Private Fears In Public Places: Behind The Scenes

Behind The Scenes offers a glimpse at some rarely known facts regarding the writing of Alan Ayckbourn's plays with material drawn from the Ayckbourn Archive at the University Of York and the playwright's personal archive.
  • Private Fears In Public Places was originally the intended name for Alan Ayckbourn's 46th play, which was to be premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in 1994. However, despite being advertised, Alan did not write the play and instead replaced it with his time-travel thriller Communicating Doors. The plot for the original Private Fears In Public Places is not the same as for the play he actually wrote (see the article below for more details).
  • The success of Private Fears In Public Places at the Brits Off Broadway Festival at the 59E59 Theaters, New York, in 2005 led to many rumours it would return to Broadway but with an American cast directed by Alan Ayckbourn. The proposed production was actually cast but fell apart when it became obvious the production was heading down a similar path to the one which led to Alan’s disillusion with London’s West End. Initially it was agreed with the producers that Private Fears In Public Places would open in an intimate off-Broadway venue, which Alan felt was - like the 59E59 Theaters - ideal for the play. However, the producers changed their minds and wanted to move it to a larger Broadway venue, mainly due to financial reasons. Alan refused to accept this and felt the change of venue would do the play no favours and, in all likelihood, tarnish the achievements of a play and company which had generated one of the most enthusiastic set of reviews of his career from one of the most difficult and demanding selection of critics in the world. As a result, the plans were cancelled and the play did not transfer to Broadway.
  • Private Fears In Public Places is one off only three full-length plays by Alan Ayckbourn which are intended to be performed without an interval. The other plays are Haunting Julia and My Wonderful Day.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.

Private Fears In Public Places: An Alternative History

by Simon Murgatroyd

In 1993, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round announced the title of Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play as
Private Fears In Public Places. It was featured in the winter 1993 brochure and offered a hint of the play’s themes; Alan having stopped writing to the last possible deadline several years previously giving the Press & Marketing department at least some idea of what his new plays would be about.
The play was set in an airport and there had long been rumours it might have featured an escalator; Alan has frequently spoken about his desire to have a play with an escalator and had mentioned it in connection with an airport set play. Alan described the proposed play as “pretty bleak” and the brochure describes it as:

“At the airport, Jessica waves a fond farewell to he husband. Then a chance encounter changes her life. How well does she know, how far she can trust herself?”

Ironically, given the fate of the play, the memo Alan sent to the theatre’s press officer with this brochure copy also had scrawled on it: “By the time I get round to writing it, it’ll probably be about eight obstetricians trapped in a lift.”
When it comes to writing a play, Alan traditionally blocks off two weeks (slightly longer now) during which he shuts himself away to all intents and purposes and concentrates solely on writing the play with no distractions. For
Private Fears In Public Places, Alan went on holiday to write. The next thing the theatre heard was Alan calling to say there would not be a play called Private Fears In Public Places and that he was intent on writing an entirely different play.

"Basically, I had two ideas bouncing around my head. So the final piece could have emerged from either one of them. And the play I absolutely thought I would write is a rather gruelling piece set in an airport departure lounge - so that is the one which went in to the brochure. When I actually started to write the advertised play, Private Fears In Public Places, it all rather alarmingly began coming to pieces in my hands. It wasn't ready to be written. Certain parts were intact, but it was like crafting a piece of furniture without legs.”

Alan says he had two ideas in his head, neither of which resolved into a play. One of them, given the play was announced, we know. Alan has never revealed what the idea for the other play was, but in all likelihood it was what would eventually become
A Word From Our Sponsor. In the programme note for Communicating Doors, Alan mentions his new play was supposed to be Private Fears In Public Places, might have been A Word From Our Sponsor and is now Communicating Doors. Given we know Alan had two ideas it does not seem far-fetched to suggest the second idea was A Word From Our Sponsor, a play-title Alan had never mentioned publicly before. Further support for this can be found in light of an interview Alan gave in 1995 for the world premiere of A Word From Our Sponsor.

“I had the idea for Sponsor about two years ago and I played around with it for a long time. I couldn't quite make it live because it has these exotic elements.”

Whatever the second idea actually was, Alan realised he had a writing deadline and no play. On the verge of announcing a revival of one of his earlier plays, Alan had another idea which seemed to have potential. This would be the time-travelling play
Communicating Doors, which would prove to be a great success for Alan at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, in the West End and on the international stage.
As for
Private Fears In Public Places, Alan put the title away in a drawer and waited for a suitable play to come along for it, which eventually happened in 2004.
As for Jessica, presumably she’s still waiting at the airport and we will never discover what happened to her.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.