net.wars: Intimate exchanges

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 22 August 2008

Talking of "software as a service" - a couple of years ago I did an interview with Ed ("Mr OS/2")Iacobucci, now CEO and founder of Dayjet, a new kind of airline.

Wendy M Grossman

Dayjet has no published timetable; instead, prospective passengers (mostly company CEOs and other business types with little time to spare for driving between ill-served smaller cities in the American south) specify their departure point, their destination, and a window of time for Dayjet to get them there. Dayjet responds with a price based on the number of full seats in the plane. The airline, said Iacobucci, is software expressed as a service. And he was – this is the key point here – constructing an intellectual property business in such a way meant he didn't have to worry about copying.

Cut to: the current battles over P2P. Danny O'Brien observed recently that with terabyte disk drives becoming luggable and the back catalogue of recorded music being "only" 4Tb, in the medium term the big threat to the music companies isn't P2P but file-swapping between directly connected hard drives, no Internet needed; no detection possible.

Cut to: the amazing career of Alan Ayckbourn and the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. This is literary, but bear with me (we'll get to the copying bit further on):

Ayckbourn is often thought of as Britain's answer to Neil Simon, but the comparison is unfair to Ayckbourn. Simon is of course a highly skilled playwright and jokesmith, but his characters are in nothing like the despair that Ayckbourn's are, and he has none of the stagecraft. Partly, that may be because Ayckbourn has his own theatre to play with. Since 1959, when his first play was produced, Ayckbourn has written 71 plays (and still counting), and just about all of them were guaranteed production in advance at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, where Ayckbourn has been artistic director since 1974.

Many of them play with space and time. In How the Other Half Loves two dinners share stage space and two characters though they occur on different nights in different living rooms. In Communicating Doors characters shift through the same hotel room over four decades. In Taking Steps three stories of a house are squashed flat into a single stage set. He also has several sets of complementary plays, such as The Norman Conquests, a trilogy which sets each of the plays – the story of a weekend house party – in a different room.

It was in 1985, during a period of obsession with the plays Intimate Exchanges that I decided that at some point I really had to see Alan Ayckbourn's work in its native habitat. Partly, this was due to the marvellous skill with which Lavinia Bertram and Robin Herford shifted among four roles each. Intimate Exchanges is scored for just two actors, and the plays' conceit is that they chronicle, via a series of two-person scenes, 16 variant consequences of a series of escalating choices. Bertram and Herford were the original cast, imported into London from Scarborough. So my thought was: if this is the kind of acting they have up there, one must go. (As bizarre as it seems to go from London to anywhere to go to the theatre.)

This year, reading that Ayckbourn is about to retire as artistic director, it seemed like now or never. It's worth the trip: although many of Ayckbourn's plays work perfectly well on a traditional proscenium stage and he's had a lot of success in London's West End and on Broadway (and in fact around the world; he's the most performed playwright who isn't Shakespeare), the theatre-in-the-round adds intimacy. That's particularly true in this summer's trio of ghost plays: Haunting Julia (1994, a story of the aftermath of a suicide)), Snake in the Grass (2002, a story of inheritance and blackmail), and Life and Beth (2008, a story of survival and widowhood). In all these stories, the closer you can get to the characters the better, and the compared to the proscenium stage SJT's round theatre is the equivalent of the cinematic close-up.

That intimacy may be a partial explanation of why so little of Ayckbourn's work has been adapted to movies – and when it has, why the results have been so disappointing. Generally, they're either shallow caricatures (such as A Chorus of Disapproval) or wistful and humorless rather than robust and funny (like Alain Resnais' attempts, including Intimate Exchanges). There have been some good TV productions (The Norman Conquests, Season's Greetings (set in a hall surrounded by bits of a living room and dining room)), but these are mysteriously not available commercially.

That being the case, it's hard to understand the severity of the official Ayckbourn Web site's warning about bootleg copies. Given that they know the demand is there, and given the amount those 71 plays are making in royalties and licensing fees, why not buy up the rights to those productions and release them, or begin a project of recording current SJT productions and revivals with a view to commercial release? The SJT shop sells scripts. Why not DVDs?

Asking that risks missing the essential nature of theatre, which, along with storytelling, is probably one of the earliest forms of intellectual property expressed as a service. A film is infinitely copiable; every live performance is different, if only subtly, because audience feedback varies. I still with they'd do it, though.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).