BWW Interviews: Getting INTIMATE with 1812

This year the Philadelphia FringeArts Festival will get INTIMATE. Alan Ayckbourn's INTIMATE EXCHANGES, that is. 1812 Productions returns to the Festival with a daring new production of Ayckbourn's 1982 experiment in tree drama. The play examines how seemingly trivial choices can affect the outcome of our very lives. In the first few moments of the story Celia, a headmaster's wife, decides whether to have a cigarette or not. Her choice to light up or pack up leads her down a fateful path that includes several other life-changing decisions along the way. All told, this production features 16 scenes which, in different combinations, create eight possible plays, each with two possible endings. The daring part is that for the first time in the show's history, the characters' fates will be decided by the audience in the moment, not predetermined beforehand by management. Even more daring is that Ayckbourn's play is written to be performed by just two actors. The couple play seven different characters and must each be prepared to perform the play's eight hours of dialogue! I managed to pin down the two brave and busy thespians attempting these EXCHANGES - Jennifer Childs and Anthony Lawton - to ask them about the production.

MTM: What was your first experience with the plays of Alan Ayckbourn?

Jen: When I was in college (University of the Arts) one of the students directed a scene from THE NORMAN CONQUESTS. I immediately went to the library and read all three plays. What I love about that play and INTIMATE EXCHANGES both is that there is this inventive way of delivering story that never feels like a gimmick. I am always fascinated by comedic structure and the architecture of that play is stunning.

Tony: It was when I was teaching at the University of Notre Dame in 2001. A student in a production of HOW THE OTHER HALF LOVES suddenly had to drop out, and I was asked to replace him with three days notice. I had a copy of the script in my pocket in the event I went up during the show, but I luckily never needed to resort to it. It's a testament, I think, to the leanness and stage worthiness of Ayckbourn's writing that the text so quickly and reliably set itself in my head.

MTM: Of his 78 plays, which is your favorite?

Jen: I really like ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR but I think THE NORMAN CONQUESTS are my favorite. I am fascinated by comedic structure and the architecture of THE NORMAN CONQUESTS is stunning.

Tony: I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with any of Ayckbourn's work aside from HOW THE OTHER HALF LOVES and INTIMATE EXCHANGES. INTIMATE EXCHANGES, I believe, is a work of greater depth, subtlety, scope, and insight than the other play.

MTM: Why do you think his plays are so universally popular?

Jen: I think he writes characters that are recognizable and relate-able - they are flawed and quirky and honest - so that no matter what ridiculous scenario they might be in, you are rooting for them, laughing with them, and seeing yourself in them.

Tony: I attribute it to the economy and wit of his dialogue, his intelligence and inventiveness in constructing surprising and beguiling plots, and his unflinching but compassionate insight into human nature.

MTM: How did you get involved in 1812's production of INTIMATE EXCHANGES?

Jen: I'm the Producing Artistic Director of 1812 so I have been lucky enough to be involved from the beginning. When I read the play I knew instantly that I wanted to do it. We are a company that is dedicated to comedy and we had never done an Ayckbourn! It was time. I selfishly chose to be in the piece myself as I was eager for the challenge and delight of playing these characters and living in Ayckbourn's world for a couple months.

Tony: I was offered my role in INTIMATE EXCHANGES last spring. I have a history with 1812 Productions, having performed in three or four works with them going back to 2002.

photo by John Flak

MTM: What is your favorite character in the play?

Jen: That is really hard - it changes from day to day. Sometimes it's Sylvie....sometimes it's Toby. It feels like every day that we work we discover more about each character and I fall in love with each one of them for new reasons.

Tony: I think I like Toby best. His cynicism and bitterness cover a youthful, wounded idealism, which we catch glimpses of throughout the play. I like his intelligence, wit, and articulateness.

MTM: Of the variations that might be chosen, do you have a favorite story arc?

Jen: I think my favorite arc is "The Self-Improving Woman" > "A Pageant" > "A Wedding". I think it's the happiest of the endings and maybe I'm just a sap that way. Also I love that Celia and Sylvie have a fight scene. [Jen plays both characters!]

Tony: I have yet to pick a favorite variation within the eight possible to us. I lean towards "The Self-Improving Woman" half of the variations, because the pathos of the relationship between Toby and Sylvie is so touching to me.

MTM: How long has it taken for you to memorize such a huge amount of dialogue?

Jen: I started memorizing in late June and there are still a couple scenes I'm working on. I don't do anything fancy, I just sit with the script and go over and over the words. Both my husband and daughter have been very generous about running lines with me. The trickiest part I find is not paraphrasing or Americanizing the language.

Tony: Mastering this quantity of dialogue is pretty tough. I am now working on it about five hours a day outside of rehearsal. This is, by far, the largest quantity of material I've had to learn at a whack. In most cases, the best mnemonic device for me is to keep in mind that the character chooses a particular word to serve a specific tactic / objective. The more specific I am about understanding what the character wants and the tactics he's using, the better I will understand his choice of words, and the more easily they will stick in my memory. There is also the fact that Ayckbourn has a great ear; a good deal of his language has a kind of music about it, which settles into the muscle memory of the speaker, and facilitates memory.

MTM: Besides memorizing the script, what other preparations did you make for this incredibly demanding play?

Jen: I took care of a whole bunch of business and then went on vacation right before we started rehearsals. I wanted to come back relaxed and be able to focus all my energies on this piece and not worry about loose ends. While I was on vacation I actually met a couple who had just become headmaster and headmaster's wife of a private boys school just north of London. Talking to them was fascinating and gave me a chance to do some conversational dramaturgy. And, if this woman was any indication, Ayckbourn has captured the joys and sorrows of being a headmaster's wife perfectly! Much of what she said could have been lines from the play!

Tony: The process of memorization is, in itself (for me) a process by which I become acquainted with the psyches of my characters. I'm afraid have done no other preparation for this play. (I have had no time!)

MTM: Which of your characters is most like you?

photo by John Flak

Jen: I'm a control freak like Celia.

Tony: I have more in common with Toby than I do with Miles, Lionel, or Joe. I identify closely with his bruised idealism and his penchant for misanthropy, I'm afraid! I wish I were as smart and witty as he, and, happily, I am only a fraction as bitter.

MTM: Do you remember a particular decision that might have changed the course of your life?

Jen: Wow! In the world of big decisions, I think choosing to come to the University of the Arts instead of going to Syracuse University is probably the biggest. I really love Philadelphia, it's where I met my husband, where I started my company, and where I met and continue to work and make theater with an incredible group of collaborators. I don't know that I would have ever discovered Philly if I'd started in Syracuse.

Tony: The biggest choice that affected my life, I would say, was probably my separation from my wife. If I had stayed with her, I hardly dare to speculate about what the consequences might have been. I feel sure they would have been very ugly.

MTM: You are performing only half of this amazing play - the original script has eight plays with 16 possible endings! Might we see the other half of INTIMATE EXCHANGES sometime in 1812's future?

Jen: All I can say is we're keeping the set!

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INTIMATE EXCHANGES will be performed from August 28th thru September 21st at The Arcadia Stage at Arden Theatre Company, 40 North 2nd Street, in Old City, Philadelphia. Opening Night is Wednesday, September 3rd at 7pm. Tickets range from $26-$40 and are available at 215-592-9560 or at

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From This Author Michael T. Mooney

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