Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview, written by Alan Ayckbourn and edited by Danny Danziger, was published in The Times on 27 June 1987.

In Search Of Two Characters

The theatre is such an anti-social profession that you tend to work while other people are playing, and at the very time people are getting ready to go out to dinner, you're getting ready to go to work. And because you can start work a little later in the morning, it makes for a peculiar closed circuit of friends, either other people in the theatre or insomniacs.

I suppose work is 90 per cent of my life, and particularly when one is a
director or a writer, where your hours are not so defined. I think you tend to carry it away with you into the night. There's a certain puritanical streak in me which tells me: "You've been very lucky to be a successful playwright, people do come and see your plays, and you really ought to keep working at it." The fact that the play is successful and one can afford a holiday, or one can afford to have some very good dinners, is great, but the main thing is to keep working. It's a nasty little habit, the work ethic. Writing is lonely, that's why I do it so fast. I tend to take at the maximum a month off my directing work, and for three weeks of that I wander around just sifting ideas that have been fermenting [before writing in a week]. Then that will immediately follow into the directing and the first day of rehearsal.

The slowest link in the whole chain is the publicity. You need to have the poster printed weeks and weeks before I have even thought of the next play or started writing. So because I have to give at least an indication of what the play is about, sometimes titles become desperately vague:
Time and Time Again is safe... you could write anything about that.

Because I put so much into that short period, one is being generated by a fair degree of panic. There is a sort of increasing exhilaration as it gets near finishing, followed by the deflating moment soon after it's finished. And between the two there is a fair tension. And a fair anti-socialness creeps over me. I can't communicate with anyone and I nibble all the time on biscuits and sandwiches. I live with the characters in the play, which can mean one has a sense of splitting oneself into seven or eight characters - so you have a scries of multiple personalities wandering around the house.

The thing I have to keep remembering, which is very difficult for people who do make a success out of originating things, is not to become totally involved in promoting the thing and appearing in Pro-Am golf tournaments or popping up on
What's My Line? or something. My job is writing plays, and I always think people should ask themselves, "What's the one thing that nobody else can do that I can do?"

There is always the possibility of the muse drying up, and the problem that the more you write, the less there is in your own scope to explore. I suppose one is aware of repetition of theme, although I think every artist, whether they be musical, painter or playwright, tends to have a particular theme they come back to. I think that is perfectly fair, after all most of us are finite. But there is always a worry that you're not doing anything better in what you're saying, just repeating a theme for the sake of repeating it... doing another play.

At the moment, touch wood, ideas just pop out; as soon as I get one out, another one arrives, so that is nice, but there is always the fear that it won't happen, that there will be The Blank Sheet of Paper.

I don't go to road accidents and stuff for material, things just sort of happen around me. I'm very much a lover of being on the fringes of things. I do wander around a lot on my own. I pick things up second-hand, from people sitting in the row behind me, at the table beside me.

I tend not to tell people I'm a writer, very much because they either become madly self-conscious and attempt to get themselves into your play by some devious trick of personality, or else they clam up completely and look extremely sheepish. When something doesn't work, when your play is not firing on all cylinders, it's like when everybody leaves your party - or doesn't come.

But the best part of my work is not the clapping, it's the feeling at the end of the evening, that you have given the most wonderful party and those five hundred strangers who came in are feeling better.... I don't know, but they are sort of unified into a whole and that is marvellous. That's really like shutting the door on a good party and thinking - that went well!

Copyright: The Times. 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.