Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

In 2010, Alan Ayckbourn revived Taking Steps to great acclaim at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. In the programme for the production, Alan Ayckbourn discusses Taking Steps, directing in the round and his career with Sam Walters, Artistic Director of the Orange Tree.

Alan Ayckbourn & Sam Walters In Conversation

Sam Walters (looking at the stage): This space is a bit small, isn’t it Alan?
Alan Ayckbourn: Well, chauvinistically I think that the Stephen Joseph Theatre is the perfect size. 400 seats. But you don’t really want to go more than six rows back.

SW: I would have loved this to have been slightly bigger but it was determined by the constraints of the development. But yes, if you have more than six rows, when someone’s got their back to you, you could feel shut out. But if you’re close to them you feel you’re just looking over their shoulder.
AA: People do worry, when they haven’t been to the round, that they won’t like seeing people opposite them. But, of course, that’s the whole point of it, to use the old cliche of 'shared experience.' And the reason you enjoy a play, particularly one such as this one, is because you’re sharing it with a lot of other people who are also laughing at it. And if you’re watching something terribly serious, you allow your eye to rest on the action, but occasionally, it’s quite nice to watch someone completely wrapped in the scene with you. Otherwise, there’s no point in going to the theatre.

SW: Exactly. You might as well just be watching the television or a film at home. You and I are fairly fanatical about theatre-in-the-round - do you ever ask yourself the question, why isn’t the country packed with theatres-in-the-round?
AA: Well, it’s one of these things that doesn't work in theory; but in practice, it works. What I object to are half~baked compromises. With theatres that have thrust stages on three sides, the actors just do not know where to stand. In-the-round is really the ultimate challenge. Stephen Joseph once said to me, if theatre is going to survive, it has to survive on its primary ingredients: the actors and the audience. In the end, it’s down to the acting, and the audience perceiving live acting.

SW: I absolutely agree, and it seems to me as we get more technology, and get more screen-orientated, and we've got multi-channels and computers by which we can be entertained, if the theatre is going to go on surviving, it’s got to do what it does that is totally different, and it is that audience connection. And perhaps there ought to be a way for more theatre-in-the-round, because it’s the ultimate theatre acting.
AA: When you sit in a theatre like this, you know you’re not going to change the course of the play, but you will alter the evening perceptibly by your laughter or your interaction. The actors will subtly alter, and you’II feel in control of it. And as anyone who’s done more than one performance of a show can tell you, it will vary from night to night depending on how they sense it is being perceived.

SW: And much more in a theatre like this, than a proscenium arch theatre.
AA: If you’ve worked in prosceniums like I have, the actors tend to refer to the audience as ‘it' or ‘them’ and they are a sort of anonymous body behind a curtain of light in another room. But the actors, last night, for instance, when I was sitting here watching The Promise, they were all damned aware. Some of the actors chose to stare at the audience quite closely; others tend to blur them out of focus, but nonetheless, they’re aware that there is a group of people surrounding them. I’ve known companies, my own in Scarborough in particular, where I’ve heard discussions about individual people in the audiences, like ‘that woman in the audience eating that huge packet of crisps and wrecking my every single Iine’.

SW: Is it chance that took you to the Stephen Joseph? You hadn't worked in-the-round, or knew anything about it, had you?
AA: Well, I was a stage manager at Leatherhead at the time. Now stage managers are their own mafia. They tend to stay in work and go from job to job, whereas actors get cast into the dole queue. So I was working as an ASM (Assistant Stage Manager) and the stage manager said: ‘Does anyone fancy a job in Scarborough?’, to which I said: ‘Where the hell is Scarborough?’, and he said: ‘Oh, it’s somewhere up North’, and I said: ‘Oh right, ok’. And then he said: ‘lt’s in-the-round’, and I said: ‘What the hell is in-the-round?’, and he said: ‘Well, there’s no scenery’. So l said: ‘That sounds like an easy job’, and I just went up there. I’d been promised a small part, well, quite a big part really, in An inspector Calls in the summer, so it was a good start to the job. | was acting in it and stage managing it so actually it was quite hard work. But that was my first introduction to 'in-the-round'.

SW: Many of your plays have transferred perfectly well, from in-the-round to proscenium, haven`t they? And then of course there were The Norman Conquests at The Old Vic where they completely transformed the whole theatre. But there are some which you have written, this being one of them, Taking Steps, where you have thought, this is a play on|y for the round. How often with your plays has that been the case?
AA: This is certainly the most ‘round’ play, and it didn't work when it was proscenium. It was during a period when my plays were automatically transferring straight from Scarborough to the West End, no questions asked, so this was just another one of them. It hit the brick wall of proscenium straight away, and I don’t think any of us realised just how ‘roundified’ it was. It depends, for its essential joke, on the floor, Unlike, say, How the Other Half Loves, which also relies to a certain extent on the floor, this one almost entirely depends on the scenic device of the floor to tell the story. So, if you cannot see the floor, you’re in trouble. Of course, in the average proscenium arch, unless you sit in the circle or the upper-circle, not in the stalls, where most of the critics sit and most of the expensive people sit, you cannot see the floor at all. So, what they did with this production, by compromise, was to try and build sort-of symbolic staircases. And Alan Tagg, who was one of the great designers, really had his work cut out for him.

SW: Somebody once said to me when I was first starting the profession that it was as difficult to get into a seaside rep as it was to get into a Hollywood blockbuster film, with both areas of the profession using the people they knew. So that the person directing the seaside rep had their own coterie of actors, and so did Stephen Spielberg or William Wyler; it’s no easier to break into one than the other. You’re like me; you like working with people you’ve worked with before.
AA: Yes, but there are dangers. One is that you work with people you’ve worked with before and it becomes a little too complacent. But when you’ve worked as long as I have, people I’ve worked with before haven’t necessarily worked together, or worked together with me. it’s like introducing friends that don’t know each other. But I’ve got a sort-of magical number of 20% who I would always like to be new, just to stir the mix a bit, because when a new person comes in, they look rather hot, rather good, and that tends to stir up the complacency. ‘My God! it’s a new kid on the block!’ One of my maxims, whether it be casting, or writing, or directing, is to try to keep the adrenalin running.

SW: Well, you do like to give yourself monstrous challenges, don’t you? As in, taking the Stephen Joseph Theatre, you’re faced with a theatre that has two auditoria, so you think, I need to have a play running in both, and you say 'OK, I’lI write two plays, but with one cast who’ll have to perform on two bloody stages on one night,” resulting in House & Garden. That really was the most extraordinary idea that you’ve had l think. But it worked.
AA: It was quite a tribute to a) the stage managers who were running it, and b) the actors controlling the pace. it’s meant that ever since then I’ve never believed actors who say the play came down two minutes late because of laughs. You don’t put two minutes on a show for laughs! No. Maybe twenty seconds.

SW: But it had to be incredibly tight because both plays had to come cantering in at the same time for the curtain call to work.
AA: We used the same music at the end for both plays and I'd been into one of the plays, come out and was walking down the backstage corridor and all the walls had speakers with switches on - and if the switch was up you were listening to The Round theatre, and if the switch was down you were listening to The McCarthy theatre, and I switched between the two, and I thought something had broken because they were absolutely dead in sync.

SW: I went up to Scarborough to see those two plays, and l thought, no-one’s going to do them in London. At that stage, we still had the room above the pub so I really was thinking about it. And my worries were not only would Alan let me, but l’II have to get permission to close the road! It would have been enormous fun here, but then sadly I heard that Trevor Nunn and the National had got their hands on it...
AA: It was my highest audience total. There were about 1,100 in the Lyttleton and 1,400 or 1,500 in the Olivier. So I had two and half a thousand people watching.

SW: You must have enjoyed seeing The Norman Conquests back in London, at The Old Vic.
AA: Oh yes, oh yes. It was interesting that I didn't meet Matthew Warchus, who did a superb production - wonderful stuff - until afterwards, and I said to him: ‘Why the hell did you want to do it in-the-round?’ And he said: ‘WelI, my feeling was that was how all your plays were done.' He went to school, somewhere just outside York, and used to come over to Scarborough, and would see a lot of my stuff, and he saw it all in-the-round, and he was convinced that was how they should be done. And who am I to disagree with him? But he managed to persuade the management of The Old Vic - God bless Kevin Spacey who went with it - to transform their theatre, which was a very, very expensive conversion. And I thought: ‘Nol No! No! A proscenium conversion is a disaster - you’re going to have 400 seats on one side, and 12 on the other!’ But in the end, they probably weren’t quite equally distributed, but it gave the impression of equal distribution, which is almost as good. And I have to eat my words there. They were just amazing.

SW: What we want is a London built, not too large, but major permanent theatre-in-the-round, for productions to be mounted for it, or to come from Scarborough or the Royal Exchange or Stoke. That’s what we should be fighting for. A West End theatre so that instead of Ayckbourn’s plays having to go into a proscenium arch theatre when they come to London, they can actually go into a purpose built theatre-in-the-round, and other shows can be mounted for it. Because it is the future.

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