Interview: Plays & Players (April 1987)

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

Scarborough's Prodigy

by John Russell Taylor

"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."

"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."

"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.

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!"

"I think the plan was originally just that I should do this for a couple of years [at the National Theatre]. 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 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."