Interview: TheaterWeek (12 September 1988)

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

Going To Scarborough Fair With Alan Ayckbourn

by Gerard Raymond

"He [Stephen Joseph] had two concepts, both of which were fairly original in English theatre at that time. One was to stage plays in the round, which we still do, and the other was to encourage new writers as active participants in the creative process of playwriting. At that time in England, writers had become rather remote figures. Stephen actually re-invited the author back into the fold. Indeed, he encouraged everyone working in that tiny theatre - box office men were typing away between selling tickets."

"I've tried to keep up Stephen's basic tenets: new work, a company, and playing in-the-round. Of course, it also became a wonderful place for me, the writer. I suddenly looked back about three years ago and I realised I'd been in a unique position. I just had my plays done automatically. Some people may argue that maybe some of them should have been turned down. Nonetheless, it was just me, the writer and me, the
director, together; I hope not uncritically."

"Another of those Stephen Joseph tenets came back to me - you must constantly surprise yourself if you want to run a theatre. Once you say to yourself, 'Oh, but we always do that at this time of the year,' you're in a rut. Peter's invitation was timed to perfection. I thought I would benefit and the theatre would benefit."

"It is an odd quirk, that quite often when you direct your own plays, it is assumed they sort of do themselves. Indeed, while it was very gratifying, it was quite amusing to read the good reviews for
A View from the Bridge, which is an extremely simple play to direct, given the cast I had, compared to A Small Family Business, which was fiendish."

"I think one has to separate New York, or Broadway, from America. It does seem to me that my plays do reasonably well when you get to San Diego. New York is that corner of the world where it's all or nothing time. This was encapsulated with
Bedroom Farce. One sensed that the audience couldn't really sort it out. They were going to see the National Theatre of Great Britain, which to them meant very serious theatre, preferably with a lot of people in wigs and very long acts. And they saw what seemed to be this very silly play about people chasing each other in and out of bedrooms. I think that the audience who might have enjoyed it never got to see it because the National put them off, and the people who came for the National Theatre really wanted to see something much more serious. So in a way I kept falling down the hole. I fall down the hole in places like France as well, where I am neither of the | boulevard nor serious. Woman in Mind got terrific reviews over there, but nobody went to see it because they thought it wasn't really very funny."

"My plays have been dark for quite a long time. We go back to plays like
Absent Friends and Just Between Ourselves , which I think were really rather sad and serious documents."

"I started by writing very plot-oriented plays because I think at first one is a little bit nervous about technique. You think if you can at least keep the story going then people won't walk out. Then, as it dawns on you that, far from walking out, you are actually keeping them in their seats, the plot can be allowed to relax a little. You can now allow a lot more colour to bleed through into the characters. You actually stop pushing them in and out of doors, which I did originally. And of course of the nature of the comedy shifts - which is much more interesting - into a level where there isn't much use of gag lines or comedy situations. The nicest laugh I get in plays is the sort of sigh of recognition which comes out from some situations. People have either been there or know of it."

"I have to restrain myself. I love playing with new shapes and forms. Audiences are really very quick. That is the joy of it." He explains the trick is "making it logical. You can't cheat them. You don't suddenly change the rules."

"In Scarborough, most of the decisions are made after the actors have started, and that's great - because they don't feel somehow that they are in some sacrosanct area. I always like them to feel that it's their medium - they are in control of it to some extent." He recalls another lesson learned from Stephen Joseph: in directing, "anything an actor feels he has generated himself is worth a hundred directions you have given."

"I've always had a hankering to lick the musical since then [
Jeeves]. But it is very hard, because I think I'm actually not geared toward the big musical. I find, in the end, that because of the size and the scale of it, you have to simplify the form. It is not a small coincidence that we are blessed, at the moment, with pretty good lyric writers and some very good composers but there are very few good book writers in musicals, because it's a dog's job."

"We [my step-brother and I] saw about twelve or fifteen films a week - often twice. We saw so much rubbish, but we also picked up the grammar of film. All of this is in my plays. I've used filmic stuff on stage." Cross-cuts and superimpositions are quite commonplace devices in film, he points out, but very effective on stage. "That's one of the problems with my stuff. Once you transport it back into film it's not very interesting."

"I always promised to come back to Scarborough and I think nobody believed I would. When I told the board I wanted to take a two-year leave of absence, they thought this was the way that I was going to gracefully get out. So I think no one was more surprised than they were when I returned. I've discovered that I could survive as a writer. I've written two plays away from Scarborough and that is good. I had suddenly begun to worry whether or not my creative juices would function away from that little theatre. I wanted to prove they could."