Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview by Pauline Young was published in the October 1980 edition of Student magazine.

Alan Ayckbourn At Scarborough

Pauline Young: Do you consider that you have a role as a dramatist in society? I'm thinking particularly of your attitude to yourself as a writer.
Alan Ayckbourn:
I don't really see myself in vast global terms: more important, I think I see myself as an artist purely re-interpreting and, hopefully, commenting through what I see. I think it is true that any artist worth his salt, and certainly most dramatists, will reflect to some extent the age they live in. Otherwise, they must be writing purely from imagination and without any reference to the real world. One would hope that the work I do is reflective of the age of the sphere from which I come. I suppose in a sense I see myself nearer to Jane Austen than perhaps to Shakespeare.

But one still reads Jane Austen because she has something to say about people's idiosyncrasies which remain constant, in a way, although they are presented in the context of her own time. There are still the Mr. Collins' [1] around today, aren't there? In the future you would expect there still to be people like your people around?
I am sure there will be. I have a slightly depressing view of human nature; it doesn't change very much, only the circumstances around it change. I have absolutely no doubt that in a couple of thousand years assuming the human race survives, people will still be being pretty horrible to each other, and that it may be in rather more sophisticated and clever ways and slightly less permanently damaging ones. I have been both encouraged and appalled by the fact that people often say that my plays leap over countries that seem very English and yet they are received better in some parts of Europe and other parts of the world. It seems to me that all mankind has one common link, they all behave in slightly similar manner although their customs might be different. So, yes, I would say probably, providing the context is comprehensible, the human behaviour in my plays is a constant.

Yes. And in that sense they are likely to survive. You obviously thoroughly enjoy being a writer and directing. When I was talking to Tom Stoppard, he said he always felt slightly defensive about being a writer because, in a sense, it almost wasn't work. I am aware of the fact that you do work very hard but you don't have that sense of defensiveness do you?
Well, of course, I don't think anyone I know enjoys writing except the most appallingly indulgent writers. Most working writers, dramatists, novelists that I've met loathe the actual business of sitting down and working. The joy I've got - I don't know where the novelist gets his share - presumably he does! - is in finishing it and sharing it - almost immediately in my case - with another group of people. I find actually the business of writing, sitting down, absolute hell. The business of actual composing is just sheer tedious drudgery: the only pleasure is in when it is finished and I can get on with it with other people. That is really pleasure - seeing it come alive in front of an audience.

In fact, the creativity from your point of view is a continuing process, including writing and performance; the whole thing is a totality... you start with the writing but you want to see the thing on the stage. You are essentially a practical dramatist.
Yes, I see myself much more as a furniture maker than as a playwright. David Halliwell also used to say that when people said to him: "Oh, you are a writer ..." he would reply "I am a playwright" - an obvious distinction. "But I think we have to be the rather practical end of the writing spectrum.

You seem to me to be very committed to an audience and this leads me to ask if you have any clear expectation of what you want an audience to gain from a play?
I want them to get pleasure, to respond, and the most positive response one gets from an audience in terms of being able to see it, is laughter. I love laughter, laughter in the auditorium - I think that would be one thing I want to get from an audience.

You are also very concerned about the kind of people who go to the theatre. You do have a strong commitment to the theatre as a principle, too, apart from what you expect them to get from your own plays. You have, for example, talked about women going to the theatre more frequently than men.
Oh yes, I am a total theatre animal and not at all interested in - it sounds blasé - I am not particularly excited, lets say, by the thought of writing something for television, radio or for a film. Actually, I think I have always had a strange sort of love / hate affair with the theatre: I actually hate it a lot of the time and I love it a lot of the time. I am certainly concerned about it, and I am certainly concerned about spreading the word about it - in a way, like a 'hot-gospeller' to a wider audience because I do think that there is at best a great deal people can get from theatre, just in terms of sheer enjoyment. I think the best plays will incidentally also do other things for you, but I do not think that is what they set out to do. All the best plays I know set out first of all to tell a jolly good story and to entertain you and to enthral you and because all the best plays also deal with human beings, and because a good story-teller will do it incidentally whether he be Dickens or whoever, they will also tell you a lot about human beings and I suppose what theatre is about is telling people a lot about human beings.

Television I suppose could be said to do the same thing. Yet there is something specific about the theatre. Of course, it is very difficult to define that quality - your plays also work on television, don't they?
But not as well. I think primarily because I do everything in my power to emphasise the liveness of the media, in that whether it be a sort of purely physical technical business like
Sisterly Feelings with its alternatives which are quite obviously impossible to do on a mechanical media [2]: or with Season's Greetings, which is slightly less obvious. In fact when a play is working at its best, certainly with a good audience, it goes from extreme laughter to extreme pathos at tremendous speed, and at a rate which is impossible to gauge on television. I think the highs and lows of it would be evened out by the fact that it was not getting a response. There is something about the silence that follows a big laugh from an audience, which is not to do with playing - it is to do with the response to an actor which is impossible to receive from a studio canned audience. It is something else. Television drama to me is a drama of a very even nature simply because it does not have any interruption, but just carries on blithely whether you get up to have a cup of tea or not. If your audience in a theatre got up to have a cup of tea, you would probably stop until they came back or ask them why they were going. I think there is a difference.

Are you aware of changes and developments in the progress of your work as a writer? Do you ever wonder whether you might be writing only practice runs for the big one, a kind of search for the Holy Grail? It seems to me that your plays reflect some degree of change.
Well they are shifting. I was aware of it most when the company first went on tour to the South West. The South West was really about 18 plays behind because they had only just got over How the Other Half Loves! We took down a play - Just Between Ourselves - a horrendously bleak piece about a woman having a nervous breakdown, and the audience were absolutely stunned. The Scarborough audiences, accustomed to the gradual change, were less appalled. Yes, I am shifting, or just carrying on exploring.

It seems to me that there is a sense of more pathos, more misery beneath the humour. Are you getting more cynical perhaps?
Well I am trying to do two things - trying to do the impossible really. I am aware that with plays like Joking Apart for instance, you can almost plot a graph. The plays that are more sombre shall I say, tend to do less well, which worries me - not financially - but just that fewer people come. Because, fewer people, actually, (as any Theatre Manager will tell you) want to see something that makes them feel... or threatens to make them feel... low: most people want to be cheered up, most people want to go up at the end of it and I can quite understand that because I do myself. But there are plays that can do both and that is very, very difficult to get at. What I am trying to do is to get that mixture so right that you can go in and get exhilaration from the plays and, at the same time, touch upon the untouchable thing... the depressions of human nature, the dullnesses of it, and perhaps the temptation is to eliminate all that is nasty and horrid... just keep it so light and so bright that nobody can be offended. I don't want to do that. I want to be able to do both. I want to deal with the depths of human despair and, at the same time, not leave my audience in despair. I would like my audience to go out, and, not sounding like a preacher, not feeling that the human race was hopeless, but that though the human race was indeed in a desperate condition there was still something they could do about it. I think if you go out feeling there is nothing whatever you can do about it - and you do out of a lot of plays - you say, 'Oh, my God, you are absolutely right. We are a terrible race, why don't we go out and shoot ourselves.' - It seems to be the only thing left to do.

Obviously people, rather than ideas are at the very centre of your interests - and I am conscious of the fact that all of your plays indicate that you like people basically. You do not exploit them or expose their foibles with any malice but with a considerable degree of compassion. It does appear however that, thematically, you do tend to see people mostly as victims. You talk about what we can do to improve out lot, yet most of the characters seem to be victims of either their own egos or other people's egos or the conditions of their upbringing or environment..
Well there are victims and victims. I am aware of the inequities of the human race. Socialism apart, there is a monstrous inequity somewhere up there. Indeed Joking Apart was symptomatic and was a whole exploration of those born with it and those born without it. One can deal with it as a very light-hearted theme, which that play starts of doing, concerning a man who can apparently do not wrong. We know him, there is always one in our lives, whether it be the person who can always get a plumber when he needs one! I am the other type, the Eddie in Season's Greetings: if I buy something off the shelf, it never works, and I'm always going back to get it changed! I think most of us are this type. But there are those golden boys and golden women who appear to float through life and everything just drops right for them. I think this is true, and I don't know if we are the victims, or self-made victims, in some sense. There is a positive attitude to life which I have noticed in some people - which they may be born with, but I don't know that it can't be cultivated, whereby they don't worry. I always envy a man who gets an overdraft statement and does not worry. I could never bear when I had no money to be in debt; I used to was around like a man haunted, expecting the heavy hand on the shoulder. Some live way beyond their means and still have a very positive attitude, which is very nice. So, yes, I think that is an example of the inequality of nature, quite apart from any social system which tends to amplify it.

If we can just move on to the Theatre in the Round. What does the Round offer you particularly as a writer and a director? [3]
In-the-round offers me firstly I suppose, this amazing emphasis on the liveness of the performance. An audience, sitting as they do, cannot really for very long be unaware that they are attending a performance because they are watching a human being performing against a sea of faces which belong to the human beings across the other side, who are equally reacting. And, of course, one will be absorbed in the play, I hope, to the extent that you are not totally put off by the faces opposite you! But nonetheless I think there is always some fraction of the brain - as there is in any live performance but even more so in the Round - that tells you that this is a live performance and not, as perhaps in a film where you sink straight into the screen and disappear. One tends to watch films on one's own, even in a full cinema, but I think the theatre is very much a shared thing. Certainly, in the Round, here, in Scarborough, and in most of them, unless they get too vast, there is this very strong tendency to bind together a group of disparate individuals, who all turn up at the same time at the same place and sit around to watch, into an entity, and to become an audience very swiftly, which is something that I think the theatre is all about. So the Theatre in the Round has that. It also has, on the acting side, a great bonus. What the Round does more strongly than I could do, is to weld together a company. It is a great 'company-playing' medium, simply because playing together in the Round, actors are forced willy nilly - and actors, let's face it, are by nature individualists - to become a company. They have to play together, they inter-rely upon each other. As soon as there is dialogue in progress, both parties - whether it be Cleopatra and her maid or Lear and an attendant - have a totally equal part or role to play. It is thus a medium often avoided by established actors. I remember when we first started it was very hard to get any actors, partly because they were a little nervous of exposing themselves, as it were, on all sides. But also, I suspect, because, in fact, it denies you the sort of trickery, (some people call it 'technique'), that you can employ safely in the proscenium. Having said that, there will obviously be great proscenium arch performances. I do not mean to suggest that it is all trickery in the proscenium, but a lot of it is. A lot of it is quite carefully calculated. I think the Round has affected my writing as strongly as anything, simply because it is not conducive to the monologue for instance.

Speaking with the company I was struck with the way in which they worked together as a very integrated group - there was no real sense of anyone wishing to be a 'star'.
Well the work is so heavy here really that at any point you could point to someone and say, 'Well, yes, for this week, I suppose you could call them the leading man or the leading lady.' But because there is obviously a certain deference to experience and age within the company, no one would pretend that certain actors were not able to fend much more easily than others who needed a bit of help from the director. Some people are learning quite a lot very fast and others are re-learning. I think there is a great deal of interchange between actors in this situation. There are one or two mutual admiration pacts, they don't all admire each other equally and think they are all wonderful... there is quite a lot of interior criticism. There is also, - I think I have noted it this season particularly, one or two of the girls - very different, but they have both seen something in the other which they have admired as an actress and they have drawn from it and both have improved as a result. This is very good. I think the Round helps in this, as I was helped myself when I acted in the Round. I wasn't a marvellous actor by any means but one of my very strong things was that I was a tremendous listener! It is quite hard listening... actors who listen are quite rare! So I suppose my strength was I was awfully popular with people to play with because they loved the way I listened! It got worse when I got talking but I used to look around for a listening cast!

To return to your writing: I am very conscious of your tremendous concern for construction and plots that are very logical. You follow characters right the way through to their logical conclusion for example. But you have also commented on a couple of things recently which I should like you to elaborate upon. Firstly, the obsession you have with time, and secondly your concern with the physical details in your plays.
Well, time first: Priestley has explored it of course to a certain extent. I am very interested in it because of the way it is possible when you are writing skilfully to condense time quite simply. That is to say, there is a certain period of elapsed actual time on the stage at which point you can then legitimately, without the audience crying out in disbelief, say 'You have been here an hour haven't you?' and people will accept it. Slightly less than that and people say, 'He hasn't, he's been here only 10 minutes'; and this is extraordinary. I am also quite an avid sci-fi reader and I have always been interested in time. I have also been interested in the notion that the longer one's life gets, the more it becomes like stretched elastic. The more you can look back and see. There is always a fascination in the juxtaposition of things. For example when one has children of one's own that have actually grown up to an age that I can still remember. I have a son now at 21, and I can remember being 21 myself, very clearly. And I'm only barely double that now, so there is a strange sort of cyclical process going on which fascinates me. Stage time and the use of time is, I find, a very good device to use dramatically. Priestley of course used it in
Time And The Conways. That is the most archetypal piece of 'timery'. But even what we did when we did How The Other Half Loves all those years ago was a great exercise in time-hopping which I found fascinating and I use it occasionally. I haven't used it quite so much lately - I'll come back to it again... it's just 'bending' time. I know where I use it quite a lot - in Suburban Strains which was something I'd always wanted to do. It is the story of a teacher and I tell her story on two levels, simultaneously. It is, in fact, in her mind really. The actual time is at the point when she has just collapsed, when her husband's left, and we tell the story from the point of view when she first meets her husband but, at the same time, we tell her parallel story when she is meeting her lover. So the two stories develop together, and we hop about and sometimes coincide those stories; and what is marvellous is that we found that it worked, even within the terms of a musical, which I think, traditionally, has been kept simple, with a very simple plot. I think that thanks to Sondheim, people are gradually getting cut of that terrible tradition. But as a musical, Suburban Strains is terribly complex. We have the actual time and past time mingling on stage, and the nice thing was the amazingly quick way an audience grasped it. As individuals I can quite understand them gathering it but as an entity I'm always amazed that the group intelligence manages to take it, that they take hold of this quite complicated concept which is much more difficult to explain. If I sat in a bar and tried to explain it to people they would say, 'Oh no,' but actually sitting there in a theatre, they are able not only to grasp this but to enjoy it and to anticipate it, which is marvellous. But that is pure liveness - I don't know what you'd do with it on television -you can't cut and cross-cut that would be so boring - but on the stage it is fluid.

Yes, it certainly works. Now the accuracy aspect and your attitude to detail?
I think that accuracy and attention to detail is one of the things that in the Round can particularly deal with, though I have done an abstract production where realism is not the object of the exercise. But once you set a play in a house or a flat or even in a garden, some immediately recognisable area, it is very very important that everything within it is correct. It's selection really. In the Round lacks big scenic drops but what it has to its advantage is a great proximity. As a child I was once taken to the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street where years and years of loving care had created this totally mythical man and his equipment - his violin and pipe, the windows were all foggy and there were muffins for tea; it was absolutely wonderful and one was actually carried into that world. If Sherlock Holmes had actually walked in, it would have been marvellous: it was the only thing that was lacking! Looking at a stage as close as we do here in Scarborough, I know that some of the people feel uneasy walking among the set to their seats but I like them walking round the set. It is quite exciting. If you are watching The Seagull, you can sit at the desk where Constantin is writing his novel and have a feel about it - and then go back and you have been a part of that world for a minute. We used to walk up and down the hill during Sisterly Feelings and it was great fun and you almost became part of the set. I think one of the nice things about our theatre is - that I don't like a theatre where an audience is expected physically to join in. That is those awful ones where they drag you on stage and ask you to declare your interest. I like to take part in my own quiet and private way as part of an audience. I like to laugh and I like to enjoy and I like to share but I do not particularly want to be singled out as an individual: I want to remain one of the body. One of the great things we found about this theatre is that it is rather like a 'peepshow' theatre - you are looking in on a private world from which they cannot see you but you can see them. Everything I can do to create realness in that private world I will do: indeed, there is a delight in getting the small details right. Photographs of the character's mother on stage, or awful old brown wedding photographs which are, in fact, the wedding of the character 30 years ago! All this adds to the detail as, indeed, tiny details of costume do.

It's strange, this 'selection' isn't it? You have a suggestion of a wall and a bit of a window frame and somebody pulls an imaginary light switch. Yet the details of having a plug set in a minimal amount of skirting board somehow or other is enough to make one believe that a wall actually exists and that the light switch does not matter if it's not there. I find this balance between what you can do without and what you need is quite a fascinating one.
It is getting the suggestion right isn't it? Suggesting and then letting the eye carry it on. It is obviously greatly concerned with what a designer "chooses for you. In general, I tend to draw the physical layout of my sets for them.
Seasons Greetings I drew for Eddie Lipscombe - I drew the layout as I wanted it - wall here, sitting room here, dining room here, and what the entrances were, and then let him go from there. Then we argued over how much we should include later. Indeed, the sense of the Round is so limiting in that you cannot have too many grandfather clocks and huge pieces of furniture, you have got to select very carefully. My maxim has always been, since I have run the theatre here, 'By all means put what you like on the set but it has got to be absolutely right. If you cannot afford it, if you cannot get it, then imagine it.' It is better to have a lot of people sitting around a purely imaginary heavy refectory oak table than to have a mock-up made of hardboard which the audience is going to sit miserably staring at unconvinced for the whole evening. If you are trying to present that type of play, you will do without the chairs and everything and do it entirely in an imaginary way. It depends on the level of production.

But it probably has something to do with 'the type of humour anyway; if you consider that in one sense farce is about the breaking down of the social fabric, then somehow or other the real fabric has to be just right. It is also what you were saying about the fact that people mustn't play for laughs.
Oh no.

And it is all the same idea, isn't it? The humour seems to come from the misunderstanding rather than the intention. You do not direct people's eyes towards the laughs do you?
No. I think in a sense there is a great element of the game which I am very aware of and love. I am also a great board games player and what I love to do is to lead people along what appears a logical path into a maze of illogicalities. And, hopefully, unless they have a really boring mind that won't allow them to be helped - there are some people who just sit there stolidly from the moment the curtain goes up and the lights go down! But most people would love the idea and say 'O.K. I'll follow you and see where we get to' and finally, as in a play like Taking Steps, it is a ludicrous situation. If you came in halfway through this play you'd say, 'I don't believe this. This is ridiculous - what is a solicitor doing in bed with the wife of his client if she doesn't know who he is.' It is ridiculous, quite farcical. Whereas, if you had seen it from the beginning, (I hope) - if it is played right and logically, the fact that he is there is totally logical, there's every good reason for him to be. And when he tries to explain it, the audience says 'well, yes': the fact that the man is unable to explain himself because he is also shy, retiring, and slightly nervous, is bad luck. Any member of the audience actually could get up and explain. That logic is there. As you say, it is against a totally normal background, or apparently normal background - it has to be.

Do you ever think that you will run out of ideas - or fear that you might?
Oh yes, I think so. I think what happens is that when I finish a play, as I have just done within the last few months, I am really quite bouncy and ready to write another one, because I know I don't have to. I have lots and lots of embryonic things I wouldn't mind writing about, the sky seems to be the limit! As I get closer to writing, those ideas withdraw into dark corners because they realise that if they were to be held up to any real scrutiny they really don't hold water! Then the desperation does set in. I really don't know, as I say, what I am going to write - or even if I am going to write - until I reach the moment.

If you were not directing here, do you think that it would be more difficult to produce the plays? I know that's in a sense holding a bit of a gun to your head. You've got to produce the new play…
Yes, I have got to do it. I have been sitting down this morning and drawing up the schedules for next summer - you have always got to plan two years ahead for the Arts Council, let alone anyone else. And I have just announced the opening date for my 26th play which is going to open the week ending October 3rd. It is just called, ominously, Number 26, at the moment but there it is. Assuming everything goes right I shall have left myself 3 weeks from the time I have left the last new play I have directed, until I can get it on with all the actors; so, somehow or other, between those dates, I have got something like 24 days to do it in - I hope that I shall. I sometimes keep the actors waiting a couple of days and it is usually a bit fast but the point is, I suppose, that what it lacks in time it makes up for by the fact that I have this immediate urgency which pushes everything forward and we work at tremendous speed. Since the thing is so hot off the press, there are a lot of short cuts one can take, directing one's own play oneself. I know quite a lot about it - not all of it by any means. Sometimes, half way through, I say 'My goodness, that links up to that' because I think that if you are writing well and the thing is going right, there are all sorts of sub-echoes which come off it which you actually aren't aware of. It's like weaving a tapestry: you start with all those threads and as you weave them, some of them bob up in the most extraordinary places, and you are hardly aware of them until you check back and say, 'Oh, I see, that goes there and it works.' If it doesn't work, nothing works: it's a funny thing but if it does work then most of it works. Obviously there are going to be faults - not too obvious to the audience I hope, but to me, because I work in this way - rather than do anything major to a play, I would sooner re-write and write another one!

But you don't alter your plays do you? They come off the page and that is it.
They come off the pages and go on, unless there is something. The only time I do alter them is to add to them. There was one occasion in Just Between Ourselves, when I wrote the thing, read it and a scene I thought was there wasn't! I actually had it in my mind and I hadn't put it in the play! I snatched all the scripts back and rewrote about 4 pages, came back and everybody said 'Oh yes, I see...' because it was an extraordinary jump.

Just an omission? Not something you had thought better of at a later date or at rehearsal?
No, I had just forgotten it.

I can quite see why you would never wish to leave here but can you ever envisage yourself working anywhere else?
I probably could but I hope I will never have to.

I was listening to an interview with Alfred Bradley [4] on the radio the other day and he said people still come up to him and say 'You are up here now, and one of these days, when you are good enough, you'll get down from the North and one of these days when you can write better you will write other than children's plays! Presumably people are still silly enough to make these remarks to you?
Here, for instance, I think it is more widely understood why I work here, simply because it seems to be working. In some Scarborian minds, you have never really made it until you have been on ITV, although I think that is dubious; and they are slightly less impressed by the 'West End' here than the West End are! But I think I am committed to regionalism. I think it is probably easier for me to be committed because I have quite a lot of cake and eat it! Obviously, unlike say purely directors or actors, I can have my work done without being there physically.

And send your work down to the West End?
Yes, and sit up here and complain about it! And get on with my own stuff, which is really very lucky.

It is more than that really, because it does work so well here. This theatre works so well. You have been in at the beginning of it and somehow you have had to drip blood almost to get the thing going.
I am totally committed to it. A television interviewer once asked me, 'Do you try out your plays here?' and I said I honestly don't; it sounds terrible but I actually write them for here and I am not that much interested beyond. That's not quite true, of course, I am quite interested, naturally, because they are my plays and I worry about them - they are like my children. But what interests me most is how they are here, that is my first interest and I have taken years to explain to West End managers who cannot understand it. I have had two First Nights in London this year and I have not been to either of them because I have actually been busy here. The National Theatre said 'This is the first man to have a double play at the National, two First Nights, and he was not at either of them'.
[5] I was opening Time And The Conways here, it wasn't even my play - and I said (it isn't being blasé and grandiose) 'if I am not here for the opening of Time And The Conways, it won't go on'. It is my production and I have got to be there, just to say what I want. The National Theatre will go on whether I am there or not. I was director but it is such a vast machine and there are associated directors, and sub directors and co directors... and it would have worked anyway. But in that sense, one feels important I suppose.

I strongly suspect there is more than that. This is really home.
This is home.

Website Notes:
[1] Mr Collins is a fictional character in Jane Austin's novel
Pride & Prejudice.
Sisterly Feelings is a play which has four possible variations, ideally determined randomly during the course of the play.
[3] Alan Ayckbourn has worked in-the-round for the majority of his professional theatre career and the vast majority of his writing is written with in-the-round performance in mind.
[4] Alfred Bradley was a noted Radio Drama Producer who worked for the BBC and was renowned for encouraging Northern writers and writing. Between 1965 and 1970, Alan Ayckbourn worked for him as a Radio Drama Producer at the BBC and considers him to be a great influence.
[5] The play referred to here is
Sisterly Feelings.

Copyright: Pauline Young. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.