Interview: Writer's News ( September 1991)

This interview was published in the September 1991 edition of Writer's News magazine.

Interview Of The Month

by Judith Superman

In the entrance to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough is a large, black and white photograph labelled The Company 1990. It takes a while to pick out its Artistic Director and most distinguished member: Alan Ayckbourn has positioned himself firmly amongst the crew. That, they tell me, is typical.

I went to the theatre, which he took over in 1970
[1], to meet the man who is also our most prolific and successful playwright.[2]

Judith Spelman: You are very involved here at the theatre and actively fund-rising for money to convert the old cinema around the corner into another theatre [3], so when and where do you find time to write?
Alan Ayckbourn:
Luckily, I write rather fast. The physical act of writing takes place over a comparatively short time; I can expect to finish a play in less than a fortnight. The first writing only takes perhaps three to four days. The rest of the time is rewriting and reworking. I keep a play cooking in between meetings and run-throughs of other plays when I will suddenly dream off about the new one. It is like having a hobby. Some people go home to do marquetry; I go home and think about my new play! It is rather nice.

Are you saying you are like Simenon and shut yourself away completely for two weeks?
Pretty nearly. I do need uninterrupted time and I do work very long hours. It is purdah time: I do not talk to anyone, I will not see anyone, I eat meals in silence and then go back to work!
The new miracle of word processors has made life much easier. Playwriting is glorious now. All the boring things like characters' names down the left hand side took so long and of course you can shunt dialogue around once you have written it. I like to have reasonably tidy scripts around me. I used to work with arrows and dots - and I would start the second draft before I had finished the first when I was writing in longhand. Now I can actually write the whole play out and wander back through it at leisure.

How do you set about it?
A play is drawing together so many disparate elements and making them all apparently happen effortlessly at the same time. When I am writing a play I always think that I am designing a structure in which events happen effortlessly. When the structure is up you can then be quite creative within it, but without that structure the narrative can just run away and it becomes rather boring. Stage plays are highly constructed artefacts and the very good ones do not show that. If a play is described as contrived then something is wrong.

Your characters are uncomfortably accurate. Do you do a lot of people-watching?
Not consciously. I listen a lot and I suppose I do slide my eyes around rooms and restaurants. But I do not consciously say, Ah, ha: that is an interesting character. Let us write that down.
I suspect well over fifty percent of a character is me, twenty five percent is someone I know very well and the rest are incidental characteristics picked up in passing. I think to get genuine depth into characters, it comes from inside.

Your plays never seem to have one starring role. Is there a particular reason for this?
It has something to do with my old instincts as an actor. [4] I tend not to write plays where characters are just cyphers, and when you have starring roles it can often be to the detriment of other characters.

People often say they have difficulty coming up with ideas for plots. How do you manage it?
I wish I could remember. It is different every time. All I know is that a play is an interception of several ideas. For instance, Man of the Moment was obviously very much inspired by Buster Edwards [5] and the way the public tend to be more interested in the aggressor than the victim. That was one idea. I also wanted to write about how very uninteresting goodness is. Then came the trimmings: the swimming pool which I liked as an idea and gave it a visual aspect and then a lot of other elements crept across. It was only then that the play started to add up. Then came the concept of making it a television programme so that one had a way of turning it back on the audience. I think I probably had all those ideas at separate times but none of them suggested to me a particularly interesting play until they combined.

Which play have you most enjoyed writing?
It is very hard to say. I always tend to answer my latest, because there is always the hope that you have improved on yourself. I only write to get better. In the last two or three years I have started writing for children and I enjoy that. These are plays for a younger audience to enjoy with their parents or vice versa. Having been a parent, one is aware of the strain on both sides if you take a child to see something he is totally bored by, or if you take an adult to a children's show and the adult is totally bored. I try to write plays which hit them all and it is a very challenging thing. As a result, I think my writing has probably become more positive in the last few years. There is very little room for indulgence with a children's audience: they are almost instantly bored and will tell you so within seconds of you boring them. It is a tremendous discipline but you go back to the basics - strong narrative, strong characters, strong situation, clarity, economy: all the things you should be writing (but do not) for adults.

People talk about a north / south divide in the theatre but you have managed to build a secure bridge between the two. How have you managed this?
I suppose by being born a southerner. My roots were in Sussex and it was only when I was seventeen that I came north of the Humber. I have lived up here the bulk of my life and hopefully, I am an honorary Yorkshire person. I have never found the divide that huge and I think over the years the divide has lessened. I have tried to make the theatre available to everyone. I hope I have de-mystified it sufficiently, without making the whole thing appear mundane, because I still think it is a bit magic - to the point where people do not feel it is not for them. We do bar shows in the studio space at lunchtime which are specifically designed for people who do not want to come to the theatre. There is not quite the formality. On Fridays we do readings of local writings - short pieces which have been submitted to us and edited by the ex-chairman of the Writers' Circle.

Who are the playwrights you most admire?
I admire a lot for different reasons - Ben Travers, Arthur Miller, Anton Chekhov most of all, Ibsen quite a lot. And I think I have favourites from a lot of contemporary writers such as Michael Frayn for Make or Break, Simon Gray for Quartermain, and Pinter - I wish he would write some more plays.

How difficult is it to transfer a play from your theatre here, a theatre in the round, to a London stage?
Not at all, really. You just have a different set of problems. What this theatre does so well is allow you to move your location with the flick of an eye. People become critical when you begin to define things. A play of mine Woman in Mind, which was indeed about a woman going off her head, relied a lot on her jumping from her dream world into her real world. Her dream world was a very inconsistent thing where lakes and ponds turned up all over the place. That was fine in the round with slight change of light and subtle changes of sound track, using garden birds rather than suburban sparrows, and the rest was done with the audience.

What is the next project for you?
My fortieth play will be my Christmas show. [6] I shall start writing it soon. I think I have mapped it out.

If you could start all over again, what changes would you make?
I suppose I would possibly not spend so much time trying to act. I just wish I had done a lot of things sooner. I think I am so incredibly lucky. I cannot claim to have planned my life with extreme care, but I had the luck to have been in the right place in England with Stephen Joseph who was passionately devoted to the encouragement of new works. He saw in me someone he wanted to encourage, and did so, and took huge chances. I happened to be around when he died and inherited a theatre I did not really want. In retrospect, these were the best things that happened to me.

[1] Alan Ayckbourn became the Artistic Director of the company in 1972, not 1970.
[2] Whilst there's little argument that Alan Ayckbourn is both prolific and successful, there is little empirical evidence to suggest - even in 1991 - he was the UK's most prolific and successful playwright.
[3] By 1991, Alan Ayckbourn has begun the process of converting Scarborough's former Odeon cinema into the first permanent home for the theatre company founded by Stephen Joseph in Scarborough in 1955.
[4] Alan Ayckbourn began his theatrical career as an actor and acted professionally between 1957 and 1964.
[5] Buster Edwards was one of the 'Great Train Robbers' about whom the 1988 film
Buster was based on.
[6] Actually, his most recent play had been his 43rd (
My Very Own Story) and he would not write a Christmas play for 1991 instead altering and reviving a play from the previous year, This Is Where We Came In.

Copyright: Writers News. 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.