Interview: The Stage (1988)

This interview was published in The Stage on 25 August 1988.

It's Alan's Round

by Valerie Grosvenor Myers

Soft-footed as a cat, Alan Ayckbourn prowls, in rehearsal for Man Of The Moment, about the theatre he has made world-famous: the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough. His style is unflappable, urbane, persuasive: with calm patience, he goes over and over each cue until he is satisfied, paying meticulous attention to timing. "We need a cue light about two lines earlier... I'd like her by the pool at least on the top rostrum - at that moment you should be actually in the doorway... let's do it again. Sorry chaps. Do I get the impression these seats have shifted?"

Peter Laird, playing Vic, picks up his cane seat. "This chair's beginning to go," he says in his normal voice, unlike Vic's slurred utterance. "You did that to the set before," says Ayckbourn. "Spanish rubbish!" retorts Peter cheerfully.

The chair is moved far enough back for Sharon the nanny (Shirley-Anne Sclby) to push past in front, but not far enough back to tangle with audience legs. It's a tight fit. A lot is happening in a small space. Sharon says she hasn't time to get changed into her uniform. She is promised music to cover. Half an hour is spent on perfecting the cues for five minutes' dialogue. Sharon practises removing her flippers and laying them behind her on the top step. She rehearses the timing of her jump into the pool several times.

The climax of the play is a pool-side struggle between Vic the villain and Douglas the weedy hero. Vic is meant to fall in, while Douglas rolls aside, unhurt. This time, both men fall in. Water splashes everywhere. Lesley Meade plays Vic's wife, Trudy. Trudy's next line to Douglas is: "Are you all right?" She delivers it. Everybody corpses, as a dripping Douglas, still in his Fair Isle pullover and suede shoes, crawls out of the pool. "We're going to have to work on that charge," says Ayckbourn. The crew mop up the splashes with towels.

Ayckbourn is satisfied. The tech run continues: "I really want you all on a fraction sooner- stagger it, so you seem to be arriving from all directions... we've got to spread the music out and redub a bit of it. Ayckbourn does not drive his actors, he says: he prefers to lead them.

"It was
Stephen Joseph who lured me into directing, after eight years of acting, [1] and I knew it was what I wanted to do," he says. "To bring it all together, and to enjoy other people's talent. As a writer, I hope to be innovative. One tries to explore the limits of theatre. I'm purely a theatre creature: I don't write for films, television or radio."

Ayckbourn believes in the well-made play, but has tried to bend and stretch the rules. "I always hope I'm mainstream experimental. Because my plays were known as comedies, it was assumed they weren't serious.
Man of the Moment is quite a bleak play, about quite unpleasant things. So was A Small Family Business. I think the moral climate at the moment is not what it should be. Man of the Moment is about the way we make heroes of villains (the Buster Edwards syndrome) [2]. My hero is the little man who has a go. But I hope to keep the laughter going: it keeps eyes open."

There are currently over 40 productions of Ayckbourn plays worldwide. "The plays seem to have leapt quite a lot of cultural and language barriers. My plays are said to be 'Very English', yet the Japanese, for instance, seem to recognise the people. This place for the next few days is like the tower of Babel: Japanese, Germans, Dutch come to shop early. They jet into Leeds. I always thank Stephen Joseph for having started our policy of new work - seven world premieres this year. We've always had an audience for it.
Way Upstream was taken on so many levels: the audience recognised good and evil, right and wrong: it was like adults at a children's picture show - they really were booing the devil. All my dark villains progress from being eccentrics to really dangerous men. In Ten Times Table there's a moment when they all look at each other and realise they've taken on a homicidal maniac.

"Now I only do one play a year: I went through a period of writing more. I've hit a good seam lately. I sit on myself: I'm not allowed to write till next March."

Is he afraid of ever drying? "Oh yes. But there are a few seedlings there at present... I cast
Man of the Moment after I'd written it, so there was no sense of writing for particular people. I think I'm an experienced enough director of my own work now to know when to back off people - I hope I don't just work the glove puppet. I can head actors off from the false trails one inevitably goes down when working on other people's plays. Mine are tightly written, tightly structured: the rhythm's deceptive. You have to know the rules before you can break them. When I started, I wrote avant-garde things, and Stephen Joseph said, 'Why don't you try a well-made play?' I build block speeches very carefully. The end-product is something that comes spontaneously from the character. If actors don't learn accurately, they have trouble with my dialogue. I have been able to create a relaxation, so people can chance their arm, without being afraid of making fools of themselves. I don't believe in stampeding actors. The director in me is hovering somewhere around when I'm writing.

"I wrote
A Small Family Business a year ahead, knowing I couldn't do my usual last-minute capers in the National Theatre, a user-unfriendly building, with five floors of scattered dressing rooms with no names on the doors, hundreds of people the actors don't know. I came to it fresh and followed the author's directions - and it was wonderful! We blocked the play and found all the directions worked. I can't remember why I did half of them. The actors assumed it would, but it was satisfying for me. It was a good decision I made, to go to the National for that two years, because it made me write for that big auditorium and somehow try and lick the brute; it's a beautiful auditorium for big classic drama. I always wanted to write the occasional big, robust vehicle. A Chorus of Disapproval, first done in Scarborough, was built as an expanding play: we did it with about 12 or 13 people. I originally wanted to use The Vagabond King, but there were copyright difficulties. I love The Beggar's Opera, anyway. I'm very conscious that the theatre is at least 50 per cent visual. I like the round for a lot of reasons; but yes, on the whole a proscenium makes life a little easier.

"We can't compete scenically with film, but our advantage is liveness."

Do you still get pleasure from hearing actors speak your lines, embodying the people you have as it were knitted?

"Oh yes! It's a very exciting two or three days now. The play will undoubtedly grow in the next few weeks."

How Jong is rehearsal time?

"We take four weeks here, but we have evening performances which most of the cast are in, so time is finite. We have a bring-back rehearsal once a week and we have lunchtime and late night shows. I end up working three or four days on rehearsals. It seems to work. Our next play is a new adaptation of a Chekhov story by Frank Dunai, an unsolicited script."

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn actually only acted professionally for seven years from 1957 to 1964; he began directing professionally in 1961 - four years after he began acting professionally and two years after his first professional playwriting commission.
[2] Buster Edwards was one of the Great Train Robbers in 1968 - one of the most famous and lucrative crimes in British history. Several of the train-robbers - such as Edwards and Ronnie Biggs - achieved great notoriety after the event with the film
Buster (1988) based on the life of Edwards; ironically, the name of the driver of the train, Jack Mills, who died of injuries sustained from the gang is little known and he was practically forgotten.

Copyright: The Stage. 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.