Interview: L'Espresso (October 1989)

Alan Ayckbourn: 10 Questions

L'Espresso: You are an author who knows the entire process involved in putting together shows. You've worked both as an actor and as a stage director. How much influence do you think this wide experience of the production and staging side of the theatre has had on your abilities as a dramatist?' And what form has this influence taken?

Alan Ayckbourn:
An immense influence. My view is that playwriting is an immensely practical craft. A successful playwright needs to have a working knowledge of all the many skills and ingredients which he has at his disposal. He need not be an expert in them (better not!) but he should have some idea of what's possible and, equally, what are the limitations.

How important is the reaction of the audience to a joke, a plot device, or a situation? Is the final version of a script the result of a series of progressive transformations, or is something that you no longer modify once it has been written? And if you do change it, on what basis are the changes made? Do you take into account the reactions of the public or of the actors? Are modifications made after exchanges of ideas between the actors and the director?
An audience, besides the actors, is the most important ingredient. It is what determines a live show as opposed to a recorded or filmed one. If an artist resolutely ignores his live audience by ignoring its reaction or pretending it doesn't exist then he is failing to acknowledge the basic intention of theatre. [1]

You have a very close relationships with Scarborough. What does it represent exactly for you? Is it a kind of laboratory where you try and verify the value of your work? What sort of influence has the move from Scarborough to the level of the National Theatre, where you were a company director, had on your work?
Scarborough is where I write and where I first direct all my plays. It is a small town, that suits me. It's by the sea. Which I like. It is also a holiday town which means that, especially in summer, a large number of holiday makers come and alter the face of the town. Which stops it becoming too cosy. My temporary move to the National Theatre had the primary effect of making me more ambitious with the scale of my work. I now write for companies of 10 or 15 where once I was content with 6 or 8! My National appearance as a Director had the result of getting me recognised nationally as a director as well as a writer. Though, of course, I've been directing for longer than I've been writing. [2]

In Italy English drama is considered not only the richest and most diverse in the world, but professionally impeccable as well. What, in your opinion, are the most important factors which determine these qualities? For us, English drama seems to fall into rather easily definable periods or types, from Coward to the 'angry young men' to the Stoppard, Pinter, Shaffers, Ayckbourns. How does Britain’s political and social climate influence British drama? In your view, what sort of influence have the Thatcher years had on the British Theatre?
I'm not sure. You are right that we have a very rich tradition. Some of it, I suspect, happens despite the atmosphere that surrounds us artists rather than because of it. We are generally ignored by our fellow countrymen who feel that 'art' in any shape or form is, at best, rather a wasteful, non-productive enterprise and, at worst, downright dangerous. All of us, I think, are like neglected children. No one, we feel, is really listening to us. In an attempt to gain attention we often develop very loud voices. If you want children with good lungs build them soundproof nurseries. It is curious, anyway, is it not that the countries who treat their artists best don't always produce the best art. Mind you, I feel that one can take this policy too far, as Mrs. Thatcher is in danger of doing. She is at present threatening to nail up the nursery door altogether with the children inside.

And in your own work, what factors are most influential? How does the writing of a play begin? An architect can start with the basic structure or with a particular element of detail? Where do you start?
Again, I'm not certain. Every play is different. Sometimes with a theme. Sometimes a situation. Rarely with a character, they almost invariably come along later. All I can say is that a play for me needs more than one good idea. It needs several if any sort of cross-fertilisation is to occur.

How do you explain your success in Italy, a country which might not seem particularly close to your brand of humour? In the Italian translations of your plays, sometimes the English setting is retained, and in other times it is replaced by an Italian ambience. Which of these kinds of translation do you think is best for the presentation of your plays here in Italy?
No idea at all. You'd better ask the Italians! My plays have been seen (and liked) in more unlikely places, believe me. I suspect that under all the welter of social detail and so-called 'English' behaviour my characters are fairly universal. I describe my plays as births, deaths and marriage columns with laughs.

Do you believe that writing for the theatre is something that can be taught? If so, how would you organise a school for playwrights? What kind of materials would you use and what sort of exercises would you suggest?
A playwright needs to be born, then needs to learn. Playwriting can be taught but not in the classroom. After a few brief discussions, the sooner a writer can have his dialogue 'up and running' before some sort of audience the better. I have very little time for theoretical playwriting. It's like theoretical furniture-making, not much good to sit on or eat your meals off.

Of all the people who concern themselves with the theatre, which do you like, and dislike the most: the public, actors, directors, set designers, producers?
I love them all, really. But on any one night of any particular production, I may reserve a little dislike for one certain individual. The actor who's just forgotten my best lines, the member of the audience who coughs through my best joke, the stage manager who's forgotten the vital prop. But it's only, luckily, fleeting.

What moves you the most during the opening or a subsequent performance of one of yours plays? A laugh from the audience, the tension, total silence...?
Both equally. Unless one occurs at the place where I had expected the other to occur.

What play, of all times and all types, would you most like to have written?
I suppose quite a lot of Shakespeare's would have made me quite proud (and rich). Probably Chekhov's Three Sisters.

Website Notes:
[1] Although he does not answer the question, it is worth noting that Alan's scripts are essentially unchanged once they are written; they are not altered during the rehearsal period.
[2] This isn't true. Alan began professionally writing in 1959 with
The Square Cat and began directing professionally in 1961.

Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. 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.