be also a challenge to do the three plays in repertory, sequentially, because you don’t get a chance to build a momentum in any one production, is that right, Jo Anne?
GLOVER: That was the challenge, I think, in the early stages of the performances, during previews and during the first couple weeks of the run just because we would do a play one night and then not come back to it for three days. And, definitely, there was that sense of momentum. At this point, I feel like we have really got it under our belts and are starting to really play and really move – take big leaps forward in terms of that aspect of things.
CAVANAUGH: It sounds like, just doing that little scene that you did for us, there’s a wonderful rhythm in the way that this is written and it sounds like you can learn to play with that more and more as time goes on. Is that what you find, Albert?
DAYAN: Oh, yes, absolutely. It’s one of those plays where you realize how good the writing is as you do it, that there’s a music to the play. And, you know, I think that kind of ties in with your question to Jo Anne as well. Learning that music at the beginning was very tricky because normally you come back and you sing that same song every night. And when you don’t see it for several days, you come back and it, you know, you don’t have that same sort of physical memory of it, at least for a little while. I agree with Jo Anne, at this point, now I feel like we’ve really got those things under our belt.
CAVANAUGH: Right. And you have a nice long run, too. Right?
MURRAY: Right, right, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: For this to continue.
MURRAY: Right. To accommodate the subscribers that we have and the series, each play has what is a normal 5 week run but when you mix them all together, it makes for a 15 week run. So we’re running through November 7th, and this was quite a long run for us and it’s a bit of a challenge because the people believe, you know, well, I have until November 7th to see it.
MURRAY: And what we would love to see is that they see it now because it’s here now and I would really have a lot of regret if people wanted to see it and then we found ourselves unable to get…
MURRAY: …them in towards the end, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you, Sean Murray. Thank you so much for performing for us, Jo Anne Glover and Albert Dayan. Thank you.
DAYAN: Well, thank you.
GLOVER: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I appreciate it. I want to let everyone know the three plays in “The Norman Conquests” are running in rep now through November 7th at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. And on September 18th and October 9th, all three plays can be seen in one day. If you’d like to comment, go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, it’s the Weekend Preview here on KPBS.