Interview: Huddersfield Examiner (1978)

This interview was published in the Huddersfield Examiner on 11 August 1978.

Drama Of The Deadline Delivery

by Val Javin

Alan Ayckbourn, playwright and
director, Is 39. His mother was a journalist and he was born in London. He started his career as actor and stage manager with various companies before joining the late Stephen Joseph in Scarborough, founder of the Theatre in the Round Company for which Ayckbourn is now Artistic Director and resident playwright.

When the Stephen Joseph company moved to Stoke-on-Trent to open the
Victoria Theatre he went with them, then left and joined the BBC in Leeds as a radio drama producer from 1965 - 1970.

His first play to reach London was
Mr Whatnot, presented at the Arts Theatre in 1964. Then in 1967 came the highly successful comedy Relatively Speaking, in 1970 How the Other Half Loves, in 1972 Time and Time Again, and in 1973 Absurd Person Singular.

The latter won the London Evening Standard Drama Award for the year's best new comedy, and a year later his trilogy
The Norman Conquests won both the Evening Standard and Plays and Players Awards for best play of 1974. The Variety Club of Great Britain voted him playwright of the year.

Absent Friends, Confusions and Just Between Ourselves - which received the Standard's award for the best play of 1977 - played in London, and with Peter Hall, he co-directed his play Bedroom Farce at the National Theatre.

His 22nd play,
Joking Apart, is now playing at Scarborough and a short musical revue, Men on Women and Men, with music by Paul Todd, is also playing at Scarborough. Towards the end of October, he will start work on a new play to be seen later in the year.

The jacket fell open and a saucy, scarlet lining smirked into view. It said almost as much about Alan Ayckbourn as the man himself. It also came as something of a relief. For he has the look of an observer, a positively neutral sort of man.

Calm, comfortable colours sit easily on his broad, bulky frame. His choice of natural tones appearing as guarded and diffident as the man himself. Trousers of a deep, unassuming brown, and a sweater, shaded softly and simply in camel. Only his neat, casual jacket belied what was total in its understated harmony.

And outwardly even that had fitted the bill. Lightweight, not overly trendy, it was easy on the eye, with the merest flecks of brown disturbing its stony surface. Until he moved, revealing that bright jacket lining, and a warm welcome hint of colour.

For the brightest popular dramatist this country has produced in years clings to things familiar and edges out into the open tentatively, inch by inch, like an early morning sunrise.

Even now, despite a more than nodding acquaintance with the spotlight, he retains an engagingly hesitant air. And in this case, the observer who became the observed turns out to be distinctly shy. At first glance, it seems a wonder Alan Ayckbourn ever set foot on a stage, much less wanted to, unless that low-key, though genial exterior, hides a giant extrovert, screaming to get out. His first job in the theatre combined the roles of actor and stage manager, but once in Scarborough it did not take long before he was complaining and writing.

"I was working for Stephen Joseph in Scarborough and complaining bitterly about the part I had. Stephen said if I could write something better we would do it," he said.

He could, and did, and the resulting piece was a farce called
The Square Cat, which he wrote for himself. "It played for about three weeks and I thought it was a wonderful way to make money. I thought I'd be rich in no time."

While working at
Stoke-on-Trent, again for Stephen Joseph, he wrote a play called Mr Whatnot and that seemed destined for even better things. It was run by West End management, and Alan left Stoke "assured of fame and fortune."

The play was, said Alan, a disaster, and he was left with nowhere to go. He joined the BBC and they quickly dispatched him back north again to Leeds. His early interest in acting was quickly overtaken by his involvement in writing. And his fascination with the art of
directing grew steadily by its side.

"There are actor-directors, but once you've tasted the megalomania of directing, you don't want to go back."

I break his train of thought with a question and momentarily he retreats into his shell. His hand reaches out for a pencil and with his right arm resting on a worktop, he begins to doodle on the crisp, white pages of a small notebook. As if marshalled by the movement of the pencil, his thoughts quickly reassemble and he re-directs them to my probings about his writing. It sounds a frightening way to work,

"I just panic really. It's night and day stuff. I work all night, sleep in the morning and carry on in the afternoon."

The actual writing process takes him anything from four days to a week. And that is the way he likes it.

"It's very quick, but it has to happen like that. Not that I'm trying to play the Minute Waltz in 20 seconds," he said.

And he delays the start for as long as is decently possible. In the early days, he would be given a date for the opening of his next play and if pushed might be persuaded to produce a title for the benefit of posters, advertising and the like.

"I rather thrive on deadlines. I need that pressure physically. I've got too many ideas. Then someone says, well it's got to be delivered on Monday, so you decide and do it."

What is more, it works. He has never yet failed to deliver on time, though with his trilogy,
The Norman Conquests, he ran perilously near. Rehearsing with the cast he regards as fun, introducing them to the characters he has discovered. "I've got the pleasure of working with the cast. Then just as we are all getting fed up with it, along comes an audience."

He follows a new play through, but not for long. Having seen what does or does not work as far as his own eye is concerned, or anything he can revive, he moves on.

"You can only progress in your own way. I feel I have from play to play, but it is a fairly imperceptible movement."

However he describes it, the progression has clearly been a palatable one. In recent years, his plays have achieved phenomenal success, translated into 24 languages and performed throughout the world. Virtually a handful were at one point in production in London.

His next is due to emerge later this year. He says he already has an idea, but there is no guarantee that will have any bearing on the final product. Today, his undoubted writing and directing talents apart, his greatest asset is his reputation. He has been offered, and has refused, commissions to write plays, and his services as a freelance director would be snapped up anywhere he cared to choose.

But he cares to remain in Scarborough. And the reasons behind that are not hard to find. For Alan Ayckbourn does not strike you so much as a writer, more a man of the theatre. And his particular theatre happens to be in Scarborough.

As he sits in his work-room in the section of the school which is now the home of the Stephen Joseph Theatre-In-The-Round, his involvement and grip on the reins are seen for what they are. Total.

And that in itself should be sufficient answer to the question posed by many. Just why does a man like Alan Ayckbourn elect to live and work in comparative theatrical isolation in Scarborough? There is no big secret. Freedom to write, direct not only productions but the choice of company and material as well, must count as one of the place's biggest draws. He keeps a firm finger on the pulse of the entire operation.
"I've got too much control to give it up," he says, with his usual disarming combination of honesty and realism.

Before moving into their present quarters in the heart of Scarborough, the Stephen Joseph company used the
library for performances, but only for two nights each week. [1]

The rest of the time was spent trailing their work to Whitby, Filey and the like.
[2] Even then, the library committee felt they were getting more than their share of library space and time. And the building, they said, was needed for cultural activities.

It was not long - hardly surprising after remarks like that - before the company realised the time had come to move on and when it was pointed out that a local school was empty, they plunged in headlong. They were difficult, but apparently happy times. Alan Ayckbourn temporarily abandoned his sandwich, needing both hands to illustrate the point.

"We had to be out of the library by the September, and we had nowhere else to go. I said I could hold the company together for six weeks, and that was on reduced salaries. After that, it would be the end of the company."

The conversion job was done in 60 days. Many things were done in a hurry, but every penny that was spent was their own.

''When we were moving in, it was for a three-year lease, but when the authorities saw what we had done, they reckoned we were worth a ten-year lease.
[3] It's homely and fun. I think the gamble paid off. In local eyes it made us look serious. We were here and we meant it. We weren't going to take the money and run," he said, smiling wryly.

For no-one would ever get rich in a hurry playing Scarborough. The money is simply not there to be had. The company consists of just nine actors. They have to be complete professionals. Quick, instinctive, adaptable and experienced.

The work is demanding. Their programme includes lunchtime and late night shows, as well as the main productions, and the theatre does considerable work for children. The financial rewards, though, are not outstanding. Alan admits it is difficult for him to use people straight from drama school, and says he tends to look for actors with ten years' experience.

"That is hard because we don't pay a lot because we don't have a lot. Everybody gets the same."

As it is, the cast seem in no particular hurry to leave. Most stay for a minimum of two years, one lingered for eight.

"I think actors think they have learned a little of their craft here," he said.

Website Notes:
[1] This is inaccurate. Although The Library Theatre only had limited summer and winter seasons, they ran - generally -with performances on Mondays to Saturdays.
[2] This applies only to specifically the 1974 winter season where the availability of Scarborough Library saw the first introduction of a winter tour involving Scarborough, Whitby and Filey.
[3] That and the fact a promised purpose-built home for the company by the Town Council quickly proved too expensive to fund and was cancelled.

Copyright: Huddersfield Examiner. 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.