Interview: Plays & Players (1987)

This interview was published in the April 1987 edition of Plays & Players magazine.

Scarborough's Prodigy

by John Russell Taylor

For those who wonder how Alan Ayckbourn manages to run his theatre in Scarborough and have charge of a group at the National Theatre, the answer is that he doesn't - or not exactly. So then he has a sabbatical from Scarborough? Well, yes, but not quite, since at least he goes back to write and stage his traditional major play a year there, which to many would seem like a full-time job in itself. Last year - for this is a two-year break, from February 1985 to February 1987 - he did that quite comfortably in the midst of setting up his London group. This year, when I talked to him just after the triumphant opening of his production of A View from the Bridge, he was just about to do the same:

"About three weeks to see the Miller settled in and
Tons of Money back into the repertory, then to clear my head of all that, and I shall write the play in March and go back to direct it in August."

Just like that? A month to write the thing, with a strict deadline?

"Oh yes. Actually, though people in London have been surprised that I would want to direct other people's work as well as my own, that's what I do most of the time. I consider myself a professional
director who writes occasionally. After all, I direct for eleven months of the year, and write for only one. In Scarborough each year we do eight productions, and I direct six of them, one of my own and five by other writers. Mostly new plays by, if I can find them, new writers. And I was a director before I wrote, so I suppose it's my first career."

But presumably he must find some special satisfaction in directing, or he would not do it so much? 'Yes, I must. I sometimes suspect that quite a bit is, in a strange way, a specialised function of myself as a writer. There is something fascinating about getting inside someone else's head for a few weeks, trying to work out what another writer wanted to do and why he or she made the choices they did. It is a psychological as well as a technical study, because during that time the director has somehow to become the other writer, and see things from the writer's point of view. Not uncritically, of course, because then he would be failing in that part of the director's job which entails bringing another, we hope sympathetic, mind to bear on the realisation of the author's intentions. But for the director who also writes it can hardly help being another research project as well, finding out more about people which somehow, some time he is going to use.

"And then there is the matter of keeping the machine oiled. I think a very important thing for a writer is to keep on doing it. And particularly for a writer in the theatre. Because if you do not keep writing plays, and do not go on working with actors and the stage in mind, it is terribly easy to get rusty. The longer you are away from the theatre, the more difficult it is to do it again. I think the great problem of the British theatre at the moment is the dearth of new writers.

"And these other kinds of writing - television, films - that they can engage in, often more profitably, all contribute to it. You lose sight of a writer completely, and when you wonder where he has gone, you see his name on the script of some film. You find a really talented writer, put on a play of his, and then when you ask him what he is going to do next he says 'Well, you see, there's the television series...' One might think, it's all writing. But theatre is a very special thing, something you have to stick close to, or you lose a sense of what is happening. It's not that you have to be writing very fashionable plays all the time. But you have to feel what else is going on in the theatre, the smallest change of wind. If you don't, when you come back to it you find you are writing an instant antique, the kind of play that people don't really write any more."

No doubt also it could be useful also working with a particular group of actors, whether in Scarborough or in London, and writing specifically for them. I imagined that that was what he did in Scarborough, and had presumably done with his forthcoming London play,
A Small Family Business?

"No, not exactly. Of course in general terms yes, it can be useful to know more or less what actors you have at your disposal. But it can be quite destructive to write too close to your actors' personalities and appearances, since it usually ends up with confining them to something they have done already. I try to write very loosely within my actors' limitations, but I hardly ever know exactly which actor is going to play which role at the outset. Probably as the play elaborates itself in my mind I will start to make decisions of that kind, but I am usually quite happy to change my mind at the last moment and shuffle them round if I think it is going to get more interesting results, for them and for me. And for some reason I tend to decide about the men much earlier than I do about the women.

'In any case, when I wrote
A Small Family Business early last year, I had no idea who was going to be in my group at the National Theatre. Apart from Mike Gambon; he was built into it from the start, and it was largely because of him that I wanted to do A View from the Bridge: he's such a big, heroic kind of actor. Not obviously heroic in the traditional sense, of course, but a hero of modern life, an everyday hero such as Arthur Miller had in mind, somebody who has this heroic dimension in everything he does, however humdrum. And obviously it would be absurd to think of writing a role specifically to the requirements of somebody like him. So I really wrote A Small Family Business completely without thought or knowledge of who was likely to play it until I had finished. Not at all like old Ben (Travers), who used to throw his plays together as they went along, entirely in terms of the Aldwych company, and would change anything to make an actor comfortable and get a laugh. With me, we have been known to have a pitched battle over a comma!

"On the other hand, running Scarborough, I write just what I like and put it on, without having to consult with anyone.
A Small Family Business was the first play I've written for twenty years that I had to submit to someone else. It was quite nerve-wracking: I sent it to Peter (Hall) and then I thought, what if he doesn't like it? What if he says no? Now that was a learning experience of what other playwrights go through!"

How precise were the plans for Ayckbourn's group and what they should do beforehand?

"I think the plan was originally just that I should do this for a couple of years. And then that Mike Gambon should be part of it. I spent the early months of last year picking my actors and deciding on a repertory. The plan was always that we should do three productions, one in each of the houses. Mine was going to be in the Olivier, so that meant it had to be middle-weight - small-scale plays just disappear there. And I wanted to do the Miller as the heavy-weight end of the thing, in the Cottesloe. So for the Lyttelton it had to be something lightweight, and I wanted to do something very definitely proscenium. I thought it would be interesting to consider an Aldwych farce - I'd talked about doing something like that before with Simon (Cadell). I could have done one of the Travers pieces, but they're mostly so familiar and so much revived that I decided to look instead at
Tons of Money, because that has never been done professionally since the first production.

"I imagine it must have been done by amateurs, since French publish a text of it. But what we got was unbelievable. I mean, illogicalities and non-sequiturs you could drive a coach and horses through. You didn't need to be an intellectual to see them: even the most champagne-fuddled first-nighter must have stopped and wondered 'How did he...? Where did she...? Why are they…?' So we did a lot of work on the text. We had six weeks rehearsals - the most the play can ever have had. Then a week of previews, where again we did an enormous amount of work. And it still goes on evolving and growing and fine-tuning: now it's coming back into the repertory after a month out, I'm sure we shall find more things and do things differently. You have to remember that these things were originally on the road for 46 weeks without ever seeing London, so lord knows how many transformations they went through, all with the purpose of getting the laughs. After all, that's what a play like this is all about: giving the audience a good time.

"We get a few laughs in
A View From the Bridge (deliberately!), and it's good that we do, but it would not be disastrous if we didn't. But if the audience didn't laugh at Tons of Money we would have absolutely no excuse for doing it, since we can't claim any great historical significance or deeper meaning."

So what about the new play? 'Middle-weight', he said?

"Yes. I don't think I ever write, or want to write, really heavy-weight pieces. But some of my plays are obviously more substantial than others, and built on a larger scale. Writing with the Olivier in mind, I had my mind set on the scale and the sort of subject necessary to sustain it, and I came up with the idea of a 'modern morality play'. My son had been studying catering, and he was telling me about all the tricks of accounting, what you regularly have to write off every day. And there I was feeling like a complete idiot, asking all those old fuddy-duddy questions like 'You mean they steal food from the kitchens? Why don't they stop them? Why don't they pay them more, and then dismiss them if they are caught doing anything dishonest?'

"And so I decided to write this morality about a man who decides to run his family business on lines of absolute honesty, paying people what they deserve and then expecting them to take not so much as a paper-clip, being absolutely straight with the tax people and so on. Of course it is a sort of tragedy. First one of his family gets into trouble, and, his duties as a father coming first, he has to bend the rules a little bit. And once he has started, one thing leads inevitably to another, until by the end he is involved in heavy drug-smuggling, the works. And all through this, we have to sympathise with him and condone what he is doing every step of the way.

"What the play's really about is the virtual non-existence of set moral codes any more, and the fallacy of trying to live by one. I think now the only thing we can do - and in a way cannot help doing - is to make up our own moral codes as we go along, following out our feelings that 'I would do this, but I would draw the line at that'. The conclusion the play leads to, I might say, is the purely practical one of 'You can take the paper-clips, but draw the line at the desk.' I suppose that's why, in the end, it's a comedy, not a tragedy. I suppose that's why all my plays are."

With this amazing outpouring of plays, this deceptively regular life-style of nine months' gestation and one month's writing, was Ayckbourn never seized by sheer panic, as soon as he had finished a play, thinking 'This could be the last. I may never be able to think of a new play again'?

"Oh yes. Every time. Absolutely every time…"

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn received the Honour of Companion of the Order of the British Empire in 1987. He was knighted for ‘services to theatre’ in 1997.

Copyright: Plays & Players. 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.