Interview: The Times (12 November 1988)

Who Should Pay The Player

by Peter Lewis

Alan Ayckbourn and Ian McKellen have devoted most of their energies in recent years to the National Theatre, where both of them led acting companies. Now they are working together, back in the commercial theatre. Ayckbourn's play Henceforward…, in which McKellen plays an electronic composer, previews from Wednesday at the Vaudeville Theatre. Is the move a sign of the times, now that subsidy is increasingly giving way to sponsorship? Peter Lewis listened as the two men talked about the increasing changes in theatrical finance

Alan Ayckbourn: I joined the National Theatre because they asked me to lead a group of actors, just as I do at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in Scarborough. It is very difficult to bond together a total of about 120 actors, half of whom don't know the other half s names. Some, especially those in the middle ranks, lack a sense of identity.

Ian McKellen: In our group, Edward Petherbridge and I were trying to reduce the impact of the concrete and the anonymity of the place at the level which counts, which is getting the play on. When you are working there, you seldom even see the work of your fellow actors, because you're never off when they're on. I never managed to see your play, A Small Family Business, though I heard it over the Tannoy.

Ayckbourn: You imagine from outside that the National Theatre is a homogenous group of people all meeting together in the joint pursuit of excellence, but it's not like that. Although our time there overlapped, Ian and I only waved at each other across crowded rooms. Commercial theatre seems quit cosy afterwards.

McKellen: The joy of it is that day by day we get to know each other and the play better. I look forward to six months of discovering the delights of the play with no fear of boredom - but that's because it s a very good play.

Ayckbourn: On the other hand it is the first play of mine for several years which is practical for a commercial management to put on. The National extended me as a writer by giving me a bigger canvas to work on, casts of 13 or 16, without having to glance nervously over my shoulder at the box office. People think of me as a commercial theatre playwright but I owe my progress as a dramatist entirely to the subsidised sector. My plays have always first been done at Scarborough. The Norman Conquests would never have been put on commercially - indeed managements turned it down. So I put it away in a drawer until a subsidised theatre, at Greenwich, stuck its neck out.

McKellen: All the shows I've done in the West End except one have been transfers from the subsidised theatre. Nowadays, the commercial theatre couldn't survive without them. But don't forget that every play you see in a
subsidised theatre is also being subsidised by the actors and stage staff who are doing it for much less than the market rate.

Ayckbourn: When I engage actors at Scarborough, most of them say they can only afford to stay there for six months. Afterwards they say: 'Thank you, I really felt like an actor this summer, but now I've got to get back.' And off they go to do television bits and bobs which pay much better. To my surprise, when I got to the National they were still saying they couldn't afford to work there for more than six months. And even in the West End there's a reluctance to commit themselves to more.

McKellen: We're lucky that we can earn enough commercially to be able to afford to go back to work in the subsidised theatre.

Ayckbourn: If it's still there. The funding problem gets worse and worse. At Scarborough we're told to help ourselves by getting local sponsorship but what can we offer? We have 300 seats and a show runs for four weeks. There's no national publicity in it. I spend a lot of time getting local firms to give us money but they won't commit themselves beyond this year. Next year, they may think it's time they supported the cricket club.

McKellen: It's no answer to say that there isn't enough money raised from private sources. There's never going to be! What is this moral responsibility that big firms have for the arts? They pay their taxes. The responsibility is the nation's. It's an ignorant assumption that if theatre is good, it will pay for itself. This is historically untrue. The most famous Englishman who ever lived wrote plays and acted in them in a company patronised and subsidised by the Court.

Ayckbourn: The other assumption I object to is that theatres are inefficiently run. We always deliver the product on time, which is more than you can say for much of British industry.

McKellen: If you look at America, you find they haven't the funds to run theatres which can train actors, writers and technicians.

Ayckbourn: Relying on sponsorship also means choosing the sort of plays that attract sponsorship. We couldn't get anyone to back 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at the National to save our lives. Whereas the Arts Council wouldn't dream of saying, you ought not to do this or that. If we don't do the classics, people won't know what they are.

McKellen: And actors won't know how to perform them. Young actors are arriving at Stratford woefully untrained in Shakespeare because the Reps can't afford to do any.

Ayckbourn: There are actors nowadays who don't know what an Iambic pentameter is. The classical training isn't there. They come out of drama schools and the nearest work available is improvised work on the fringe or grunts, ums and ers on TV. I'm not optimistic about the long-term future of places like Scarborough, which have to, rely on three or four sponsors.

McKellen: The reason that theatre in our lifetime has been good is the system of subsidy and the Arts Council, with all its faults, which is the envy of theatre people throughout the world That is the system which is now being altered, and not by people who have spent their lives in the theatre and know what they're talking about.

Copyright: The Times. 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.