Interview: Scarborough Evening News (1978)

This interview was published in the Scarborough Evening News on 6 January 1978.

Treading A Tightrope Between Comedy And Tragedy

by Andrew Norfolk

New Year's Day was Guy Fawkes night for Scarborough playwright Alan Ayckbourn. He held a proper bonfire party in the garden of his Longwestgate home.

On Sunday it was "anyone for tennis?" in the old school playground at Westwood, behind
Theatre In The Round. But next week the prolific playwright plans to let the grass grow under his feet.

Mr Ayckbourn and the members of the Theatre In The Round company are making preparations for the staging of his new play
Joking Apart. It opens at Westwood next Wednesday, 11 January, for four weeks.

The play is set in a garden - hence the grass - which will be put down in the theatre. The company is having real grass, partly because It Is cheaper than artificial stuff. "We have made arrangements to replace it if it wears out," said Mr Ayckbourn, who Is the theatre's artistic director.

Like many of his 20 previous plays
Joking Apart features a lot of off-stage activity. The plot Includes an off-stage bonfire party and tennis match, and what better way to create the sound effects than to organise the events themselves?

"I think it is a bit different to anything I have written before," he said. "For one thing there is the time span." His plays are usually set over a few days, but the new one Is set over a period of 12 years, ending with the 18th birthday party of a character who was six at the outset.

He thinks it is neither a very light play, like
Bedroom Farce, nor a dark comedy in the mould of Just Between Ourselves. But he allayed fears that the title meant It was not a comedy at ail.

"Better comedy writing is always an inch away from being tragedy. I try to tread the tightrope. I think In this case the rope is fairly good, but I never really know where the balance Is until I see the audience reaction. People could well see a darker side to it. Another thing about this play is that it could not be written by anyone under 38 years old. Suddenly I have written a middle-aged play. One doesn't realise time has flown. I think of the '60s as being yesterday, but already actors are writing to me who were born at the end of the 1950s". His own son Stephen Is now 18. "He has come of age, and is driving and doing all sorts of other things."

He finds that it helps to be older both for writing and directing. "No-one takes any notice of a young director," he said. "The play is a sort of look back over the last twelve years."

Production of the play is being sponsored by the Midland Bank. Many British theatres regularly have sponsors for their productions, but It Is the first time that there has been one for Theatre In The Round. General manager Mr Ken Boden is looking around for other companies to sponsor future productions.

Mr Ayckbourn said: "Private sponsorship is one way of enabling theatre companies to survive now that funding of the arts, along with other public expenditure, has been heavily cutback."

The bigger outfits have been worse hit than small companies like Theatre In The Round.

"Fortunately most of our money goes on people rather than things like sets - timber has quintupled In price. Mind you the actors are subsidising the company by taking lower pay than people of their experience should get."

He is quite pleased with the way things have gone during the company's first full year at Westwood. "It has proved that there Is an audience for theatre in Scarborough all the year round." More special events are In the pipeline for the theatre club. It means that despite the financial strictures, he can be reasonably optimistic about the future, especially now that the Theatre Trust has been offered a lease on the Westwood premises for a further seven years.

After the last Scarborough performance of
Joking Apart on 4 February the company are taking It on a six week tour of England, visiting Tewkesbury, Weymouth, Torrington, Taunton, Dartlngton, Weston-Super-Mare, and Peterborough. They are going so far afield because they cannot get financial assistance to tour in the Yorkshire area.

"The Yorkshire Arts Association have not got enough money to help out, and we cannot get funding from the central Arts Council unless we go outside the association's area," said Mr Ayckbourn.

He would like the company to be able to tour In Yorkshire. Not only would It be cheaper but there would be a hope of attracting some of the tour audiences to make the trip to Scarborough to support the theatre here.

Going on a tour requires a good deal of organisation, as does a summer or winter season. "The actors and actresses have what looks like a railway time-table showing when they perform, when they can sleep and so on." But he enjoys the organisation to some extent. "It Is like working out the plot of a play."

With the play, the production and the tour coming up, Mr Ayckbourn can feel pretty pleased just now - and It has all been achieved without him touching a cigarette. He gave up the demon weed in the autumn, at the same time as some others in the company, and he has yet to break the vow. "I even wrote the play without one," he said.

Website Notes:
[1] In October 1976, Alan Ayckbourn model the company from the Library Theatre - where it had been founded by Stephen Joseph in 1955 - to a new home at the former Westwood County Modern School, renamed the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. Initially it was hoped this would be a temporary home whilst a purpose-built theatre was created but the company instead found themselves at Westwood for 20 years.
[2] Alan was a heavy smoker prior to autumn 1977 when he and members of the copy took on a bet to see who could last the longest without a cigarette. He gave up smoking immediately for the challenge and - as of writing in 2018 - has not picked up a cigarette since.

Copyright: Scarborough Evening News. 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.