Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview was published in the May 1981 edition of the Yorkshire Arts Magazine.

Ayckbourn In Round

Where to see no less than eight different plays this summer within a single week? London's the easy answer, but even the National's three theatres can't offer such a wealth of new theatrical fare as Scarborough's former grammar school, now the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round.

The seat of England's most successful contemporary playwright, 'The Round' as they call it in Scarborough, is cherished by Alan Ayckbourn not so much because of its instrumental part in the sending off to the West End of his own plays as a vehicle for starting off those of colleagues whose work he respects. A glance at the preliminary programme for this summer shows to what extent.

It starts with Ayckbourn's own
Season's Greetings which he describes as "a linking pin coming into the season quite regularly and bringing everybody (all the actors in the company) together on the same stage." Then follow new plays by Peter Tinniswood, Paul Copley and Brian Thompson interspersed with two new lunch time plays and a new late nighter.

When so many London, let alone provincial, playhouses are churning out the classics in an effort to keep solvent, Ayckbourn's tripping the light fantastic in a sea-side resort. How can he afford to take the risk of presenting - to take an average week this August as an example - what amounts to eight new plays in a single week?

Alan Ayckbourn slumps informally into a modern chair in the theatre's most comfortable but totally unostentatious room. He blends into its colour scheme to such an extent that one can't help suspecting that the man who sports a rusty beige jumper also chose these cream and beige furnishings.

"The advantage of this theatre is that the man who started it [
Stephen Joseph] was totally uncompromising and always did new work," he explains, eager to trace in The Round's history the seeds of its present success. As there was no theatre tradition in a seaside town, then audiences were just as likely or unlikely to turn up to see new plays as known plays, he argues. And now that a house style has developed by 'judicious juggling' between Ayckbourn's sure fire hits and plays by other new writers, a unique theatre tradition indeed exists.

For although Ayckbourn himself is recognised in the West End as the most technically accomplished of popular dramatists, he says - quite oblivious to the irony - that one thing we don't do much of is "West End successes." He's referring, of course, to new work by other playwrights and his own before it becomes the inevitable West End success.

"My new plays don't count for much, they're fairly safe, and we use that to balance other new writers." It was the method by which Ayckbourn himself first became recognised as a playwright although he's the first to stress what many he thinks seem to forget - that it took him seven plays before he reached the West End.

Not that he's enamoured of the particular pinnacle of theatrical triumph. "Agents and authors think that all plays here are an automatic ticket to the West End but that's an unnatural expectation." For the West End, he believes, relies heavily on a star system. "As I've proven - my name should in theory be able to fill a theatre - (chuckles with self-mockery) a play of mine can only last there three months. Add Penelope Keith though and it lasts for a year. It's a case of add stars and stir!"

This is another reason for Ayckbourn's allegiance to The Round. "My plays are written for here; they become distorted by the star system."

But why here in particular? It was by happy coincidence that Ayckbourn ended up in Scarborough but it's largely thanks to the opportunity the place gave of working in-the-round. "The round breeds inter-reliance" and it's no fluke that of the many aspects of theatre he loves so much, team-work has become perhaps the most important. "Because we are a company theatre - they're fewer of them around today - we don't look for inexperienced or for very old actors. The average age of people in the company is mid-30 and I think that's important."

And just as new plays make demands on actors - making them stretch themselves by working with each other without stealing the show or having the excuse of being carried by others, so Ayckbourn enjoys the pressure he puts on himself and other playwrights. At the beginning of April he hadn't a clue what most of the new plays in his summer season were about, let alone his own contributions to the season.

"Most writers like the pressure of not having long to write something for a given slot; there's something immediate about it. The excitement about writing a play is getting it on stage. The initial bit of boringly typing out pages has to be done but it's only the beginning."

Not all playwrights would agree, perhaps, but not all can dash out a full length play in two weeks and / or revel in the practical aspects of theatre to such an extent. Before he became a
director and playwright Ayckbourn spent many a long year trudging the boards himself, touring the country as an ASM and later producing drama for Radio Leeds.

"Stephen Joseph had a strong emphasis on the practical and an understanding of the technicalities. He helped me enormously on the craft side." And it seems that the playwrights chosen for the new season follow in the same footsteps. Paul Copley and Trevor Cooper are actors and all the playwrights commissioned to write new plays for the season - three with Yorkshire connections - have worked with Ayckbourn before, so he has faith in their work.

Does he give them any criteria to work to?

"I give the minimum of restrictions. I describe the audience ('half of Scarborough was educated in this building') and that we are in the middle of holiday time and say the everything's got to have an entertainment content in it plus a bit more because otherwise it would drive the company up the wall!"

Cast size is another practical restriction, this being limited to five with another three available for lunch-time performances. The company's divided so that every actor gets at least one evening show out - a major planning feat and a very necessary one with such a pressurised schedule for the actors. It's the bar theatre - in which lunch times, late nights and a new 'home grown' musical element take place - which has contributed more than anything to greater flexibility within the company and greater variety in the audiences in The Round.

"As we've become a year round theatre we've become more conscious of a year round audience," says Ayckbourn. "We go for a fairly simple style of production in the main house because the Round has a higher risk potential. The bar end can afford to carry more risk like plays and cater for different strands of audience."

And here Ayckbourn turns his dramatic talent of identifying and creating credible comic characters to good advantage when it comes to audience analysis. "The Radio 2 end go to the lunch-time plays lasting an hour only. These people wouldn't be seen dead in the theatre in the evening. It's a half class, half sex thing when you think about it - more middle class women frequent the theatre than any other group."

So it is that the lunchtimes are for 'the nervous, timid soul', the late nights for 'the student-y serious' and the 300 seater for an informal representative selection ranging from those who come a long way to see an Ayckbourn premiere (Ayckbourn hasn't much time for them) to those who are on their holidays and want a good laugh. Given that his plays appeal to such a large audience why isn't Ayckbourn tempted by TV?

"I love the theatre - TV no. There's no second chance on television and anyway my plays don't work on television. I like plays to grow in performance like mature Cheddar cheese." He likes the intimacy that a theatre audience produces too.

Brian Thompson, the Harrogate playwright who's to produce the third play in the season has done a lot of TV work but he's also collaborated with Ayckbourn three times and obviously enjoys the challenge of writing to a deadline.
The Conservatory promises to be a 'painful comedy' about people in a Yorkshire village and secrecy over the possession of a shelter. Beyond that Ayckbourn - who's directing it - knew little in April, and less about the others in his programme.

Paul Copley's
Tapster is set in a pub and is about a musically gifted girl who goes to York... "we've worked closely together before." Interesting that, the relationship between writer and director when the director's a writer himself. How much freedom does Ayckbourn allow the playwright?

"In general they can come and go as much as they like but from my own experience, midway they shouldn't be there. It's useful at the beginning when you can sort out if something's a misprint and how the writer sees the characters but it's awful to be around during the painful business of breaking it down. But it's useful for writers to be around near the end when it's possible to bend things."

Which brings us back again to the reasons why Scarborough's Theatre In the Round is probably mounting more new plays than any other in England this summer.

"Well, although writing has eclipsed my directing I still think of myself as primarily a director. It's not purely altruistic," he admits."! find directing the most enjoyable and as a writer I'm best equipped to deal with new work - I like doing it for my direction and the more I can spread the word about new work to people in the audience the better."

So it is that our most successful playwright now writes only one play - in a mere two weeks - each year and is more proud of the fact that "we could be showing only one known play in the whole year" at Scarborough's Theatre In the Round.

Copyright: The Word. 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.