Interview: Plays International (February 1987)

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

Plays International

by Peter Roberts

"I was getting to the point where the 15-year-old itch meant that I realised I would have to have a break from Scarborough. Peter Hall, after the success of A Chorus of Disapproval, wrote to me shortly afterwards to ask if I would like to form my own company and do a season of plays here. I wanted to have two years off but at the same time I did not just want to sit about doing nothing so it worked out rather well on the principle that a change is as good as a rest."

"Something I think I do quite well is to breed a good atmosphere in the companies that I form and I thought that I would try to do that on a bigger scale here. I planned to get a company together that I thought would be mutually interesting and stimulating and with them to do as varied a bill as I could and explore the challenges of the three theatres here - the Olivier, Cottesloe and Lyttelton.
Tons of Money was chosen for the Lyttelton, the archetype proscenium-arch theatre. A View from the Bridge is a wonderful small-scale tragedy and, written in the 1950s, it betrays a lot of its 1950s origins with that period's low-key Method approach which asks for the eye-level contact that you can get in the Cottesloe. The third challenge was to write something myself for the Olivier. That was something that I had never done before. I'd had plays done there which had originally been performed elsewhere but I'd never actually written something especially for it as I have done with A Small Family Business. Over the years I had developed a very good working relationship with Michael Gambon and it was he whom I first approached when I was setting up this company. "

"If I had the time and the opportunity I would do at least half a dozen things on the fringe here [at the National Theatre]. I've got a company of 20 and I want to use them as much as possible as I believe that actors are happiest when they are busiest.

"I have every intention of going back to Scarborough in 1988 and indeed we are already beginning to think of what will be in the repertoire there then. Also it is important to make the point that we do a lot of other people's work at Scarborough as well as my own plays. We do some eight new productions a year and I would have thought up to five of those would be new plays. We have a resident writer who has replaced me.
[9] Very rarely does anything new just come through the letterbox. But when something promising does, we suggest that the writer comes to have a look at our theatre and at our audiences. He may not necessarily much like what we are doing but I hope that perhaps the space and the audience will stimulate him to write something for us. There is of course a great deal of satisfaction in seeing a young writer coming up through your company but it does take quite a long time before you know how the new writer is going to run, so to speak. I don't think I would have got anywhere much without a lot of patience from Stephen Joseph at the beginning for there was absolutely no thought when I started that I was going to be a writer who was going to do as much as I have now. My first few plays served their purpose but they were not all that wonderful either. But they allowed me, the writer, to learn very quickly from what I saw as they were being put on. So what I try to do now with young writers as Scarborough is not to judge too much from a first play and I urge the writer when his play eventually gets produced to sit and watch not only the play but the audience too which, in an in-the-round theatre like Scarborough, it is easy to do."

"Scarborough used to cater for smart middle-class families with buckets and spades but Peter Cheeseman has pointed out how too lots of pottery workers from Stoke used to chunter up to Scarborough for their holidays. But I suspect that a lot of moneyed middle-class people now go abroad not only because that is smart but it is also in fact cheaper. As a result there have been great changes with the resort becoming a conference centre too. But we have become much more a regional theatre and much less a holiday season theatre in recent years. When I inherited the theatre from Stephen Joseph we had a 12-week season from early June to early September but now we are there and open for as long as we can stay financially which is from May to early February. Inevitably, with this extended season we pick up local as well as visiting holiday audiences and we pick them up not only from Scarborough itself but from places nearby like York, Pickering and even Sheffield and Hull."

"Drawing on a permanent nucleus of actors was one of the three planks on which the Scarborough theatre was built on - the other two concerned doing plays in-the-round and presenting new writing. Both of the latter concepts were Stephen Joseph's. What I added to them was offering six or nine month contracts so that actors could do a whole series of plays without entirely cutting themselves off from other work. As a result we have some people who have been there for six months and many more for something like six years. Having said that, we realised that it is quite important to keep the circulation going, for without change it becomes adulatory and self-congratulatory. So, though we do change, there are always enough people in the company to teach the traditions and pass on the style of the theatre to the next lot. And we do encourage actors to make their own contributions - if for example there are some who are keen on doing roadshows then we do roadshows. Some people prefer acting outside a building to performing inside it, though I'm not one of them."

"I don't act and will not go back to it. I think one has to detach oneself from acting in order to direct successfully even though I admit that Pinter does indeed manage to do all three very successfully. If you have a powerhouse like Michael Gambon in your company who seems to have most of the equipment I quite lacked as an actor you don't think of going back on the stage yourself."

"The best ideas I have are for the theatre. Often, as you imply, I whip things from the cinema and try to rescue them for use in theatrical terms. I am very interested in that but I've never felt the desire to launch into cinema. I think in the back of my mind the feeling is that, in the end, the single most powerful influence on an evening in the theatre is the writer - particularly if he is a writer / director. There is no doubt that, on the contrary, in the cinema the writer is secondary."

"I enjoy it [going to the cinema] more than theatre-going. Funnily enough, I think one of the reasons is because I really know so little about it. The most boring thing I can imagine is sitting next to a really well-informed cinema buff who grits his teeth at a bad cut or something like that. Similarly, anybody sitting next to me at the theatre must have a terrible evening as I writhe and mutter at technical imperfections."

"I don't hate my characters. I think some of them have some terrible thoughts but I feel for them."

"Men and women who formerly had clear-cut functions, find that all that has changed and so too have the old notions of what is working-class and what is middle-class. It's all very nebulous where one begins and the other ends. The difference was brought home to me recently when a painter who was doing up our house in Scarborough said 'when I was a lad we never walked across that bridge over there. We were working class and you never went across that bridge if you were working class.' Then, after a long pause, he added 'but you did know where you were in those days.' Another change that affects people very much relates to politicians. I remember the time when one assumed, for better or for worse, that politicians knew what they were doing and were doing what they were doing for the public good: they were there because they were the best people to do the job. But now the political thing has gone full circle. They are regarded as scoundrels the minute that they put MP after their names. There is such a feeling of scepticism about them. It is now assumed that they are all on the make. The truth, I imagine is that there are bent MPs who are there for the wrong reasons but there are still also MPs who are there to do their best. The greyness people feel about them today is another reason why people no longer feel quite sure where they are."