Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

In this interview between Alan Ayckbourn and his Archivist Simon Murgatroyd during April 2015, the playwright's work for the coming year is discussed.

Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website: 2015 Interview

Simon Murgatroyd: Let's begin with a rather mysterious new project you've been working on, which I'm told is like nothing you've written before.
Alan Ayckbourn: I’ve been working on this big venture called The Divide. I think if I can cut it a fraction, we’ll be able to do a presentation of it later this year using a few friendly actors for a gala reading [a one-off reading of The Divide took place in September 2015 at the Stephen Joseph Theatre].

So what is The Divide?
It's my new science-fiction epic. It’s not a play, it's a dialogue - although there’s not long descriptive passages.
[1] It’s based upon two diaries; one of a boy and one of a girl growing up in a weird world. There’s also newspaper cuttings and council meetings and all sorts of correlated material. It's a loose folder of information that you can slowly put together to get a view of the world. It’s set post-cataclysms - but I hope this is slightly different, it’s not a nuclear holocaust but it’s that sort of level of change to society.

What makes it so different for you?
It is experimental. In fact it marks a deliberate attempt to jump away from writing anything I knew about. It’s quite worrying at the moment as I just don't quite know what it is! Nor whether it will work or not - although I think it will. There’s a dramatic structure there, but it is so big and that's why it's not a play - it couldn't be done as it has things like waterfalls, people drowning, a massive cast amongst many other things.
I think it has to be the scale it is, just to show this larger picture of the world and tell the story I want to tell. Would
Breaking Bad [the television series] have been the same if it had been one series? Because it was about the whole scale of it; it was an enormous story about the rise and the fall of Walter White and at the end of it you were looking own this long corridor and thinking, ‘where did he come from? He started as a science teacher with the idea of making a bit of money and was terminally ill.’ There was extraordinary development, but if you cut that back to 10 episodes, it wouldn’t have been credible!

On top of this, you've also got a brand new play being premiered during the summer, Hero’s Welcome. What can you tell us about it?
Hero’s Welcome is about the prodigal son, Murray, coming back to his home town. He’s one of my anti-heroes really, a squaddie who has got all the good qualities that I like; he trusts people and he’s honest with people - although he got trapped in his early days by the machinations of sexual politics and ran away at the altar, not the best time to run away from a woman. If you’re going to run away, run away before! He’s returning to the ‘scene of the crime’ for the first time since he left.

Presumably the scorned woman is waiting in the wings?
Indeed. I’m always fascinated by what time does to people. Murray left his fiancée Alice at the altar, when she was glamorous, desirable and used to put her finger up to society. Twenty years later, she’s the mayor and married to the safest sort of man - a loving, doting type who’s completely obsessed with model railways.

And just to keep things interesting, Murray doesn’t return alone.
Murray returns with his new bride, Baba. She is another interesting character. She is the moral compass of the play who starts as a tiny element and then grows. She has a huge effect on the slightly listless inhabitants of the town. She has a brain to run rings around Murray, in the nicest possible way. During the course of the play it’s fun to see how she grows.
Baba is actually not a million miles away from my own Brazilian daughter-in-law. I remember meeting her for the first time when she hardly spoke any English and hardly said anything. It was in Bath and she came to tea with me and my partner. Heather said, ‘Oh, you look terrific’ and her face just dropped. She thought Heather had said ‘Terrivel' - Portuguese for terrible! She went away and cried for a bit as she didn’t understand.

You frequently revisit and delve deeper into themes from other plays, are there any recurring motifs in Hero’s Welcome?
I’ve revisited one of my fascinations, male rivalry. That was there originally in Time And Time Again, at the end of which the two guys completely forgot what they were competing for - which was the girl! Undeterred, they just carried on competing while she just said, ’Oh, to hell with this!’ I just find that streak in men fascinating - I think it probably does exist in women but it’s not the same and they go about it in different ways. Blokes will just bet each other for no real reason: ‘I bet you can’t get over that fence!’ I knew someone who would look around a room and then say, ‘I bet you can’t flick that beer mat into the waste paper basket’. Before we knew it, we’d started this incredible game, flipping mats, and if they landed on the table it was -3 points, if it landed in the basket it was +15 points. There was this incredible points system within minutes and we would play it for hours! Hero’s Welcome explores the male rivalry between Murray and an old friend, Brad, who is hugely competitive. Murray is a non-competitor really and always hates it if he wins. But he’s also been in the army, so you just don’t challenge him to a physical fitness match, because the guy’s absolutely fine-tuned! But Brad will go to any lengths to win whilst Murray doesn’t intend to win.

You’ve written several soldiers into recent plays such as Private Fears In Public Places and Arrivals & Departures, yet it’s a relatively new trend for you. Is there any reason for this?
I’ve known people who have joined up at an incredibly young age at 17 or 18. They went straight into the services and they're looked after in an incredible way and scheduled to within an inch of their lives. Suddenly they come out and they've absolutely no compass and don’t really know what they're doing. They're waiting for someone to say ‘fall in, follow me.’ Murray’s a little bit like that, although he’s still got a little bit of momentum. I’m just enlarging my canvas and bringing in a few more people.
I knew a girl who married a guy in the army and once he left, he was just hopeless. She married this well together guy who was an officer and knew what he was doing. Suddenly he didn't have any men to command and she said, ‘Where has the leadership gone? I know I signed up to be an army wife, but when you take the army away, what is he doing now?’ Sometimes these people don’t have the same drive outside of the army. In that situation, I’m interested in what happens to the people around them.

Your last play, Roundelay, was one of your more experimental plays in which the structure changed every night. [2] Should we expect the same of Hero’s Welcome or is it a more traditional narrative?
It’s a good old straight four-scene play with a beginning, middle and an end. It does have - like Life Of Riley - a fixed multiple locations set, which is something I like when I have a complex narrative that needs telling quite easily. You've got one room for each location, so hopefully we can keep the story rolling hopefully.

And from Hero's Welcome, you're returning to one of your most popular plays, Confusions. What are your thoughts on returning to it 41 years on?
It’s only the second time I’ve directed Confusions. I’ve never got round to reviving it myself, but I think it’s been managing alright, ticking away doing quite nicely for itself!

Last year, you made a rare return to the one act form with Roundelay, which - like Confusions - featured give one act plays. How do they compare?
I haven’t really had much practise in writing one act plays and haven’t written that many since Confusions. It is an interesting discipline to write to that sort of length as the construction is quite demanding. I think anything less than half-an-hour and you really do start to lose what I think of as dramatic form.
Looking back, I find it interesting that when I wrote
Gosforth’s Fete for Confusions, I was still writing something so situation-driven. These days I tend to get sucked sideways by character. When I was writing Confusions, I was at a phase in my writing career when I could still write those ‘and then this happens’ type of plays. Confusions is an interesting stepping stone for me as you can see where the future is - Absent Friends, but you can also see the past - How The Other Half Loves - which is pure situation.

Where did the idea for Confusions come from?
Confusions was also written for the five actors who were currently the company. I wrote them a little showcase really.
It was written at a time when I wanted theatre to primarily show off actors, I still do really, but in those days I thought people loved the idea of actors playing different roles and becoming different people. There is something marvellous about that which is still peculiarly theatrical; you don’t get that impression from movies and television in quite the way you do on stage. I think this is partly because you take the magic for granted in a sense on screen with computer generated images and special effects. But if an actor becomes someone right in front of your very eyes or changes from one person to another, you can still believe there’s a bit of magic somewhere. It’s a bit like watching a live magician: ‘I know you've fooled me, but I just want to know how you did it.’ That’s the basis of

It also re-launched touring from Scarborough’s Library Theatre for the first time in more than a decade.
Yes, it was the first time the Scarborough company went out on any major tour. We took Confusions out to the country. We came to places like Kendal, Lincoln, Hull & Warwick and just toured it around. It was a small cast and quite an easy show which you could put in the back of a van.
There was also a repertory tour in Scarborough, Filey and Whitby - which was extraordinary as we played in-the-round, three-sided and end-stage! It wasn’t a deliberate choice, we had no option as if we wanted to go to Whitby we had to play the Spa theatre which was end-stage. If we wanted to stay in Scarborough we could only use the small lecture room at the Library and that could only be three-sided. Filey was the only place it was done in the round, at the Sun Lounge - jokingly called the Rain Lounge as it leaked so much!

What about the five plays themselves?
Mother Figure was written for a short-lived multi-author entertainment called Mixed Blessings, which premiered in a theatre in Horsham and wasn’t very satisfactory as an evening. It’s always a bit hit and miss if you have eight different authors with four actors trying to juggle their different styles. I thought Mother Figure’s too good an idea to waste and I didn’t want it sitting there in Mixed Blessings. So I took it back and used it as a basis for Confusions.
Drinking Companion emerged from what I observed whilst staying at the Royal Hotel in Scarborough. There were an extraordinary pair of girls ensnaring businessmen, who came down looking for a bit of action with their badges still clipped to their nasty suits. You could go out into the main lobby and watch them coming down that big staircase, crashing down together like an enemy formation, scanning the place thinking, ‘who can we touch for a few drinks tonight?’ They did pretty well. They used to get bought a lot of drinks and occasionally dinner, but they would cut and run after dinner and this guy would go ‘what happened to my date?’.
Between Mouthfuls was just an idea I had; what did waiters hear when they moved into ear-shot of a table? Do they ever hear what is said? And what do they recall? I was a very keen waiter-watcher. In the play, we never know if the waiter actually reacts to what he hears as it’s like he’s not there. Whereas we, as an audience, are able to put together an entire scenario based on these two entirely separate conversations.
Gosforth’s Fete is a traditional English farce. I put all the ingredients in there: funny scout-masters, funny vicars, stuffy councillors!
The final piece is
A Talk In The Park. By the end of Confusions, the actors have done so many roles chopping and changing. I just thought it would be quite nice to have them all there on the stage together and give the audience the chance to say, ‘Is that all there were of them?’

This year also marks the 60th anniversary of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, what are your thoughts on the theatre as it celebrates this milestone?
Well it's definitely been an interesting journey, I think. It's certainly grown from a tiny idea into something quite big! It is rather difficult though to define where I see the theatre, as it is so intertwined with my own personal life. In a sense, my own life is also the theatre’s life. My writing life and my directing life was all - in a sense - tangentially affected by this theatre. Even my trips to the National Theatre, in a sense, came about as a result of this theatre because I got lured into the West End and the National Theatre by dent of the plays that were produced here.

Is there anything you think has particularly changed during the past 60 years?
One of my great regrets is there is far less flexibility in programming than there used to be. It may to do with the theatre's size, but I think it’s increasingly been like that. I remember at the Library Theatre, we were running a summer season and I got to the point where one of the shows was just not fulfilling its function and I just took it out of the rep; you just can’t do that now. Then the seasons were only announced on a month-by-month basis and you were able to make those decisions and know that artistically it didn't make a lot of difference because the actors involved in that production were also involved in other productions. You can’t do that now. What I think is that advance planning - which is always attractive to advance planners - is not conducive to artistic freedom. One of the things that I’ve noticed now is that everyone accepts the fact that theatre is a long time-scale - it’s all changed. I used to commission a play now [April] for the summer and I’d say, ‘could I have it by June?’ Now if you asked a writer if you could have it by June, they would say, ‘June next year, you mean?’ No, this June. Three months! You can write a play in three months. Which is what I always did, because I was known to do that and be able to deliver plays. But you couldn’t deliver a play now the night before you started rehearsing.

So it's the flexibility which has been lost?
Yes. I'm going to see a production of
Way Upstream at Chichester next week and I remember that first production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round (1981). I remember the Saturday before we read it, I rang up the production manager and I said, ‘it’s a play with a boat, you’ve got a month.’ So they started working on it - designing then creating it - at the same time we started rehearsing it. They didn’t have any more leeway than that! The production team was tearing off to Irton to see this guy who made boats and it was mad. But we did it. It was extraordinary. We did have the odd problems with it along the way - the odd breakdown - but it was there on the first night. We had some hairy moment subsequently like things weren't working which you had to put right, but we had no major problems.
That sort of freedom is largely lost, I think. Yet there’s something about theatre that should remain instant, because it is one of the instant media. You can understand it with a movie, when you look at that list of people at the end just going on and on and on. And you think, yes they were justified setting that up two years in advance and gradually putting it together because it's a labour of love. But with a theatre play, it can be as simple as ‘can we find a couple of chairs?’ and occasionally you might want a chandelier or something - but you can find that quick enough - but everything else ought to be relatively easily assembled.
The thing that isn’t easy, is the risk factor which is the major change that I’ve seen over the years. The risk now discourages courage. The Stephen Joseph Theatre started with an act of complete folly and courage by
Stephen Joseph, who started it with a group of like minded people all staying in the one house and doing an uncompromisingly new set of plays in a place that had never seen anything like it. To open within fifty yards of the Black & White Minstrels at their peak with plays such as Honey In The Stone (1955) - which was set in South Africa with a Chinese servant - is extraordinary. There were weird plays and my stuff, by comparison, was blazing in there as heavily commercial! The Square Cat (1959) was extraordinary and one of the first shows to turn a profit - it was like everyone said, ‘oh, this is funny.’ I guess from this risk-taking you created an extraordinary environment; I always says this, that when - certainly in the later years of Westwood [3] - we had just drummed our audience into accepting the fact that we would only do new work, there was an audience willing and ready to take advantage of that. But once you draw back from that, you just feel there is less and less willingness to take risks.
Of course the first casualty of this by far was the West End, where now a new play is almost out of the question unless it has transferred from somewhere and someone else has taken the risk. We’ve almost got to the point where the disease has spread into the regions where very little experimentation is encouraged, so theatre has lost the seed-beds essentially. We were growing them and letting them transplant them and become big beautiful plants and saying, ‘aren't we clever.’ Grown in Yorkshire.

Do you think there's a solution to this?
I think it needs to be something big. I think what you need to do is take Stephen Joseph’s maxim of just reinventing. Keep reinventing. I think there is a new re-invention to be done at the SJT, but I think its got to be a big one. It’s got to be major. A major investment, but I would suspect although I devised certain distractional techniques such as House & Garden to keep people interested, in the end you probably need to tear it all down and start all over again.

And there's also the problem that the Stephen Joseph Theatre was specifically created as an outlet for new drama, if you take that away, one has to question what the point of the SJT is?
There have been times recently when I've thought the SJT is no longer fit for the purpose it was devised to be. [4] You cannot survive without doing new work; I’ve lined up all the reasons for not being able to do new work and knocked them down. In my wildest dreams, I've thought of just forming a touring company, rehearsing in my rehearsal room and taking it out. But what do you lose if you do that? You're always homeless, so there’s a sort of nomadic feeling about the company, a home of some sort is needed. I look and feel quite envious of the Esk Valley Theatre in Eskdale. You've got a lot of people who are really passionate about it and they come and work front of house and work in the bar and maybe there is a way to do that.
What is frustrating is people seem to forget the work is the thing that matters; not the building. Perhaps there's a natural end before you have to totally reinvent - I think 60 years is probably enough. Thats my feeling.

Do you think it was it easier to stage new work when the theatre first opened 60 years ago?
It was quite easy for Stephen Joseph to do a new play in the old days. They gave him money to do it! If he said 'I want to do R.C. Sheriff's Journey's End, the Arts Council would say, ‘No, we can't give you money for that, that's an old play.’ But if Stephen said this is a new play, they would read it and if they thought it was rubbish they wouldn't give you any money but if they read it and two-thirds of the panel liked it, you'd get the money for it. So he based his season on the fact that there was small seed money to be had. And you chanced your arm that if you did enough new things, you could pay for the season. Nobody got anything out of it but, nevertheless it was an atmosphere that actively encouraged new writing.
Now there's more hoops to jump through and you get this awful thing of workshopping plays, I mean, come on, just do it. Get it right in rehearsal!
When we moved to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1996, we got cut back on productions - so the repertoire shrunk and the playing period shrank. If you got - as you did in the last days of Westwood - 9 or 10 shows over the year you could afford to loose about 3 or 4 of those without substantial losses. You could take risks as, hopefully, there'd always be enough bankers in there to make it work. But when you've only got five plays in total - as we have in 2015 - that’s a very high risk. If one of those goes down you've lost a fifth of your income. So there a lot resting on each play and it does take quite a lot of arrogance / moral courage to write something that you really want to write without thinking, ‘I have to write something really popular. I have got to help this along.’ So that pressure is immediately on the writer to do something that a) is known and b) is familiar.
I’ve been very lucky in that I've been completely unfettered - I think that’s the word - until quite recently. I feel fettered now by cast sizes and to a certain extent by other things such as the need to tour it. You're always aware that something is cutting into the artistic decisions such as the practical considerations. One tries to avoid these - if I’d have thought about it for too long, then
Arrivals & Departures (2012) probably wouldn’t have had two little girls in them, because you were slogging around the countryside to find young girls for the tour. But I thought they were very necessary to the construction of the play so I kept them in - it would have been easier not to have done.

What do you think Stephen Joseph would have thought about the SJT reaching 60?
I think Stephen Joseph would have been secretly quite proud. I think he would have had his criticism, but he was always a man for trying to constantly push things further. I would like to think he would be quite proud of it now. But I think if he’d still been in charge he would either have blown it up - which is possibly the way it would have gone anyway - or we would now be doing extraordinary stuff. He always had ideas and the rest of us tried to translate them into something that was possible. You need that bit of blue sky thinking.

Website Notes:
The Divide is officially described as a narrative for voices. Although it was adapted for the stage in 2017, Alan Ayckbourn does not consider it to be a play.
Roundelay consist of five short one act plays which can be seen in any order, determined prior to the start of the play by the audience drawing coloured balls from a bag. There are a possible 120 permutations of the play.
[3] Westwood was the colloquial name for the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, referring back to the buildings former use as Westwood County Modern School.
[4] With the benefit of hindsight, this section of the interview reflects the deterioration in the relationship between Alan Ayckbourn and the Stephen Joseph Theatre during the tenure of Chris Monks as Artistic Director. By the time, Chris Monks left the SJT in 2016, there was virtually no communication between either men and the relationship was extremely strained.

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