Interview: Plays & Players ( June 1990)

This interview was published in the June 1990 edition of Plays & Players.

Intimate Exchanges

by Vera Lustig

"Margaret Thatcher on a moped - that's the kind of image I like to give actors to work on," says Alan Ayckbourn. That's Ayckbourn the director speaking, not the writer so prolific and frequently-performed that, like Shakespeare, he has a category all of his own in the Arts Council's regional breakdowns of types of work performed. Still, Alan Ayckbourn's two hats fit very snugly inside each other. Not for him the gnomic reply of Edward Bond, who, when asked by an actor he was directing in one of his own plays what a certain line meant, allegedly answered: 'I don't know what the writer's intentions were at this point.'

People living outside that peeling spa town, Scarborough, could be forgiven for thinking that the
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round is to Ayckbourn's work as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is to the Bard's. But the plays that steam into the West End with stars at the helm a year or so after their premiere with an ensemble cast in Scarborough are only part of the repertoire of this 300-seater theatre - once a college - at the bottom of a grassy slope.

One of the successful non-Ayckbourn's of last autumn's season at the Stephen Joseph was Henri Becque's hundred-year-old domestic drama of cupidity,
Wolf At The Door. Like much of Ayckbourn's own work, Wolf has women at its centre, in this case a bourgeois widow and her three daughters, plunged into poverty by the father's sudden death - a situation which is 'resolved' by the middle daughter's painful decision to submit to the creaky blandishments of her father's manipulative, elderly partner. "It's about the things that preoccupy us most - money and sex," says Ayckbourn. He decided to use scenes from this play, rather than one of his own works, when asked to hold two three-hour masterclasses on directing as part of this year's National Student Drama Festival: "I think it would have been invidious to use one of my own plays". Five women students and three men were handpicked from groups not selected for the Festival, given scripts a week or so before the classes, asked to learn their lines, and then to work with Ayckbourn on the scenes in front of an audience.

"Work with" is perhaps a misnomer. Normally, Ayckbourn insists that he directs "like a sheepdog, running along beside the actors, making sure they don't fall over the edge of a cliff, just occasionally guiding them towards a gate," and that "an idea that comes from an actor is five times better than one you've given them" (he's fond of these arithmetical maxims). Simon Chandler (Kenny in
Man Of The Moment both in Scarborough and London) assures me that Ayckbourn gives actors a free rein. But in these masterclasses, with an audience on all sides, Ayckbourn talks and acts a lot, padding around the acting area, a nervy, jokey, casually-dressed figure.

He is clearly very much at home in this space where he's worked for the past 30 years, loving it, fully aware of its potential and its limitations, eager to convey that awareness both to the students, who stare at him in mute awe, and to the audience.

It's a brilliant performance, amusing and illuminating. Frightened perhaps of floundering awkward silences, and also impelled by an empathic love for the play (he spends a fair bit of time following the text, clearly moved) Ayckbourn doesn't leave the students to their own devices. One of them told me afterwards she regretted he hadn't let them 'block' themselves before helping them out. But he brings the text pulsingly alive, saying of a character: "He's rather unshaven, rather unwashed - a bit of rough trade. All the other men she knows are very pink and scrubbed." A former actor, Ayckbourn mercifully doesn't fall into the trap of 'demonstrating' though he does act out certain feelings - hilariously. Julia Mackenzie has said he has a great understanding of menopausal women; but it becomes clear from these masterclasses that Ayckbourn, who was brought up by his mother, a single parent, can empathise with women of all ages. He captures that frisson - both attraction and revulsion - of repressed young women on the brink of sexual maturity. The space between the actors becomes heavy and charged - and the power of that charge has much to do with the way the exact distance is very carefully calculated.

The rapport between the eight young actors, thrown together in front of an audience with no preliminary period of working together, is superb. They give performances of great stillness and intelligence. They seem at ease with their affable but nervous director, who stresses the importance of eye contact in acting and yet is too shy to look them full in the face. Ayckbourn is at his best when writing or directing scenes of banked-down emotion. Appropriately, he's a non-confrontational director. One of the actors in the masterclass starts out by-speaking in a bogus French accent. Ayckbourn makes a gentle quip about him being in a minority of one, implying that he should stop doing it, rather than telling him. This is his manner with his own company. "Last season I had an actress who turned up late to rehearsal, and one of the older actresses took her to one side and told her: 'If you carry on doing that you'll never work again.' I hadn't told her to do that."

Ayckbourn's rehearsals follow a conventional, tested-and-tried route of read-through, blocking, runs. Anyone present during rehearsals is expected to watch closely, not to get on with their own work, says Simon Chandler, and Ayckbourn does not welcome amendments to his text. "Every 'um' and 'er' is marked in there," says Chandler, "it's like getting on a train. It takes you where you want to go." The one play a year that Ayckbourn writes (taking about a month) is written with musical precision. But the visual side is very important too: "Theatre is at least 50% visual." Using the in-the-round space means that there is no single stage picture. "People see my productions more than once, sitting in different parts of the auditorium," says Ayckbourn.

There are no dead spaces in a theatre in the round; there's no upstage and downstage, so the space is more conducive to ensemble playing than a pros. arch. Still, end-on staging does have its advantages. During his sabbatical in 1986 / 87 at the
National, when he ran his own company and directed Tons of Money in the Lyttelton Theatre, 'Tis Pity She's A Whore in the Olivier and A View From The Bridge in the Cottesloe, Ayckbourn opted not to use that last space in the round or even in a traverse configuration. "The kind of multiple set the play calls for, with the action moving back and forth from one location to another, would have been very difficult to design for an in-the-round space." By the same token, his A Small Family Business, especially written for the Olivier stage during his sabbatical, would not have worked at the Stephen Joseph - that great dolls' house set could only be viewed from one side. The night I saw A Small Family Business, the audience screamed with delighted laughter all through and after the scene where the mother and daughter bludgeon the blackmailing intruder to death in the bathroom and his blood squirts all over the wall. Ayckbourn was appalled by this reaction, and says the cast were taken aback too. I sense that his writing is really best served by the intimate space of the Stephen Joseph (or of a 400-seater he plans to have built in a disused Art Deco cinema nearby).[1] His writing suits what he terms "Eyelash and fingernail acting" and sensitively orchestrated interplay between actors, not rows of stars booming out over the adoring ranks of upturned faces.

Audiences at the Globe Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue can await the exact moment when either Michael Gambon or Peter Bowles appears on that baking patio before breaking into the applause that makes actors glaze in embarrassment. With theatre in the round, there is no fixed moment of entry and exit. The Stephen Joseph has three voms (vomitories, from the Latin term used to describe the corridors cut into amphitheatres through which gladiators, lions and Christians entered, and, less frequently, exited). While every part of an in-the-round stage can be seen by every member of the audience, the voms are a kind of neutral space not fully visible to all. '
Stephen Joseph [the founder of the Scarborough theatre in another location and a pioneer of the theatre in the round] was a purist," says Ayckbourn. "He insisted that you had to stop acting as soon as you reached the mouth of the vom. It was very difficult if you were supposed to be in a furious temper."

Sometimes actors don't walk through the vomitories - they swim through them. The swimming-pool in the Scarborough version of
Man Of The Moment ran down one of the voms. As the play came to its macabre climax, some members of the audience would find themselves staring down into the troubled waters. An ingenious airlock had to be devised to prevent a simulated drowning from becoming the real thing.

Woman In Mind, fantasy and reality become confused in the mind of Susan, the concussed and frustrated vicar's wife, "I thought those women's-magazine fantasy sequences worked better here than in the West End," says Ayckbourn. "On a pros arch stage it looked as though that imaginary family came from a specific part of the garden. When I did it in the round, I was able to do a lot with sound and light to show that it was all happening in Susan's head."

Sound effects work beautifully in a wrap-around auditorium, because they fill the whole space. Ayckbourn takes pride in recording and mixing the sound himself. There's a charming mixture of technical wizardry and cottage industry about the Stephen Joseph. Ayckbourn clearly feels proprietary about the place and has set his stamp on it. But the theatre does not appear to be subservient to his ego either as a writer or as a director. He says he is anxious to nurture new writers; and as a director he simply tries to serve the text, not to make a personal statement. "When a play's well directed you shouldn't be conscious of who's directed it. The play should just speak for itself," he says, adding that good directors are as difficult to breed as pandas.

My interview with Ayckbourn took place in his office backstage, with posters for foreign productions of his plays on the walls. But our very first meeting took place on the stage of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Or was it the auditorium? Yes, at that moment of our meeting, in a break in the first masterclass, it was the auditorium. As Ayckbourn points out: "With theatre in the round, the acting space belongs to both the audience and the performers. That's the beauty of it. As the audience comes in, it's theirs. Then it's turned over to the actors, to play for a while…."

Website Notes:
[1] In 1990, Alan Ayckbourn first announced plans to convert Scarborough's former Odeon cinema into the first permanent home for the theatre company founded by Stephen Joseph in Scarborough in 1955. It would open in 1996 as the
Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Copyright: Plays & Players. 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.