Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview conducted on 3 February 2012 was the result of questions submitted to Alan Ayckbourn by Sophie Clark and which are now held in The Ayckbourn Archive.

The North / South Divide

Sophie Clark: Is there such a thing as  a 'northern' or 'southern' sensibility in the arts? If so what makes northern and southern theatre different from each other?
Alan Ayckbourn: I used to think there was but these days I'm not sure. Possibly northerners may treasure their arts a bit more but they're spread a bit thinner on the ground. And the perception promoted by the media that all the best stuff happens in the south east - well, maybe a bit escapes to Manchester or even to Leeds but really, as far as they're concerned, art dies out until you get off the train in Scotland. So the north is grateful for what it can get and proud of it.   
You began your career in the south of England. Once you had begun working in Scarborough, what made you decide to stay there?
 I was born in the south. I arrived in Scarborough quite by accident when I was 17 for a 10 week job, and fell in love with first the Theatre, then the people and finally the town. But it was always theatre led, my reason for staying. I loved the theatre that Stephen Joseph was developing here quite independently and largely unappreciated by the establishment which loathed him almost as much as he loathed it. A rebel staging new work in an unusual format i.e in the Round. Good basic Theatre. How exciting that was! Where the money, such as it was, the time and the passion was poured directly in to performances. No frills. No unnecessary designers or, for that matter, directors that much.
Do you think living in the north of England has influenced your work in a particular way?
 Probably. When things went well critically, I was generally too busy with my next project to get too distracted by success. If things went badly, I was scarcely aware of that, either. And my career has had its ups and downs, of course. In and out of fashion like the double breasted suit, me. But, personally, Yorkshire is best summed up by a question a dour Scarborian put to me on an occasion when possibly I was guilty of blowing my own trumpet a little. "If you're that good", he asked, "what the hell are you doing here?" That sort of thing's bound to bring you down to earth. Quite funny, too.

Is there a rivalry between northern and southern theatres and artistic companies?
 Not that I'm aware of. We're just a bit prouder up here. Despite the public passion for award ceremonies (we seem to do nothing else but give each other prizes) we're not that competitive really. An endangered species can't afford to be. We've got enough political natural predators not to start eating each other.  

Are audiences for your work different in the north or south and do you find your work is received differently or more warmly in the north?
The audiences are very similar. The north has had a good deal of my stuff over the years but productions, certainly those emanating from the Stephen Joseph Theatre, are far less frequently seen in the south, except when we happen to go touring. I like to think that it's a bit of a treat for those poor deprived southerners when we visit them. Let's just say they've never asked us (to date) what the hell we were doing in, say, Guildford or Bath.  
Your website had the following quote and I wondered if you could expand on it further: 'It is always worth remembering that when Alan stages a play in London or anyone performs one in the proscenium arch, it is a step away from the author's original intention. It has frequently been stated that the definitive production of any of Alan's plays is the premiere production in the round in Scarborough.'
 I write for the Round, I always have done (with one or two exceptions). Of the 70 plays so far, 67 have been originally performed in the Round. For the most part, they largely sit more happily in smaller scale intimate theatres regardless of shape. Once the productions are blown up it's a bit like watching a string quartet performing in the middle of a football field. Mind you, I have written with bigger spaces in mind (several for the Olivier at the National Theatre, of course) but those were the exceptions. I guess, aside from the size and scale, it's also the very nature of the plays - they are all of them written for companies to perform; balanced companies where all performers share equal responsibility over not one but several plays. Scarborough is one of the few, certainly amongst the building-based companies these days, that still attempts to stick to the principle of a company based repertoire.

Do you think you are at a disadvantage in terms of the media by premiering your work in the north?
 Not really. Well, let's say, far outweighed by the advantages, anyway. For all the lack of attention and news coverage - editors seem increasingly reluctant to allow their reviewers to stray farther than the main line stations - we've rarely seen anyone here in Scarborough from the Observer, incidentally, over the past 10 years! But here there's a lack of pressure, of what I call producer-angst, a refreshing impression of artistic freedom (though we need nonetheless to count our pennies extremely carefully) - where any input or comment from the so-called "front office" normally occurs way after the event (well, that last one didn't work very well, did it?). By which time we've already all learnt our lessons and are on to the next. 
Is it harder to transfer works from the north (to London and the south) than vice versa?
 Don't know, I've only ever gone north-southwards. Harder, I'd imagine, the other way round. In the south, they've generally paid so much for their theatre seat, they're hell bent on enjoying themselves. In the north, they wouldn't put up with such prices, they begrudge every mis-spent penny they could have otherwise spent in the bar. "Twelve quid for a theatre show, with not even a bloody band? You must be joking, mate"

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