Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This page contains edited extracts from an interview about Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays from 1999 held in The Ayckbourn Archive; no details are held about the intended publication.

Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays

How do you approach writing plays for children?
Alan Ayckbourn: I think I write from the adult's perspective. I don’t try to become a child. I try and imagine what I as a child would have enjoyed and what my children would have enjoyed. I think initially I did write consciously for children but I hardly do that now, providing I feel the theme is right for them. I obviously make certain adjustments. I don't write things that I think would not interest them, like sexual politics - particularly for the young ones, you know, that's just baffling. On the whole, I've discovered that children have the same needs from theatre as adults. You just have to be careful how you deal with them. They like to be frightened, they like to be excited, they don't just want to laugh, any more than adults just want to laugh. I think these days I write entirely from my own perspective but just bring out the child in me - it's difficult to explain. The worst thing I could do, which I'm very afraid of, would be to patronise children.... lower myself to them. I think that it is better to write above them than below them, so that they have to reach a little. I think they will do that.

Where did the idea for Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays come from?
I never know where my ideas come from. I could say
Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays, the first of the recent children's plays I've written, came about because I wanted children to be aware of theatre, about how live it is, about what made it for me more exciting than television or the movies. So I wrote a play in which the audience's input was very obviously needed. They had to choose which way the girl and her dog went. I said, "Look, kids, you can change this play just by your vote. And remember the route you have chosen because the girl and her dog have to return the way they came. You are going to have to tell us which way that was. Which they always did - extraordinary. Adults could never do it but the kids could do it in one. Their participation made for a very live experience.
So the inspiration really is no different from adult inspiration and I have no idea where that comes from. I get an idea. With
The Boy Who Fell into a Book, I just thought it would be interesting to go on a journey through various books on a shelf. I thought up the idea of a boy who falls into the detective story he's reading. He meets up with this fictional private eye, Rockfist Slim, in whose company he tries to get out of the book by working his way back along the bookshelf through his other stories. In a way, it was a classic children's tale as it incorporated a quest or a journey. So it was a journey play, but an unusual journey play because of the travel through weird books. It was nice as it happened to coincide with National Year of Reading.

Is there a difference between the writing for your 'family' plays and your 'adult' plays?
I like to take children on an emotional as well as a narrative journey, and I like to feel their involvement is on many levels. The only thing that is really different between children and adults is their attention span. They can get bored very quickly. Adults are polite creatures normally and if something is a little boring, they'll sit and watch it and think, "Well, it'll get more interesting in a minute." But children just go, "BORING!" and turn around and talk to their friends. So you have to be very careful and use all the devices at your disposal as a dramatist to retain their attention. There's the story - what's going to happen next? - then there are the emotional changes which engage their... hearts if you like, as well as their intellects. I would never want to make them very frightened to the extent that they couldn't sleep at night or got very upset. But you know, all the great classics like Bambi, the Walt Disney film, when Bambi's mother died it was the most terrible thing for children. I the world of Roald Dahl and the dark and the sinister. If they draw pictures of what they've seen in a play, the drawings are often more frightening than the play. You think, "Wow!, what's come out of this kid?" It's really frightening and quite illuminating. So, emotionally, quite a big journey, I hope.

Do you have any particular experience of working with children?
Only from a parent's angle, just bringing up two boys. No, I haven't, I must admit. I tend to treat children like adults. I don't know how to treat children as children. I had my sons when I was young, well, I mean, my eldest boy was born when I was twenty. By the time I was thirty, he was ten years old and quite grown up. We never got to be father and son, we always got to be Alan and Steven. I suppose I've always had brothers rather than children, just much younger brothers. We still relate like that. I don't know who is the oldest now, between the three of us. Steven is forty this year and I'm sixty. The gap sort of narrows, doesn't it? We plan to have a joint 100th birthday party.

Were you a keen reader as a child?
I suppose when I was little, yes. Everything from Winnie the Pooh to Just William, and other books from that period. Biggles, all the adventure books that boys read, and the classics, some of them, Kidnapped, the Robert Louis Stevenson books, The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland. Fantastic books I used to love very much. I can't say I'm obviously influenced although there is a chess game in The Boy Who Fell into a Book, and undoubtedly you could say, well, what's the great classic children's book with a chess game in it? It's got to be Alice Through the Looking Glass.

Do your plays incorporate pantomime elements?
I get a bit bored with pantomime. Pantomime is OK. The worst pantomimes are the commercial ones where they seem aimed at adults and children are secondary. All the jokes are for adults. What I write I don't actually call 'children's' plays, I call them 'family' plays. I like to write a play that Gran, Dad and Mum, anyone, and the kids can all enjoy on different levels. The most important level, of course, being the children's level. We must never make them feel there's a story going on that they don't understand. Or jokes going on. People find certain things funnier when they are bit older and that's OK. But often the family will laugh because each other is laughing. It's terrific, you know, if mother laughs, then often the kids will laugh because she is laughing and dad will laugh because they are laughing and it's a sort of infectious laughter. As long as they are not excluded from each other. Pantomimes sometimes go off into areas that are just tedious for children. They simply don't know what's going on.
There's often a shared joke between the comic and the adults which is not meant for children and I think that's very bad. And there are pieces of choreography put in, sort of glamour ballets or whatever they're called. The kids don't enjoy that, they want to get on with the story. I took my sons to see
Dick Whittington once in Leeds and the first thing that happened was Dick Whittington came on. There was this attractive almost 6ft girl and my son said, 'It's a girl,' and I said, 'Yes, well, that's pantomime, don't worry about it.' And there was a lot of muttering and my other one, my younger one went (scowls). Anyway, they sort of accepted Dick Whittington was going to be played by a girl but then the cat came on. They said, 'A cat!', that's terrific but then the cat took its head off to sing with Dick and the cat was also a girl. My sons said, 'It's another girl.' At which point they both got up and walked out. OK, they were happy to believe it was a cat but not if it took its head off to sing. I mean, you know, that's gross. So, no, I don't like pantomime very much. The really old fashioned ones, yes, when they were mainly stories with a few songs but once they became an excuse for a lot of novelty acts with the Giant, say, in Jack and the Beanstalk suddenly starting to play the xylophone, I really don't see the point.

Your young protagonists often seem to be lonely?
I was an only child till I was seven or eight when a step-brother arrived. But I still remained an only child really. Lucy in Invisible Friends has a family but she is very lonely and she feels alienated. I had an invisible friend when I was young, quite a lot of people I know did at some point, and they were real and very annoying for parents. They had to lay an extra place at table and had to acknowledge that Tim - that was my friend - that Tim was sitting there. It's not a rare phenomenon. But it's also interesting that that particular play, Invisible Friends, as somebody pointed out, is a child's version of a play of mine called Woman in Mind, which is a much grimmer piece but nevertheless not a million miles away in theme. In both cases, they show the dangers of living your fantasy life at the expense of your real life and how you can get into some sort of trouble by confusing the two. In Lucy's time, it became a moral fable about trying to love the people you live with, rather than the people you invent. Like how the most awful brother can be all right in the end. Suzy and Neville in Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays, I guess she was lonely. Neville was like another character really, although he was a dog. I don't think all children are lonely. I just tend to write about them.

Why do you think children's enjoy being scared?
I don't know, they don't half go in for that sort of stuff. Naturally kids are quite dark, aren't they? Small children very early start to say things that make you think' ugh…' And they're always pretending to drop dead or be shot or harpooned or something. It's part of their lives playing games. I think it's all right. Some of my plays are pretty frightening. The witch in This is Where We Came In is really frightening because she never touches anybody. She exerts her power from a distance. There's one bit where she appears to grab hold of the girl's hair, she doesn't touch her, she just goes 'whooo…' and the girl goes 'Ahh...' and gets pulled up by her hair. Scary!

Do you enjoy traditional children's stories?
I tend to visit the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen quite a bit because I do like their stories. I mean, they are weird - psychoanalysts would have a ball with them, I'm sure they have. Some of the stories really are strange. Bluebeard, for instance, what's that doing in a children's book? His wives' heads all over the floor, I mean that's a nightmare from page five, isn't it? And yet there it is in a children's book. We're much more protective of our children now than they were then.

Do you think we over-protect children today?
The end of Snow White, the original story, I don't know if you'vee read it, well, in the Disney production, the witch was just pushed over a cliff or something which is all jolly stuff but in the original, they caught the witch and heated up in the fire some iron shoes which they made her wear and she danced herself to death. Now that is a terrible image - someone in white hot shoes. It makes you shudder and that's in a children's story. I wouldn't put something like that in a play. You couldn't put that on stage, could you? The kids would be going home screaming. Presumably then it was read to them in a dark cottage and they thought, 'Oh, my God, I'd better behave myself or they'll heat the shoes up!' I actually think it's very wrong to over-protect our children. They certainly didn't in those days.

Do you feel your 'family' plays have to have certain ingredients?
A hero or a heroine. I think it's very important to have someone who is noble, who has the right ideas. They don't have to be too goody-goody but I like the kids to have someone to root for. I think I try to leave doors open. I would never say in a children's play, nor indeed in an adult play, I'd never say, 'You can't do this or you can't cure cancer ever', because I think there may be in the audience the kid who might just find the cure and you might stop them. So I always try to leave the remember crying but I didn't want to be taken out, I wanted to cry. Sometimes people are over-protective of children. Some of my stuff is quite scary, The Champion of Paribanou is a frightening piece about evil and death and things. But we know children like that, they are into possibilities there. With adults, you can shut them in a cupboard and they'll find their own way out but with kids, it is always important to finish on a 'you can do it' note.

Do you like magic?
On stage, you mean? Oh, yes! We had a magic vase in Invisible Friends that appeared to move across the table on its own. It was incredible and very well done. Our master carpenter built this wonderful device. No one could see how it worked. Everybody after the show, because it was in the round, would crawl around trying to find out how it was done. To no avail. In the show, the vase would be sitting there on the table and suddenly it would move apparently of its own volition. Or rather when a character was told to concentrate on it and will it to move. At the end, the audience were asked to make the vase to move. You could see the kids who were sort of going 'nah, this is stupid' but concentrated despite themselves, sort of giving it the benefit of the doubt. When suddenly the thing moved, you could see them going 'Oh, my God! Maybe I did make it move.'

Is it more difficult to write for children?
It's very hard to write for children because, as I've said, you have to be more aware. I'm always more nervous when a children's play opens because they won't pretend to lie to you, you know what I mean? Adults don't ultimately lie if they really hated it but they will sort of go along with it. But children will judge you immediately and why shouldn't they? It's good but it's frightening because you'll know when you've lost them because they will no longer be listening. They'll no longer even be in the theatre. They'll be running up and down the stairs. They come in and they sit there, and they look excited and they're making a terrific noise, and you think, God, are they ever going to shut up? The the lights go down and they go 'Oh!'. And you think, well, now they are there and we start the story and we have to keep them involved for an hour and a half, two hours. And that's a long time. Sometimes you get a little five year old sitting there and you think are they going to sit there for two hours? It's a great achievement if they do, with just one interval. It's wonderful. Their teachers say, "I've never seen them so quiet.' One of things, of course, is if the story goes very quiet, they'll go very quiet. A lot of children's shows are very loud, BANG! And so they make a noise. In Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays, I had a character, Mr Accousticus, who was sensitive to noise, he spoke very, very softly and you could only just hear him. The actor was a big man, about 6'6" or so, and the little girl, Suzy, was with her dog in his garden. And he whispered 'Suzy, don't make a noise in my garden.' She was just terrified, the dog went 'whimper, whimper'. It was electric. It's at that point, if they're involved, they're as quiet as mice - unless one of them starts to cry, of course. You have much less room to manoeuvre. It's very good for sharpening up your playwriting.

Do you think children's theatre is well represented in this country?
Well, there's a very poor attitude in this country to children's drama. Compared with some countries, what is provided for young people is pathetic. At Christmas, yes, we all produce children's plays but what about the rest of the year? There are two theatre companies in London. I'm president of one, patron of the other. One is the Unicorn, the other, Polka, and they are both dedicated children's theatre companies. Doing work all year round for kids. But they are both working on a shoestring. The problem is that there is very little money in children's theatre. It has been said that that doesn't matter for someone like me because I earn quite a bit from my adult plays but for a writer wanting to write specifically for children, it can be very frustrating. The ticket prices are zero and the percentage of zero is zero. It's not easy to make a decent or even reasonable living out of it. So it discourages a lot of writers. The other thing is that critics on the whole tend to ignore children's writing which is appalling. Or they send their nephew aged eight to write a review and, OK, terrific, you get a review from a critic's nephew but really you do want the work to be taken seriously and written about seriously. Generally it's ignored and it shouldn't be. I feel quite passionately about that. I would like to see more done for it. Even my plays are not as successful to the extent thta they're not done that much, but then there's nowhere for them to be done. I mean, they're done abroad. There aren't a lot of us seriously writing for children either. When the National Theatre asked me to do Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays there, they gave me half the budget for it. I said,' Why am I only getting half the money?', and they said, 'Well, it's a children's show.' And I said, 'Well, you need twice the money. Come on, we want as least as much money because we are going to do everything that we would do for adults. Only they just happen to be children.' But it's the same production values, the same quality acting, the best we can do, we can't spend half the money on it. So they said, 'Yes, we see your point.' And we got the full budget. But there was a moment when children, just because they were shorter, they got half the money.

What is important to consider when writing for children?
A good story to hold them in their seats and keep them there. Good characters, strong characters they can identify with. They needn't be simple, they can be quite complex and you can be quite sophisticated but it's better not to get too clever. Keep it clear. Challenge their imaginations; ask them to think because that also keeps them hooked. Very like adults. They accept love quite easily but they don't like long love scenes. If two people settle down to what looks like a long snog or something, they groan. Well, the boys do. The girls go (he smiles and gives a gooey look). I remember my stepbrother and I watching westerns and there'd always be that music that would go soft and he - the Cowboy - would go out onto the balcony and there was the heroine and my stepbrother would go,' Oh, no! He's going to kiss her, ugh!' He couldn't wait until the shooting started again. So keep loves scenes out of it, although they're quite happy for people to be in love so long as you get on with it. I always say that writing children's plays is the same as writing adults' only you've got to do it better. It's not a job for very young dramatists. That is where I made a mistake because I was very young when I wrote my first two and they were not very good. Later when you've assembled all your playwriting skills, although you may be getting desperately a long, long way from childhood, you've a wealth of dramatic story telling techniques to use. There's something in The Champion of Paribanou which I was rather pleased with. I could only have done it in a kids' show. When the innkeeper says Murganah has to leave, she picks him up and appears to throw him through the air. He crashes to the ground. At which point, I wanted to move the action forward six months in tune and I was thinking, 'How do I do it?' The usual way is for someone to come on and say, 'Good heavens, is it April already?' or 'Well, that was a long six months', and other similar terrible lines. Then I had the idea that as the innkeeper hit the ground, he could say, 'Cor, I don't think I'll get up for six months' and (click of his fingers) it cut on six months. So simple, yet I was so pleased because it managed the time jump, it was quite funny, it got a laugh, and we got the story moving in one line. That's the other thing, you can be quite bold with children. It's strange and completely as a side issue, but writing children's shows has affected my adult work a lot. For example, Wildest Dreams, a play I wrote, quite a frightening play, is in one sense entirely a children's play. I'd never have dreamt of writing it for adults unless I'd been through the children's writing process and thought, 'Yes! Adults need fairy stories too', horror stories in this case, but it arose from my children's work. It's a two way process.

Do they need a strong plot?
A strong plot first. There's what I call the 'and then...' factor. 'Once upon a time there was a prince and a princess, and then... And then she went out and got eaten by a dragon, and then...' and so on and so forth. You've really got to keep it rolling. Yes, audio and visual input, these are enhancements. I use a lot of music in my plays, usually live music for children. Because of synthesisers and so on, all that electronic stuff, you can have live huge orchestras and so on playing under the dialogue. You can fill it with exotic sounds. And, yes, light is a terrific story telling tool. We do most of my plays in the round, an ideal story telling space for children as they're gathered around a central focus. There's nothing there apart from what we create within that space. There are no huge scenic effects and any way why do that? They see the equivalent of millions of dollars worth of scenic effects in one episode of Star Wars. We can't compete with that. We have to compete in a totally different way and the way to do it is to use theatrical magic. Often quite simple but often quite mystifying because it happens in front of your eyes and there is no chance of cinematography tricks. The Invisible Friends vase business sort of thing. The Boy Who Fell into a Book began with a bare stage. We then used what we call flippers. You just flip things over in the floor so suddenly there is a bed and suddenly there is a boy in the bed, then he falls out of the bed, the bed flips over and vanishes. Another scene, the detective comes on and together they have to climb on to a roof through a chimney. The boy climbs on to the detective's shoulders, a little square of scenery depicting a chimney comes down, the boy holds on to it and as he does so, the floor they are standing on goes down so it looks as if they are climbing up and out of the hole. It's a very simple but effective scenic trick which aids the story. Will they escape? Yes, they will if they climb up here. I guess that's theatre magic. So, narrative, yes! And anything else? Yes, use anything you can.

Anything else writers should consider?
Yes, that it's live. You always have to remember it's live and remind the audience that it's live. And it's nice, if they laugh because the actors wait while they laugh before continuing. They don't in the movies so you think I can't laugh, I might miss the next bit.

What are your favourite 'family' plays?
Oh, I don't know!... the last one.... The next one, I usually say. But I haven't even got that one in mind. I've written a second version of Callisto 5, called Callisto#7, which I'm doing next Christmas which I'm excited about at the moment. The first version was about a young boy all on his own on a space station and it was dramatically not too exciting. I have added a sister so you get some interaction between them. She's growing up fast and her brother keeps asking her awkward questions to which she doesn't have the answers because the computer won't release the information that she wants. Like biological information, all sorts of things. It just says, 'You're not old enough.' So that's the latest. I like This Is Where We Came In very much. It's all about story telling. It works quite well, and is quite scary especially when Aunt Repetitus kicks in with her stories. It seemed to go particularly well with the children.

Do you have a preference between your 'family' and 'adult' plays?
I have to say that it is two different experiences. The one thing with a children's show is that when it works, you know damn well it's worked. The reaction, the response, the cheers, the excitement that comes off the audience, so uninhibited in a way, is wonderful. You really get a buzz. Even the actors playing at ten o'clock in the morning groaning, 'Oh, God! We've got to do this?' come off at the end on a high. There's a wave of sound and excitement and concentration and involvement. If you then go back into an adult show, there's this rather sort of stuffy shuffling of feet and occasional polite laughs until they warm up. It's much harder work. I love playing to adults but it's a totally different feeling and occasionally I'll sit and think, I wish we'd got some kids in tonight, it would really lift this. Mainly it's just to do with growing up and losing our spontaneity a bit. 'We don't want to make a scene in here, do we?' We'll just sit very quietly and politely.

Do your plays have a message?
Yes... though it's quite a vague one. My plays are moral in the sense that generally speaking people get what they deserve and behaviour is in some way rewarded or punished though it's not as simple as that. The Champion of Paribanou is the classic where the girl can choose the right way or the wrong way and she chooses the wrong way so she and the boy begin to separate and drift away from one another. In the play, she apparently makes a pact with the devil or death. In reality, it's to do with the choices we make. Most of my characters have free choice or apparently have free choice. Indeed, in most classic plays this is the case. In all the great tragedies, there are the heroes who have to choose to do this or to do that. And some weakness in them, some greed, some thing causes them to make the wrong choice and they're set on a path of self-destruction. But there's nearly always a sense in the play that they had that moment of choice. Things that happen to people not of their own volition are less interesting for me. I need them to have that moment so I suppose in that sense they are moral. Yes, there are horrendous situations where you have no choice but for most of us, most of the time in our lives, we know what is right but then we choose not to do it. Those are the instances that interest me. My agent, Peggy Ramsay, sadly now dead, was one of the most honest and extraordinary women I have ever met and she said, 'One always knows the right thing'. You take more money because it's more convenient to take more money, although sometimes you don't need more money. But you take that path and it's the wrong path. You should make the choices that you think are morally right, not conveniently right, and it's quite hard. I try and show that in my plays. I also hope I show that it's quite hard to do because it's not always cut and dried. It's often easier, much, much easier to take the other way. There is, I hope, a sense of responsibility to each other and that in betraying people, in the end you betray yourself.

Do you feel a need to tell stories?
Most of it comes out in my plays. Yes, I do tell stories. I like narrative, I prefer to use the written word. I'm not that good at standing up and telling a tale, that sort of verbal tradition. I tend to be better when I've got a piece of paper and I can map it out. I work exclusively in theatre and exclusively with plays. So it's quite a small, narrow margined field. Most of my plays are narrative driven, some less so. I went through a quiet narrative phase at one point but story telling is, I think, very important. It's just as important for adults as it is for children. A story can possibly wander a little more for adults but not that much.

Where do your ideas come from?
I don't know. I know what I'm going to write next but beyond that I don't know. It's hard to say. I think you plunder your own life to write. Most people expect you to write from the outside but I think most writers write from the inside. They use external things to assist, people, images and so on but mainly it's to do with your own experiences. I can't say whether I've got anything left. The big nightmare is, 'Have I written my last play?' It's been like that since I wrote my tenth and I'm now up to fifty-four or something. Maybe I've written my last play but I hope not. I'm about to write one in two weeks!

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