Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview from 2012 is held in The Ayckbourn Archive but no other details are held.

Writing & Career

Do you get opening night nerves when staging a new play?
Alan Ayckbourn:
I certainly do! Probably not as badly as I did for my very first one but nonetheless a first performance is always a little nerve wracking, even after well over seventy of them. I suppose if I didn't experience any anxiety, then I know I wouldn't personally be breaking new ground but probably trotting out an identical formula I'd tried and tested before.

What was creatively behind the decision for George Riley not to appear on stage in Life of Riley?
I wanted the audience to make up their own minds about George, his attitude and charisma, even his looks. They get lots of clues about him from other characters, some of them contradictory, but then we all perceive people slightly differently. In the end, it's for us to choose what to believe.

How do you see the recession and budget cuts affecting the arts in this country and do you think it is harder to get a start as a playwright as a result?
Since I began back in the 1950s, the prospects for a new playwright are very different and far more difficult. Those early Scarborough theatre days were also early days for the Arts Council who had a more benign and positive attitude towards the presentation of new plays. In fact, it actually was cheaper for the fringe company as we were then, run by Stephen Joseph, to present new work than to present revivals by established authors! It's all much harder now.

Have you ever had writers block and if so how did you get through it?
I've been very fortunate in that I've rarely experienced it except for extremely brief periods like the time I had the stroke a year or two back. Paradoxically, the only thing you can do to get over it is to write through it. Writing anything. Poetry, prose, programme notes, just don't lose the habit of writing. And don't expect every time you sit down to write to produce a grand magnum opus. Nobody does that, not even Shakespeare!

Do you ever worry that you will run out of ideas?
Yes. Every time I finish a new play, I'm generally running on empty for a short while, but then germs of ideas start to present themselves and then the whole process begins again.

Do you read / take notice of reviews?
I occasionally read them but then only long after the event when the dust has settled, when I'm able to judge the play for myself and see how right or wrong they were about it.

What were the pros and cons of running the Stephen Joseph Theatre for over 40 years?
Mostly pros. I had a ready made platform, always available, from which to launch the new work (mine and other writers) plus a totally free choice of artistic programme and people I worked with, especially the actors. Fortunately, I'm a leader who's not afraid to delegate so the thing fell well short of sheer dictatorship. But I couldn't, in general, have had more artistic freedom. The only constraints were financial ones. Nonetheless, it was a huge responsibility in that everyone knew where the buck stopped. It was only in the later years that doubts about my own judgements began to creep in. But then it's human nature to grow more uncertain the older you get, probably as the knowledge increases as to where and how things can go wrong!

Why do you think your plays have such broad appeal around the world?
I'm very English so it's a bit of a mystery but I can only conclude that, under the trimmings and the surface trappings, the plays are essentially about human relationships, men and women, families and friendships. The sort of things recognisable in most cultures and languages.

In light of film and television, can the theatre regain the importance in society as a disseminator of ideas?
Well, I would like to think it would, yes. That's why I'm in it. I think it's starting in regional areas like this where the new technology is e-mail, and it's slowly separating us as a society. We're talking to each other by keyboard! Human beings were never meant to do this. They were meant, in the end, whether they like it or not, to meet up and talk face to face, and to share space together, not just as a family but as a community. With the decline of the church and such, where communities met, the theatre is becoming more and more the new meeting place.

People come to the theatre for nothing but spiritual reasons. They don't come to make money. They don't come to exercise their bodies very much. They come to exercise their spirits, and their minds, and their brains. And in that sense it's completely unique. Although you may be so involved in the play you are totally convinced that what's happening is happening, you're still totally aware that there are other people perceiving it. You never really forget that. That is the whole point of it, really.

For me - for many people coming to this theatre - the joy of it is in the shared experience, the common affirmation of a humanity. Many people like me find the same thing funny-are moved by the same thing-are involved by the same thing. That's why I love plays that are human based, rather than purely mechanical or abstract plays-someone they can recognise and relate with, even though they may be going through experiences that they don't particularly have.

It could be that one's totally wrong, the theatre dies out, and we all finish up in fifty years' time with computer terminals producing completely idealised images of one other. But I can't see that happening. Where the vacuum is occurring, that is also where the social friction is occurring. In our inner-city areas, one has got to begin to recreate things other than pubs, where people just go to drink. We're going to bring six hundred people in every night, if we're lucky, into the town centre, who will come in with a positive purpose. They're not here to cause anyone any harm, or to break windows-they're here to enjoy and to share in something together. This has got to be a positive thing.

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