Interview: Student (October 1980)

This page reproduces some of Alan Ayckbourn's significant quotes from the interview.

Alan Ayckbourn At Scarborough

by Pauline Young

"I don't really see myself in vast global terms: more important, I think I see myself as an artist purely re-interpreting and, hopefully, commenting through what I see. I think it is true that any artist worth his salt, and certainly most dramatists, will reflect to some extent the age they live in. Otherwise, they must be writing purely from imagination and without any reference to the real world. One would hope that the work I do is reflective of the age of the sphere from which I come. I suppose in a sense I see myself nearer to Jane Austen than perhaps to Shakespeare."

"I have a slightly depressing view of human nature; it doesn't change very much, only the circumstances around it change. I have absolutely no doubt that in a couple of thousand years assuming the human race survives, people will still be being pretty horrible to each other, and that it may be in rather more sophisticated and clever ways and slightly less permanently damaging ones. I have been both encouraged and appalled by the fact that people often say that my plays leap over countries that seem very English and yet they are received better in some parts of Europe and other parts of the world. It seems to me that all mankind has one common link, they all behave in slightly similar manner although their customs might be different. So, yes, I would say probably, providing the context is comprehensible, the human behaviour in my plays is a constant."

"I don't think anyone I know enjoys writing except the most appallingly indulgent writers. Most working writers, dramatists, novelists that I've met loathe the actual business of sitting down and working. The joy I've got - I don't know where the novelist gets his share - presumably he does! - is in finishing it and sharing it - almost immediately in my case - with another group of people. I find actually the business of writing, sitting down, absolute hell. The business of actual composing is just sheer tedious drudgery: the only pleasure is in when it is finished and I can get on with it with other people. That is really pleasure - seeing it come alive in front of an audience."

"I want them [audiences] to get pleasure, to respond, and the most positive response one gets from an audience in terms of being able to see it, is laughter. I love laughter, laughter in the auditorium - I think that would be one thing I want to get from an audience."

"I am a total theatre animal and not at all interested in - it sounds blasé - I am not particularly excited, let's say, by the thought of writing something for television, radio or for a film. Actually, I think I have always had a strange sort of love / hate affair with the theatre: I actually hate it a lot of the time and I love it a lot of the time. I am certainly concerned about it, and I am certainly concerned about spreading the word about it - in a way, like a 'hot-gospeller' to a wider audience because I do think that there is at best a great deal people can get from theatre, just in terms of sheer enjoyment. I think the best plays will incidentally also do other things for you, but I do not think that is what they set out to do. All the best plays I know set out first of all to tell a jolly good story and to entertain you and to enthral you and because all the best plays also deal with human beings, and because a good story-teller will do it incidentally whether he be Dickens or whoever, they will also tell you a lot about human beings and I suppose what theatre is about is telling people a lot about human beings."

"When a play is working at its best, certainly with a good audience, it goes from extreme laughter to extreme pathos at tremendous speed, and at a rate which is impossible to gauge on television. I think the highs and lows of it would be evened out by the fact that it was not getting a response. There is something about the silence that follows a big laugh from an audience, which is not to do with playing - it is to do with the response to an actor which is impossible to receive from a studio canned audience. It is something else. Television drama to me is a drama of a very even nature simply because it does not have any interruption, but just carries on blithely whether you get up to have a cup of tea or not. If your audience in a theatre got up to have a cup of tea, you would probably stop until they came back or ask them why they were going. I think there is a difference."

" I am trying to do two things - trying to do the impossible really. I am aware that with plays like
Joking Apart for instance, you can almost plot a graph. The plays that are more sombre shall I say, tend to do less well, which worries me - not financially - but just that fewer people come. Because, fewer people, actually, (as any Theatre Manager will tell you) want to see something that makes them feel... or threatens to make them feel... low: most people want to be cheered up, most people want to go up at the end of it and I can quite understand that because I do myself. But there are plays that can do both and that is very, very difficult to get at. What I am trying to do is to get that mixture so right that you can go in and get exhilaration from the plays and, at the same time, touch upon the untouchable thing... the depressions of human nature, the dullnesses of it, and perhaps the temptation is to eliminate all that is nasty and horrid... just keep it so light and so bright that nobody can be offended. I don't want to do that. I want to be able to do both. I want to deal with the depths of human despair and, at the same time, not leave my audience in despair. I would like my audience to go out, and, not sounding like a preacher, not feeling that the human race was hopeless, but that though the human race was indeed in a desperate condition there was still something they could do about it. I think if you go out feeling there is nothing whatever you can do about it - and you do out of a lot of plays - you say, 'Oh, my God, you are absolutely right. We are a terrible race, why don't we go out and shoot ourselves.' - It seems to be the only thing left to do.

"I am aware of the inequities of the human race. Socialism apart, there is a monstrous inequity somewhere up there. Indeed
Joking Apart was symptomatic and was a whole exploration of those born with it and those born without it. One can deal with it as a very light-hearted theme, which that play starts of doing, concerning a man who can apparently do not wrong. We know him, there is always one in our lives, whether it be the person who can always get a plumber when he needs one! I am the other type, the Eddie in Season's Greetings: if I buy something off the shelf, it never works, and I'm always going back to get it changed! I think most of us are this type. But there are those golden boys and golden women who appear to float through life and everything just drops right for them. I think this is true, and I don't know if we are the victims, or self-made victims, in some sense. There is a positive attitude to life which I have noticed in some people - which they may be born with, but I don't know that it can't be cultivated, whereby they don't worry. I always envy a man who gets an overdraft statement and does not worry. I could never bear when I had no money to be in debt; I used to was around like a man haunted, expecting the heavy hand on the shoulder. Some live way beyond their means and still have a very positive attitude, which is very nice. So, yes, I think that is an example of the inequality of nature, quite apart from any social system which tends to amplify it.

"In-the-round offers me firstly I suppose, this amazing emphasis on the liveness of the performance. An audience, sitting as they do, cannot really for very long be unaware that they are attending a performance because they are watching a human being performing against a sea of faces which belong to the human beings across the other side, who are equally reacting. And, of course, one will be absorbed in the play, I hope, to the extent that you are not totally put off by the faces opposite you! But nonetheless I think there is always some fraction of the brain - as there is in any live performance but even more so in the Round - that tells you that this is a live performance and not, as perhaps in a film where you sink straight into the screen and disappear. One tends to watch films on one's own, even in a full cinema, but I think the theatre is very much a shared thing. Certainly, in the Round, here, in Scarborough, and in most of them, unless they get too vast, there is this very strong tendency to bind together a group of disparate individuals, who all turn up at the same time at the same place and sit around to watch, into an entity, and to become an audience very swiftly, which is something that I think the theatre is all about. So the
Theatre in the Round has that. It also has, on the acting side, a great bonus. What the Round does more strongly than I could do, is to weld together a company. It is a great 'company-playing' medium, simply because playing together in the Round, actors are forced willy nilly - and actors, let's face it, are by nature individualists - to become a company. They have to play together, they inter-rely upon each other. As soon as there is dialogue in progress, both parties - whether it be Cleopatra and her maid or Lear and an attendant - have a totally equal part or role to play. It is thus a medium often avoided by established actors. I remember when we first started it was very hard to get any actors, partly because they were a little nervous of exposing themselves, as it were, on all sides. But also, I suspect, because, in fact, it denies you the sort of trickery, (some people call it 'technique'), that you can employ safely in the proscenium. Having said that, there will obviously be great proscenium arch performances. I do not mean to suggest that it is all trickery in the proscenium, but a lot of it is. A lot of it is quite carefully calculated. I think the Round has affected my writing as strongly as anything, simply because it is not conducive to the monologue for instance.

"I think that accuracy and attention to detail is one of the things that in the Round can particularly deal with, though I have done an abstract production where realism is not the object of the exercise. But once you set a play in a house or a flat or even in a garden, some immediately recognisable area, it is very very important that everything within it is correct. It's selection really. In the Round lacks big scenic drops but what it has to its advantage is a great proximity. As a child I was once taken to the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street where years and years of loving care had created this totally mythical man and his equipment - his violin and pipe, the windows were all foggy and there were muffins for tea; it was absolutely wonderful and one was actually carried into that world. If Sherlock Holmes had actually walked in, it would have been marvellous: it was the only thing that was lacking! Looking at a stage as close as we do here in Scarborough, I know that some of the people feel uneasy walking among the set to their seats but I like them walking round the set. It is quite exciting. If you are watching The Seagull, you can sit at the desk where Constantin is writing his novel and have a feel about it - and then go back and you have been a part of that world for a minute. We used to walk up and down the hill during Sisterly Feelings and it was great fun and you almost became part of the set. I think one of the nice things about our theatre is - that I don't like a theatre where an audience is expected physically to join in. That is those awful ones where they drag you on stage and ask you to declare your interest. I like to take part in my own quiet and private way as part of an audience. I like to laugh and I like to enjoy and I like to share but I do not particularly want to be singled out as an individual: I want to remain one of the body. One of the great things we found about this theatre is that it is rather like a 'peepshow' theatre - you are looking in on a private world from which they cannot see you but you can see them. Everything I can do to create realness in that private world I will do: indeed, there is a delight in getting the small details right. Photographs of the character's mother on stage, or awful old brown wedding photographs which are, in fact, the wedding of the character 30 years ago! All this adds to the detail as, indeed, tiny details of costume do."

"The sense of the Round is so limiting in that you cannot have too many grandfather clocks and huge pieces of furniture, you have got to select very carefully. My maxim has always been, since I have run the theatre here, 'By all means put what you like on the set but it has got to be absolutely right. If you cannot afford it, if you cannot get it, then imagine it.' It is better to have a lot of people sitting around a purely imaginary heavy refectory oak table than to have a mock-up made of hardboard which the audience is going to sit miserably staring at unconvinced for the whole evening. If you are trying to present that type of play, you will do without the chairs and everything and do it entirely in an imaginary way. It depends on the level of production."

"I think in a sense there is a great element of the game which I am very aware of and love. I am also a great board games player and what I love to do is to lead people along what appears a logical path into a maze of illogicalities. And, hopefully, unless they have a really boring mind that won't allow them to be helped - there are some people who just sit there stolidly from the moment the curtain goes up and the lights go down! But most people would love the idea and say 'O.K. I'll follow you and see where we get to' and finally, as in a play like
Taking Steps, it is a ludicrous situation. If you came in halfway through this play you'd say, 'I don't believe this. This is ridiculous - what is a solicitor doing in bed with the wife of his client if she doesn't know who he is.' It is ridiculous, quite farcical. Whereas, if you had seen it from the beginning, (I hope) - if it is played right and logically, the fact that he is there is totally logical, there's every good reason for him to be. And when he tries to explain it, the audience says 'well, yes': the fact that the man is unable to explain himself because he is also shy, retiring, and slightly nervous, is bad luck. Any member of the audience actually could get up and explain. That logic is there. As you say, it is against a totally normal background, or apparently normal background - it has to be."

"I think what happens is that when I finish a play, as I have just done within the last few months, I am really quite bouncy and ready to write another one, because I know I don't have to. I have lots and lots of embryonic things I wouldn't mind writing about, the sky seems to be the limit! As I get closer to writing, those ideas withdraw into dark corners because they realise that if they were to be held up to any real scrutiny they really don't hold water! Then the desperation does set in. I really don't know, as I say, what I am going to write - or even if I am going to write - until I reach the moment."

"Here [Scarborough], for instance, I think it is more widely understood why I work here, simply because it seems to be working. In some Scarborian minds, you have never really made it until you have been on ITV, although I think that is dubious; and they are slightly less impressed by the 'West End' here than the West End are! But I think I am committed to regionalism. I think it is probably easier for me to be committed because I have quite a lot of cake and eat it! Obviously, unlike say purely directors or actors, I can have my work done without being there physically."

"I am totally committed to it [the Stephen Joseph Theatre]. A television interviewer once asked me, 'Do you try out your plays here?' and I said I honestly don't; it sounds terrible but I actually write them for here and I am not that much interested beyond. That's not quite true, of course, I am quite interested, naturally, because they are my plays and I worry about them - they are like my children. But what interests me most is how they are here, that is my first interest and I have taken years to explain to West End managers who cannot understand it. I have had two First Nights in London this year and I have not been to either of them because I have actually been busy here. The National Theatre said 'This is the first man to have a double play at the National, two First Nights, and he was not at either of them'."