Interview: Washington Star (1976)

This interview was published in the Washington Star on 22 February 1976.

Ayckbourn Keeps 'Em Laughing In The Aisles

by Ruth Hamilton

Alan Ayckbourn, a large, comfortable, relaxed man whose The Norman Conquests" at New York's Morosco Theater seems likely to duplicate its success jn London - it is well into its second year here - sits in the living room of his small, perfect house in Hampstead, northwest London, where he has lived for three years, just down the road from where Keats lived. He also lives in his other house in Scarborough, Yorkshire, He has been for the last several years Artistic Director at the Library Theatre - a small, in-the-round theatre housed in the library - where all his plays are first produced. [1]

He is talking with horrified wonder at an episode connected with the New York production of his
Absurd Person Singular.

"They had this idea that it should have a guaranteed number of laughs, and they had two men sitting in the house, counting them. The laughs. No. really - and they got in touch with me and said, 'There are 92 laughs in the first act and 75 in the second, but only 51 in the third. What do you make of this?' I said, 'Well, I make out that the third act is not as funny as the first.' And they said, 'What are you going to do about it?' And I said, 'It's not supposed to be as funny, so if they're not getting laughs, I must come over and congratulate the cast."'

"Most Writers start with autobioraphical material, and write away from it. I'm the opposite. I started with broad farce; I'm moving to comedy of character instead of comedy of situation, and I do explore a bit of the darker side of human nature."

Ayckbourn has had 10 plays produced in London's West End during the last 11 years; he recently had three running simultaneously there. If you count
The Norman Conquests as three plays instead of one, he had five simultaneously. (The Norman Conquests consists of three separate but interlocking full-length plays which can be seen in any order. If you can see only one, you will still have seen a complete play.)

Ayckbourn was born in London in 1939 and has worked in theatre ever since leaving school at Haileybury, first as assistant stage manager in Donald Wolfit's company, and then directing.

"I stopped
acting when I realised the best I could get was average. But I keep on directing because it keeps me in contact, keeps me circulating. I couldn't go and live in a cottage on the Scottish moors and just write and never see anybody. By dint of working in Scarborough, I get involved in the community. It's a nice place, large enough, and there I'm in contact with Real Life.

"I acted in most of my early plays, which I don't recommend because you can't blame anyone if it doesn't work. If you're the actor, you can always blame the script. If you're the playwright, you can blame the actors. If you're both, you can't blame anyone but yourself: I'm sorry, it's rotten - and it's my fault."

Ask about the sources of his humour, his laughs, he says, "Well, they aren't jokes. It depends where you look. If you have a road smash, you can look at the road smash and write something tragic. I tend to look at the periphery and see the reaction of people looking. People are always trying to behave the way they think other people want them to behave, and of course that is not the way people want them to behave.

"I've always been a storage person. My stuff does not immediately attract film-makers: They want to see if it will run a year-and-a-half on Broadway. They look at it, and if Gene Hackman can't play it, it's no go. Every film has to be made with the United States in mind, because that's where the money is."

As for his current work, he has five one-act plays titled
Confusions which are scheduled for London production in May. "They vary from fairly frenetic farces to melancholy pieces. They're hard to write - it's like writing short stories. There are 23 characters for five actors. When we did it at Scarborough, the dressing room was awash with costumes and wigs. It's an actors' evening and they love it. It's nice if you get five clever actors together.

"The actors in the company arc on the same wave-length. They respond. Part of the fun is trying to baffle them a little. I tend to try to write something different every time, to keep them interested."

Working with the same company all the time, does he write with particular actors in mind?
"No. I try to save the casting for the end, and sometimes change it even then - give a part to this actor, who's not used to playing that kind of role. Or sometimes it's happened that this actor is not right, but this part is all that's left, so he'll have to do it, and he's walked away with the show. The alarming thing is that having been with this group so long, I forget the actors are getting older. I say to someone, 'Would you like to play the daughter?' and she says, 'I'd love to, but you realise I'm 35,' and I think, my god. The trouble is, in general, the technique needed for comedy requires an older actor. You may not look 21, but you know how to do it."

Having directed his own shows in their initial productions at Scarborough, Ayckbourn turns the West End direction over to Eric Thompson, who's directed
Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests on Broadway. When The Norman Conquests opened in London at the Greenwich Theatre, all three plays were done in one day (as they were for the New York opening).

It was a small theatre, and people were waving money at Ayckbourn in an attempt to get seats. "I haven't got any," he said. "Not even for myself. I'm sitting in the lighting booth. But betweens shows, everyone ate lunch in the park, and the cast was out playing football. By the last show, the audience's shoes were off and their coats open. It was a marvellous day."

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn became Artistic Director at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1972 and had - at this point - premiered 17 of his 20 plays at the venue.
[2] The full story of this and the often strange journey of
Absurd Person Singular to Broadway can be read here.

Copyright: Washington Star. 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.