“I looked at this play because I wanted something simple,” said Jennifer Childs, founder of 1812 Productions. “Just two people, a play, a fourth wall. This is what we came up with.”
The 1812 Productions’ presentation of Alan Aykbourn’s comedy “Intimate Exchanges” involves 200 pages of script, more than five hours of dialogue, 15 scenes, eight possible endings, seven characters played by two actors — Childs and Tony Lawton.
Most of it will not be seen during any given performance.
The play is about an English headmaster, his wife, their housemaid, and a gardener caught in romantic entanglements. Toward the end of each scene is uncertainty: What should this character do next? Who should that character go out with? Who should enter the stage next?
At these pivotal moments, a spotlight will shine on a random audience member, who will make a decision changing the course of the action. It makes for some quick thinking backstage.
“The trickiest thing is costumes,” said director Mary Carpenter. “There’s one entrance where the question is who enters next, Toby or Lionel? So Tony [Lawton, who plays both characters] will be sitting backstage wondering which pair of pants to put on.”
Both cast and crew have to be prepared to switch gears on the fly to ready the next scene. Due to random decision-making, entire scenes and some characters may never see the floodlights for the entire four-week run.
For the actors, the trickiest part is to avoid telegraphing in anticipation of where the action will go. They can’t flirt too much with one character, or drop a seed of an upcoming relationship. They have to play it straight enough that every twist of the plot, wherever the audience decides it will go, seems plausible in hindsight.
“I have a feeling the audience is going to lean one way,” said Lawton. “If that winds up being the case in performance, I’m going to start cheating to find ways to tilt it the other way.”
British playwright Aykbourn designed the play so that producers could vary the ending at will. The full version has 16 possible endings, giving a standard run the opportunity to offer a different ending every night (1812’s truncated version has eight possible endings).
Aykbourn never expected the audience would make plot decisions on the fly. That idea came from Childs.
“There’s something nice about a play of intimate exchanges, it allows us another intimate exchange with the audience,” said Childs. “It’s not a big, ‘All right. Freeze. Everybody put up your hands if you want to see this version.’ It’s very much one person is selected, an intimate process of asking them what they would want to see next.”
“Intimate Exchanges,” on the Arcadia Stage of the Arden Theater in Old City Philadelphia, is in previews this week, opening Sept. 3.
Disclosure: 1812 Productions is a supporter of WHYY.