Way Upstream: Staging Notes

When the National Theatre decided to stage Alan Ayckbourn's play Way Upstream in 1982, the playwright sent a document to the stage management / designers of the production to highlight some of the challenges and requirements posed by the play. This was drawn from his experiences with staging the play in Scarborough as well as highlighting what as a director and playwright he expected of the play. The document is reproduced below.

Way Upstream: Some Technical Observations On The Boat And Other Things
In view of the fact that the requirements for the play are especially complex and unique, I felt it might be worth recording exactly what the boat is required to do during the course of the action of the play and what other effects are required by the text.

The Boat
In terms of movement, the
minimum requirement is that it move
> Sideways U/S and D/S
> It swivel on a central pivot so that it can be at any time with stern or bow U/S or D/S at a minimum 45° angle to the audience.

All these movements to be executed as smoothly as possible.

The facility for the movement to have vari-speed possibility. On occasions, movement has to be quite subtle and gentle as of a boat drifting away from the bank. On some of the more vigorous sections the boat is required to move quite violently.

All these movements to be executed as silently as possible - although all sound will be covered to some extent by the recorded engine sound. The boat never moves or drifts when the engines are off.

The control of the boat must be more or less simultaneous - since a lot of the moves made, especially the sharper ones, are 'spot' cues. In my experience, I have found this the most difficult thing to achieve - with either hydraulic or electric motors due to inertia and water drag etc.

Also what often isn't allowed for is the actors themselves. During many of the moves they are not distributed evenly over the boat but two or three may be at one end or even running from one end to the other. This means that whatever the boat does run on must be smooth running and resilient.

The boat needs, of course, practical cabin interior lights.
> In the aft cabin
> In the fore cabin. These should be possible to isolate from:
> The saloon / galley area midships. And vice versa.
> The cockpit exterior lights.

Being a rented boat it requires no navigation lights being unable to travel during the hours of darkness.

All cabins require cue lights.

Soundwise, the boat needs speakers fore and aft for engine simulation and other F/X. It's important though that these are insulated to some extent from the cabins as otherwise when the boat is underway, actors below decks can never hear any cues.

Both the aft cabin and cockpit areas also need to be mic-ed for bridge F/X. We've used radio mics in the past for this which have proved very satisfactory.

Due to the fact it rains during the action of the play, the boat must be very waterproof. Especially the cabin areas where cockpit drainage is also desirable!
Incidentally, with regard to the cabin doors-opening and shutting them every time someone enters or exits is both impractical and, in some ways, impossible. Masking is therefore required to prevent too much being seen inside the cabins. We found that plastic strip curtaining set behind the cabin doors did this quite efficiently.

The boat should also be equipped with a 'bow wave' pump to simulate movement and a stern pump to provide water from the exhaust hole. These should work independently of each other.

The Rain
It rains for about 12 minutes or so during the action. vIt needs to be fairly heavy but
mustn't drip when it stops.

The River
Needs some sort of pump or series of pumps to simulate the flow of the stream.

Finally, I would suggest that in view of the work that has been done on the play and the frustration encountered by so many technicians whilst doing so, it would be well worth contacting the engineers primarily involved.

The initial Scarborough boat movement was designed and executed by Mr Stan Archer of Archer Industrial Systems Ltd., Electrical Engineers, Gladstone Lane, Scarborough, who, because of time, 3½ weeks, used electric motors (but said if he could do it again, he'd use hydraulics). We did use hydraulics when we did the play in Houston at the Alley Theatre which were installed by the firm of George Thomas Howard & Associates, Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, California, who apparently do a lot of the major spectaculars in Las Vegas.

They had a very difficult time with the project and again I would suggest contacting the engineer who worked on it - R.Duncan Mackenzie - who said he would willingly pass on his thoughts.

Also Michael Olich who is Director of Design at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, Houston, Texas. might be worth checking with.

Whatever, I do feel having been through so many frustrations and technical hitches twice in 6 months, that the boat, especially, must be installed and given plenty of time for tests and modifications.

Alan Ayckbourn

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright owner.