Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

In this interview between Alan Ayckbourn and his Archivist Simon Murgatroyd during February 2013, the playwright's work for the coming year is discussed.

Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website: 2013 Interview

Simon Murgatroyd: What can you tell us about your new play, Arrivals & Departures?
Alan Ayckbourn: Arrivals & Departures is a memory play, in short. It’s got a cast of 30 speaking parts shared between 11 actors plus two children; but while it’s a big play in scale, it’s not a big play in terms of the characters. It centres around a single central relationship and is essentially all about two people, Barry and Ez. Against this background, there’s also a side plot running which is to do with an ambush to catch a terrorist, so it’s a play on several levels. Hopefully it will not confuse but amuse!

You describe it as a memory play, what does that mean?
Two strangers meet and the audience learn, basically, about their back stories through their memories. So at the end of the play, the characters themselves know precious little more about each other than they did when they started out. It was interesting for me to write as, normally, as the characters get to know each other so do the audience; but here only the audience gets to know the back-stories and only they realise how close these characters could be, but for the fact they’re strangers.

Was there anything which particularly inspired you to write the play?
Not really. It sort of evolved from this idea of telling a story through memories. Form always fascinates me. Arrivals & Departures has an interesting structure and having written so many plays, many of which have straight narratives, I think that nowadays one of the interests for me is to surprise and intrigue the audience through the way you tell the story, just as much as the story itself.
There aren’t that many new stories to tell, if indeed any, it’s only in the way they are narrated that the story becomes new. I think my audience has got used now to saying, ‘how’s this going to start?’ It’s also not just a matter of looking for new ways to tell a story, but keeping me fresh as well.

How do you write a story told primarily through memories?
Cinema has always been a prime influence on me, much more so than stage-work and the grammar of cinema is something immediately adaptable to the sort of theatre I work in, which is normally free of big set changes. I’m free to use cinematic techniques, such as the flashbacks in Arrivals & Departures. There’s a whole series of memories for Ez and Barry, which in their minds probably seem far longer than they actually are. How often do we get a flash of memory and you’ve apparently been back in time for about 20 minutes but only a second has passed in real time? You can’t have 20 minute scenes on stage and then say to the audience, only a second has passed in real time. So you have to try and condense the information in these memory scenes. It’s an exercise in precise information playwriting; writing a scene of less than a page which gives you 4 or 5 pages of information, which is also challenging as brevity is no guarantee of interest - brevity mercifully just doesn’t take very long!

The play also has an unusual setting.
One of the most notable things about Arrivals & Departures is there isn’t a single domestic scene in the play. They’re all set on railway stations or bus stations - all to do with transportation. Even the flashbacks always happen in airports, multi-storey car-parks and so on; anywhere except a domestic sitting room. This is, I think, not unrelated to the title of the play, which also refers to other arrivals and departures in life, such as births & deaths.

What can you tell us about the main characters Ez and Barry?
Ez is a young female soldier who’s lost her faith in human nature. Barry is a traffic warden from Harrogate. He’s a fascinating character and not a million miles away from Douglas Beechey in my play Man Of The Moment, who also has had a troubled subtext of a life. Everything has fallen in on Barry, but he’s the sort of person who keeps the smile in place because his philosophy is, if you smile every day, you spread a little bit of happiness and you make the world a slightly happier place. But the consequence of that is you also don’t let anyone in. So there is a fortress about him and the smile excludes anyone taking him more than at skin-deep level. We get the privilege of moving in quite close and seeing beneath the smile.

Arrivals & Departures is playing in repertory with Time Of My Life, are there any similarities between the plays?
Both plays are to do with time, which is interesting. But the way time is used in
Arrivals & Departures is nowhere near as complicated as how time is used in Time Of My Life. I’m still looking at the old prompt script of Time Of My Life to see how we originally did it!

What led you to revive Time Of My Life?
It’s a play I like and I wanted to do again. It is, for me, fairly recent actually. Much more so in my mind than the first production of
Absurd Person Singular which I revived last year [2012], but it’s just far enough away that quite a lot of people won’t have seen it. I also think it’s still very much apposite in that it has very relevant themes running through it.

Is it a favourite of yours?
It has some jolly nice parts in it - most of my plays have nice parts for women, but this has some very nice parts for men. It’s quite dramatic and it’s quite a personal play. It has layers of great sadness and irony, but it’s also pretty funny. It’s got all the ingredients you need. It’s also incidentally, one of my few northern plays.

What is Time Of My Life about?
It’s one of my J.B. Priestley-esque plays, I think. It deals with time and its theme is very much about living for the moment. How we sometimes fail to realise where we are in our lives - if only we stopped and just looked around for a moment. We seem to spend most of our lives looking backwards or forwards; we look forward to something but when it arrives, it’s never quite what we expect and we look back on other things rather longingly and wished we’d enjoyed it more when we were there.

And it has a rather unusual structure.
It’s about three couples and their perception of this certain moment - the time of their lives - but they’re all moving through time in different ways. There is a pair who live on throughout the duration of the play in two hours, doing literally nothing in real time; there’s another couple who we briefly see in that time and then we perceive them hurtling forward at quite a speed over the next two years and who have a global view of events and are always looking back on that evening and who reveal what happens to the other characters as well. The third pair are receding backwards away from that evening. So they start off at the brink of going to the meal and then we slowly start going back through two months of their lives to their first meeting.
Everything converges on this single event, a birthday party which serves as a unity. It’s all set in the same restaurant and is held together by this one location.

It marked the first time you’d written a play which moved backwards and forwards in time, how does this effect the drama?
It’s essentially quite a detailed portrait of a family’s fortunes and misfortunes over two years. What the time element allows me to do is to offer different perspectives.

It was originally a success in Scarborough, but wasn’t as successful in the West End, why was that?
The West End production was slightly out of focus - but I can’t blame that on anyone but myself! It’s not an easy play to do in the end-stage and suffered as a result in London. It’s a perfect round play actually and really works well in the round because we’re in the restaurant with the family and over-hearing conversations at tables. If you’re in the front row, you’re practically sitting in the restaurant!

You mentioned it’s one of your few excursions up north. What led to that decision?
It’s the adopted northerner coming out in me. I think having lived here long enough, I began to think in the 1990s that maybe I could risk writing a northern voice. I was very conscious of being a southerner in a northerner’s world, although all the northern dramatists had moved south to live in places like Weybridge by then!
It’s a play which wouldn’t work if set in Surrey; there’s a northern philosophy to it, particularly in the parents who are so dismissive of things they don’t think are particularly important. They’re sharp and quite funny. There can be a sort of brusqueness and temperament in the north that when you come up from the south can give you quite a shock. Brutal honesty we call it in the south, but I think it’s rather nice.

You've also written two one-act plays called Farcicals, what was the inspiration there?
After the darkness that was slowly enclosing my new play Arrivals & Departures and the sea fret over Time of My Life, I wanted to find some sunnier places. So out came the Farcicals, first The Kidderminster Affair and then Chloe╠ł With Love. They’re fun. I suddenly thought to myself, you mustn’t ever forget the fun!

And, unusually for you, they’re farces.
They’re probably the first one act farces I’ve written since my early days writing in the 1960s; one act farces in themselves are also a complete anomaly - aside from Chekhov. They grew out of Arrivals & Departures, which has lots of short scenes. I was in a short- scene mood - how much story can I tell in a short play? Farces tend to have a classic structure and I wondered whether I could fit all the ingredients I needed in a farce - exposition, denouement and finale - into 30 pages. It’s quite tricky to do, but I was in that miniaturist vein.

One act plays are also unusual for you, did you find them challenging to write?
It’s quite different writing one act plays to full-length plays; there are people who are very good at one acts - John Mortimer was particularly fine at them. It’s like a short story really, it does require a certain mind-set and there’s something interesting about how much information do you need to put in and how much action do you need to have. Normally in a long play, you have a slow release of information but that’s impossible in a one act play, so it was quite an interesting challenge.

What’s the main difference between these and a longer play?
You don’t have any pages to spare to write deep and lasting characters, so they’ve got to be recognisable characters. One man is fairly stupid, another is completely stupid. There’s one woman who’s brighter than most of them - but still not that bright - and another woman who’s completely daffy! So you put them all together and you get the brains of one person, but they take themselves very seriously - which is the whole point of farce!

It sounds as though you enjoyed writing these characters
They are just joyously silly and I love them! They’re sort of timeless farce characters and the most un-urban people you can imagine - they’re completely country people who live in a nice village, untouched by time and mostly unaware of what’s happening in the wider world.

What else can we expect from the Farcicals?
They’ve got a food fight in them, there’s a man who loses his trousers - which has to be in any farce, sooner or later somebody’s got to lose their trousers and a girl’s got to lose most of her clothes or the audience want its money back! I also threw in - just to annoy stage management really - a live barbeque to set off all the smoke alarms in the theatre!

It sounds as though you had a lot of fun writing them and the audience will have a lot of fun watching them.
Arrivals & Departures, I thought let’s give the audience pud! These are puddings or amuse-bouche if you like, little tasties. They’re the sort of things you’ll go: ‘That was fun’. Of course, there’ll always will be someone who says: “is there any serious content?” to which the answer is “Absolutely not!”

In February 2014, Alan Ayckbourn touched upon Arrivals & Departures in a further interview with Simon Murgatroyd. Here he discusses the motivation behind the play and the audience's response to it.

Alan Ayckbourn: It’s interesting that there are times you just need to keep challenging yourself. Arrivals & Departures was a bit cheeky really. You write a play and you wind an audience up to the climax - and then you start the play again! Not only that, but you carry on with the same dialogue - quite a lot of the time - but hopefully the audience keeps seeing things through different filters. You get to know one of the characters back stories completely and then with mounting horror, you begin to realise what the other character's backstory is. And then you wait to see them all concluded and that is another flip in the story. Arrivals & Departures does some narrative somersaults.
I’m always conscious - and I keep saying it these days - that the greatest complement people can pay you is they didn’t see that coming. The worst thing they can say is we saw all that, we guessed that. In
Arrivals & Departures, unless you’ve seen it before or someone’s given you the spoiler, then I don’t think you could see what was coming.
The trouble with modern society is the attention span - people have so many things on their minds. They’re not stupid, they’re just overloaded I think and have communications coming out of their ears! With a play like
Arrivals & Departures, they have to switch on and follow quite a complicated narrative. And it really is hard work and you notice that.
There’s a vague abstraction I fear for the future generations - when you spend an evening with children sitting at a table, their eyes go down into their laps and you know there is something down there which is giving them information or they're having a conversation - nothing to do with what we’re talking about at the table. I think people are being forced to multi-task beyond their natural multi-tasking abilities.
I think I'm exploring new ways in which to tell stories and when you do that, its just inevitable you begin to challenge people. In fact I’m trying to think of a new way to tell the story I've got. I’m looking for a way to tell it. There are so many ways to tell stories, but the way that makes the specific story interesting and surprising is the only way to tell it.

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