Interview: The Guardian (1981)

This interview was published in The Guardian on 23 July 1981.

Star Of The Seaside Show

by Robin Thornber

Alan Ayckbourn is known all over the world as a comic playwright, an apparently unstoppable creator of highly-crafted manic marital farces. In his other manifestation, as a deeply committed theatre
director, his work until recently has been familiar only to a relative coterie of cognoscenti in the trade and unwitting seaside landladies and summer holidaymakers who regularly visit his tiny 350-seat theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough.

"I've been a director for an awful long time," he says, sounding slightly surprised himself at the realisation, and at the same time resigned to the way that nobody seems to have noticed. He is, he points out, more of a director than a writer, in that he spends more time doing it - roughly 48 weeks of the year running the theatre and directing half a dozen shows, to one month spent writing one play, or sometimes two.

He gets no money for it. Although the theatre budgets for an artistic director's salary, he refuses to draw it. In fact his royalties keep Scarborough going. This puts him in a uniquely strong position in relation to his board of management - while he remains rational, it's hard to imagine that they would ever shout him down. And so he bears a lot of the responsibility for the way that the Stephen Joseph theatre is run. But how good is he as a theatre manager?

First, you must remember the context. It is astonishing that Scarborough, with a resident population of around 50,000, supports a year-round repertory company at all - and something of an accident. It began with
Stephen Joseph's wandering troupe of arena actors, the fringe theatre of the fifties, staging short summer seasons.

Second, he is blessed with a dedicated administrator in
Ken Boden, who has been there since the early days, when he was an insurance broker involved in amateur dramatics. And third, there is his reputation as a writer, which attracts talent to Scarborough.

In this context the theatre has established respect and acceptance for three of Stephen Joseph's principles which might still seem dangerously 'progressive" to many a big city rep: the architecture of an auditorium committed to theatre-in-the-round; a stable ensemble company without star names; and a programme which includes a large proportion of new work.

It can be argued, and has been, that the theatre's repertory is fairly narrow. Ian Watson, who once worked backstage with Stephen Joseph, has just published a book of interviews with Ayckboum which raises this point. The nearest the theatre has come to social rather than domestic drama, he points out, was
The Crucible, a set book. "Do you not like the Brentons, the Barkers, the Snoo Wilsons, the David Edgars?" Ayckboum replies: " They're fine: I just don't want to do them myself, that's all - any more than they'd want to direct my plays."

And it's Ayckboum as a director of plays that remains Scarborough's remarkable secret. When he directs other writers' work one lazily wheels out superlatives like immaculate and impeccable to describe the production. The skill is even more noticeable with his own plays, where writing and direction is a continuing process.

It's become a cliche now, among people who see both the Scarborough and the London productions of Ayckbourn's plays, that the West End never lives up to the original. It's always irritated us that scripts that are written for an ensemble company are ruined by being turned into vehicles for star names.

Ayckbourn himself has in the past philosophically accepted the commercial dictates of West End casting (although he has fiercely resisted Broadway's attempts to tinker with his texts). Now, after too many betrayals - from Robert Morley taking over
How The Other Half Loves to the seventeenth recast of the National's Bedroom Farce - he is becoming more assertive.

Outside London, the irony is that while Ayckbourn's is one of the few writer's names that regularly fill theatres, his plays are rarely produced in a way that does justice to the subtleties of their sub-texts - they just play them for laughs.

He is, in many ways, an actor's director: "I'm terribly interested in actors. I like talking to them as people." He aims to be unobtrusive and let the actors think they did it. They discuss each other's roles. "This is what a company is about. You can cut a lot of the syntax."

Actors teach you things, he says. "I find things as a director that I am discovering with the actors - the harmonics which you wrote but weren't even aware of. It's like driving a car - you get to your destination and later people point out the route you took." But he doesn't believe in constant rewriting in rehearsal - that's for lazy writers.

An Ayckbourn script doesn't often read very funnily on the printed page - the humour is in the characters, the situations, and the way they work against the text. Other productions sometimes assume that what isn't there isn't important.

He mentioned one earnest young actress who, on the first night of
Absent Friends, was shocked when the audience started laughing - and Ayckboum wanted them to. A few nights later the show was dying on its feet because she was trying to get the laughs. Ayckbourn told her: "Regain your innocence, kid."

Copyright: The Guardian. 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.