Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

In this interview between Alan Ayckbourn and his Archivist Simon Murgatroyd during February 2017, the playwright's work for the coming year is discussed.

Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website: 2017 Interview

Simon Murgatroyd: 2017 marks the 60th anniversary of you joining the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Two years ago on the 60th anniversary of the SJT, you were very pessimistic about the company's future or even continued existence. What are your thoughts on the SJT now? [1]
Alan Ayckbourn:
I think we’re probably on a new staircase really. Partly because of the change in personalities and partly because with the change of personal. With the new Executive Director Steve Freeman and the new Artistic Director Paul Robinson coming into the building, we’ve had a complete change of attitude. I think, back in 2015, everybody felt a sense of winding down.

Why do you think that was?
I think that looking back on where we probably took the wrong turn was my retirement, which was sort of enforced really because of the stroke I had [2] and because I wasn’t physically able to deal with the day to day running of the building. As an Artistic Director, you have to have your finger in so many pies, which then leads to an oddity. Because theatres are often dictated to by the Arts Council and funders, there’s a sort of feeling that the idea of Artistic Directors having any say in the success of the theatre is not a good idea.

How did this affect matters when you announced your retirement in 2007?
I had no knowledge of who the board were thinking of for my direct successor - I was allowed to see the shortlist. I was clear out of it, which is probably sensible in one sense, but I think where they misjudged it the first time around - and I could have advised against - was the belief that it was natural that after nearly 40 years of a - I hope modestly - quite successful Artistic Director, who was both a director and a writer, it would be natural in some people’s view to replace the Writer Director with another Writer Director.

Which, in hindsight, was possibly not a good idea?
In a sense, they handed Chris Monks a very poisoned chalice, because not only was he following on from me as a director but also following on from me as a writer in residence. So it was obviously a very tough act to follow. I think in retrospect, they should have dropped the idea of getting a Writer Director altogether and just got a director, which is what they’ve got now. Paul Robinson, I think, has no pretensions to be a writer himself. Although he has a fascination and passion for new writing, he’s certainly not a writer and would never claim to be. As a result he and I are not in competition because I have no ambitions to become an Artistic Director either! I just like to keep an eye on my own shows. So we really are two separate vessels cruising our own courses and hopefully both going in the same direction.

How did that differ with Chris Monks?
I always thought Chris and I were on some sort of collision course. Every time I did a Writer Director play, he would do a Writer Director play and then I’d do another and then he’d do another. So you thought, is this a competition? And if so, who’s winning? It was an Oxford / Cambridge boat race really but it was a ridiculous boat race as I’d been in the water for years and he was clean in, just fresh off the jetty. We were out in competition and we should never have been in that situation.

Obviously that relationship had hit a nadir by 2015 leading to your pessimistic views on the future. How have things changed now for both you and the SJT?
I think we have a very good attitude now. I have a very good working relationship with Steve and Paul and I’m very happy to be working with them. We’ve spent a lot of time talking - Paul, Steve and I - about what was valuable in our previous home at Westwood and what makes the SJT work. What we have - which is essentially us, the people who work there - and which is sort of undeniable is people have always come in and said, the atmosphere is like nowhere else they’ve ever worked. Even in the darker days, we still had an element of that. It’s about keeping the spirit of the building and keeping the youngness and freshness to it. At it’s best, the SJT has a sort of ‘Stephen Joseph-esque’ feeling to it that anything can happen - which Stephen promoted and encouraged - there was an open-handedness about the theatre which I hope we can rediscover and refoster.

Moving onto the summer 2017 years and you're reviving Taking Steps - twenty-seven years since last staged in Scarborough - and thirty-right since it premiered, why revive it now?
Well, I had a direct request from the new management, from Paul Robinson and Steve Freeman, who really were enthusiastic that I revisit it. I think they wanted something included in the season that was from my lighter vein - you can’t get any lighter than Taking Steps! I’m also aware new audiences keep arriving - there’s been at least one generation since it was last staged here - and I think this is one that will appeal to younger audiences too.

What initially inspired you to write Taking Steps?
Two reasons really. I wrote it because I wanted to have fun at the time - and fun it’s proved to be wherever I’ve done it. But it was also a play I wrote as the result of some very ill-informed person making the statement that farce was impossible to do in the round. I thought, well that’s absolute nonsense. His basic premise was that the round didn’t have doors, so how can you do farce without doors? I said, ‘very easily. Sam Walters has demonstrated, you just imagine them - as anyone who saw The Game Hunter (2003) here will know’. But I did at that time think, ‘well OK, I’ll show him. I’ll write a farce without doors but with floors.’

That decision also makes it practically unique in your play canon as despite most of your plays originating in the round, this is probably the only one that only works in the round.
Of all my plays, I think, this one is an exclusively round play. I don’t honestly believe even half the effect is the same if it’s done in the proscenium; it can be done, because the story will hold it up, but the shared delights of the staging are such that because the audience in the round is obviously in on the joke from the start, they conspire with the actors to say, ‘well let’s all pretend we’re on three floors.’ It harks back to How The Other Half Loves and it’s one of my conspiratorial attempts to involve the audience in a conceit and say, ‘this is what we are planning to do for this evening, are you with us?’ Anyone who comes in at half-time will have a hell of a job working out what’s happened!

It’s often described as one of your funniest plays, but it is also one of the most difficult to explain.
True, but one of the joys is in writing plays for as long as I have done is that you are hard-pressed to over-estimate your audience. You can trust that if you lay out a concept quite clearly then 99% of them will buy into that concept and willing go with it. Not only that, but they’ll enjoy going with it.

Why are you looking forward to reviving it?
Taking Steps is a difficult piece to handle and I like a challenge - it requires the most delicate balance and the steadiest of hands to work. I love the characters, although there is not an awful lot of substance to the plot if you examine it for any length of time. I think it is one of the sillier plays I’ve written; it’s nice to be silly occasionally!

And it’s worth saying that this summer will be the only chance to see this popular play.
Because of the staging, we’re obviously not touring it other than possibly to the New Vic or the Old Laundry, but certainly not into proscenium theatres. Actually, we did tour it originally in 1979 but we had to face the problem of building a stage with a rake of 45 degrees for proscenium arch theatres, which meant everything had to be screwed down; this was quite dangerous and the actors had to practise their mountaineering skills because they were walking at a 45 degree angle for the entire evening - it must have put a terrible strain on the calf muscles. Of course, playing a fast-moving farce, the inevitable happened and the actor Alison Skilbeck walked into the coffee table - which are painful things enough to walk into anyway, but when they’re screwed into the floor, they don’t yield at all. So she broke her foot and we had an Elizabeth with a pot on her foot for the rest of the run, limping around Amsterdam in some pain! Needless to say, we learnt the lesson it can’t be toured out of the round.

Taking Steps is your revival for the SJT for 2017, but it’s not the only thing delving into the past, is it?
I’m celebrating 60 years at the SJT with A Brief History of Plays, two evenings of me linking four segments each dealing with 15 years of time from 1957 to the present.

What can you tell us about these special gala events?
They will have a real flavour of the past 60 years and there will be performed extracts from 32 of my plays! Not every play is included - I decided not to include my very first one, The Square Cat, because I did that one before in 2005 for the 50th anniversary. We start with the even less well-known second play, Love After All, before revisiting quite a few quite interesting oldies.

And I believe you’re also marking a first for the SJT.
We’ll end the first evening with an extract from A Small Family Business, which has not been seen on stage in Scarborough before. [3] It’s only been shown in the SJT via the NT live streaming from the South Bank in 2014. I’m hopeful that we might make it a revival here one day, but that we’ll keep it in the round and find a way to stage it on two levels!

This summer also sees the world premiere of your play A Brief History of Women, but I understand that wasn’t your original plan.
No, I wrote this year’s play in October last year and then went to Bowness-on-Windermere to dwell on it. There I decided I was less than 100% happy with it and - as a result - I came back to Scarborough and wrote an entirely different play! I then also rewrote the original one to make myself happier with it, so I suddenly had two plays and I offered them both to our Artistic Director Paul Robinson and said, ‘take your pick.’ He chose the second, as it happens, A Brief History Of Women. [4]

What is A Brief History Of Woman about?
It’s actually a bit autobiographical. It’s about a very unassuming man, Anthony Spates, who’s a fairly ineffectual chap and who would probably be forgotten by history, but for his relationship with some very colourful women in his life.

In what sense is it auto-biographical?
I think it’s sort of autobiographical in that I left public school at 17 and was hurled into the theatre. There I met so many highly colourful members of the opposite sex and I was convinced - until I was in my thirties - that almost all women were totally mad! They completely intrigued me, which is why I write quite a lot of them, but - like the play’s hero - I only met anything even remotely resembling a sane woman until quite late in life! Although not quite as late as in the play, where the poor man is in his 50s before he meets a sane woman. He’s had some quite interesting experiences along the way though!

This suggests it covers quite a long period of time.
It’s an unusual one for me in that it’s got quite a long time period, which I’ve sometimes - but not often - used in my plays. This is as long a one as any I’ve written as it’s 60 years; I think my previous longest was Joking Apart at 12 years. It runs from 1925 to 1985.

That’s an interesting span of time to cover.
If you stand back from the picture, you’re looking at a story that starts in the mid ‘20s with a certain series of events and then finishes in the mid ‘80s in a world which has gone through two world wars, which throw quite a long shadow over the play either because the characters themselves came through it or were affected by it. But it’s also shows, I think in microcosm, the shifting attitudes to women over the decades.

How does that affect the story you’re telling of this ordinary man and his extraordinary women?
I was interested to chart a chunk of history, although I’m now writing a history play. I’m interested in what effect it has on my characters living in that period. Yet the story of our hero is the one thing that keeps going through it, the people he meets and the differing sexual attitudes.

And all this is also seen through the prism of what you describe as another character, the house.
In 1925, it’s a grand old country house where Spates works as a footman. Then in 1945, it becomes a slightly dodgy prep school for girls. Our hero has recently returned as a fully fledged school master. We then move on to 1965, when the school has long since closed and the building is now an arts centre, one of these arts centres that were dotted around the country where former country houses have been given over to pottery and still-life classes and weekend drama functions. In my time I’ve toured to those places and there’s always one harassed director of the arts centre who always seems to be struggling with many well-meaning, but slightly disorganised amateur groups. In this case, our poor hero is in charge of the arts centre and trying to deal with the local amateur pantomime. And then finally the house becomes, in the mid-‘80s, one of those country house hotels complete with muzak and ‘ye olde bar’.
The house is, in a sense, one of the central characters of the play, because it does have its own personality and it’s undergone all sorts of increasingly humiliating changes. Poor old thing.

Covering six decades sounds like a challenge for the actors, what will they have to cope with?
It offers quite a lot of opportunities for actors to strut their stuff. There’s 26 roles so all of them - except our hero who just ages gently - play different periods of life. Russell Dixon is returning and I said to him, ‘I’m offering you three appalling men and one hall porter! The porter is probably a decent bloke, but the others are all monsters really.’ There’s something nice about playing a series of monsters in one play!

It’s going into repertory with Taking Steps, which is obviously a farce. What can we expect from A Brief History of Women?
I don’t know how you would label it, there are farcical, funny moments to it but by the same token, there are some quite sad elements to and some serious ones. It’s a gentle, autumnal piece which I hope audiences will enjoy as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

And what about the missing play. Will we ever see it?
It’s called A Case Of Missing Wives and and I’ve had it in my head for a very long time. It’s totally different to A Brief History of Women - I’ve seldom written two plays so close together and really you’d never know it as they’re totally different. It takes the form of a police procedural but, having said that, it’s stuffed with my usual themes. But I’m now just so far ahead of myself and that play can’t be scheduled until the earliest 2018 - and who knows - there might be another play between now and then, there’s a lot of writing time to go even with how busy I am this year. Whatever happens, I’ve certainly got a play for next year, although it may or may not be A Case Of Missing Wives. We’ll just have to see. [5]

Finally, this summer will also see your debut at the Edinburgh International Festival with The Divide, a narrative for voices you wrote in 2015. That seems a bit unexpected!
It is a nice surprise.

How did you come to write The Divide?
I wrote it under very extraordinary circumstances because I just wanted to write something I couldn’t even see myself directing. I just let my mind go into free fall - in the sense that I threw my constructional kit away - and I just wrote something that went on and on and which still hopefully obeyed the rules of narrative and character, but that was probably unstageable. It was like nothing I had ever written before.

So you had no idea what, if anything, would come of The Divide?
Not really. I just wanted to explore something that I wasn’t really in control of and - as a result - I said prior to that first and, I thought, last reading in Scarborough in 2015, [6] that ‘this is something you’re probably not going to see again, folks.’

How then did it end up at the Edinburgh International Festival?
Sitting in the audience for that gala reading was Annabel Bolton, who had come up on behalf of Matthew Warchus at The Old Vic and who had once worked at the Stephen Jospeh Theatre. Fortunately, she was taken by The Divide and not only picked up half a tonne of script and ran off on the train with it, but also stuck with it and really wanted to turn it into something else.

What did you think to that?
I just said to her, ‘listen that’s what it’s there for. It’s a production waiting to happen.’ If I’d somehow done it, it would have been no doubt different to how she’s envisaging it, but nonetheless she and her creative team had some extraordinary ideas and have been trying to tame it and get it down to a reasonable size. They’re doing it in two halves and the’ve added music and a choir. There’s also quite a big cast of fourteen.

Returning to The Divide itself, what is its premise?
It’s set in a future England where a disease has decimated the world population having mutated and started killing men whilst leaving the women. So it became necessary to segregate the population into men and women and, because of this, it has become the norm for same sex relationships and, in this world, heterosexuality is perceived to be abnormal. It’s a sort of sexual satire really.

So Annabel Bolton is attempting to stage the unstageable?
Annabel has a big task. The Divide is a big design concept even if you did it very simply. Annabel’s not blinked and is doing things I wouldn’t - couldn’t - do in Scarborough - have done. She’s got video and all sorts of fascinating ideas and accoutrements.

What do you think the appeal of - in your case - writing and - in Annabel’s case - directing something so different?
Personally, I think it is quite nice to occasionally just challenge yourself - which is why I wrote it originally. This is certainly going to challenge Annabel and her team.

Any final thoughts on it?
I just think it shows enormous courage to tackle it and it shows a touching faith in the piece, that Annabel has picked it up and run with it. God help her! I think it’s a very brave thing to do and I wish her and her team every success. I’m dying to see it!

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn's rather pessimistic thoughts on the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 2015 can be found in this website's interview
[2] Alan Ayckbourn had a stroke in February 2006, which led to the announcement of his retirement as Artistic Director in 2007 and him actually retiring in 2009.
A Small Family Business was commissioned by the National Theatre and written specifically for the venue's Olivier auditorium when Alan Ayckbourn took a sabbatical from Scarborough between 1986 and 1988 as a Company Director at the National Theatre. Due to it being written specifically for a (large) end-stage space, it has never been produced in Scarborough - as of writing in 2017 - and the closest the SJT has come to seeing it was a broadcast of the NT's live stream of the 2014 revival of the play.
[4] The play originally written was called
A Case Of Missing Wives.
[5] Later that year Alan Ayckbourn wrote another play,
Better Off Dead, which he announced at his anniversary event, A Brief History Of Plays - alongside a sneak preview of the play - that it would be his play for 2018. The playwright has admitted that, as it stands, it is unlikely that he will return to A Case Of Missing Wives or that it will be produced.
[6] In September 2015, a gala evening was held at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in which an edited version of
The Divide was read by special guests alongside actors from the Stephen Joseph Theatre company.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.