Interview: Daily Telegraph (1989)

This interview was published in the Daily Telegraph on 17 November 1989.

Gently Nurturing A Growing Audience

by Simon Cherry

Alan Ayckbourn tells a story about how he once watched a very small boy sitting in a very large cardboard box. He was wearing an intense expression and evidently involved in a feat of imagination. "That." the playwright commented, "is a very nice car you've got there." Silence. "Or is it a boat? Or a plane?" The child paused to assess the spectator's mental capacity, then replied: "It's a cardboard box."

Ayckbourn realised that making condescending assumptions about children was not the way to set about writing plays for them. The real trick, he says, is simply "to write better" than for adults; to develop a good plot; to cut waffle; to acknowledge the capacities of a child's concentration and bladder, and to avoid boring scenes about love, divorce and other "things that admits do and they wish they wouldn't."

His new children's play,
Invisible Friends, opens on Wednesday at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, where he is Artistic Director. A few years ago, the theatre had established a tradition of regular productions of work for children. But Ayckbourn says he became disenchanted with the plays chosen.

"They seemed a bit loud - what I call shows where people just throw custard at each other for two hours."

So, last year, he wrote his first children's script in 25 years, the highly successful
Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays. A conversation following a performance of that play gave him the idea for the new one: "I suddenly realised how many of us, perhaps not people with 12 brothers and sisters, but certainly the onlies and the lonelies, create invisible friends."

His play is the story of how a little girl's imaginary companion suddenly materialises. Everything seems perfect - for a while. The idea is reminiscent of his adult comedy,
Woman In Mind, in which a woman takes refuge from her imperfect marriage by retreating into a fantasy of perfect substitutes. That way madness lies. There is a joke, which I think I may have started, that I'm rewriting all my adult plays for kids," Ayckbourn says. "This is gentler. You don't send the little girl stark raving mad."

Gentler it may be, but the parallel suggests that be treats his younger audience as seriously as the older.

"I think I'm trying to deal with the same dilemmas as in the adult plays, but put more simply. I'm also trying to retain as much as possible the colour that I put into the adult plays That is. I would like them to cry a little - not too much - would like them to laugh, of course, and to be excited, and to be afraid, but not so they can't get to sleep.

"My ulterior motive is excite the children into coming back when they're 25, so I haven't got another lost generation saying, 'the theatre is something I don't understand".

He would like to see children's theatre given more priority with companies using their best actors and full budgets. Newspapers could help, by giving proper coverage to the work. He may not be seen as highbrow, but the appeal to family audiences is to be valued.

"The best audiences we had last year were when mum and dad and the kids came. Sitting together in a large room is something that's getting rarer. We're all going to be sitting on the end of a fax machine. I was fantasising the other night that we would get married by fax. It could really be like we never see anyone. The theatre is one of the places where we draw people together to share an experience."

Copyright: Daily Telegraph. 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.