Interview: The Haileyburian (Winter 1993)

This interview was published in the Winter 1993 edition of The Haileyburian magazine.

Alan Ayckbourn

by Cris Campbell

Alan Ayckbourn, internationally renowned playwright and director is selling bricks. He is selling bricks for twenty-five pounds each.The special thing about these very expensive bricks is that when they are put together, they will form a multi-million pound theatre development, in his adoptive home town of Scarborough, North Yorkshire. I travelled to Scarborough to meet Mr. Ayckbourn at his theatre, the 'Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round'. Named after the man who inspired Ayckbourn to write and direct, the theatre will close in 1995, to be reincarnated in a listed Art Deco building in the centre of Scarborough. [1]

Having just completed his 46th play, Alan Ayckbourn is one of the world's most prolific playwrights. He told me that the vast number of plays is "entirely due to the fortuitous set-up that I have here [the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round] that is, if you like, one's own theatre to write for, which is a greatly privileged position."

New plays are always previewed in the Scarborough theatre.
[2] The Scarborough audience consistently provides him with a good gauge of how his play will perform, "They've always 'seen me right' as they say up here. I think that's because of the 'Yorkshireness' of them. Very rarely have they been over-sycophantic in terms of extravagant praise for mediocre products. In fact, they have been quite the reverse. If you get 'not bad' from somebody coming out, that's praise indeed!" It is the Scarborians whom he sets out to surprise and entertain with his new plays. "It's not that one sits down and thinks, 'Well what can I do that will be totally different?' I think that the progression of the last thirty years has been very gradual, but undoubtedly if one looks at the first West End success, Relatively Speaking and then looks right on to my latest one, it's a terrific distance."

I asked him about his Haileybury school days. Alan joined the school a year early, being academically bright. He describes himself as going from "good to mediocre" during his time here. As a result of being in the middle school, he was always with older people, who were "that much more experienced, " and then he "lost heart". He is now glad that he did not devote all of his time to his studies, as he began to become interested in other things, which saved him from being "incredibly scholarly and working very hard, and being very smug at the top of the form".

"Trevelyan was full of strange eccentric individuals from strange backgrounds. We rather fancied ourselves as 'Bohemians'. Our hair was slightly longer than regulation, and our clothes were a bit baggier and scruffier than the rules allowed. We were certainly not Prefect material!". Alan was even then keen on theatre and writing poetry. He remembers producing a play in his last term. "It was a revolutionary piece of theatre, that was not Shakespeare or something in verse. It was a Brian Rix farce - that was the high spot."

He also remembers
Edgar Matthews' dramatic foreign tours.[2] He says that, "They got me theatre-orientated. I had all the joys of touring with a theatre company but with none of the responsibilities. They were one long binge!" On a trip to America on the Queen Mary returning on the Queen Elizabeth, "Some loony figured out how much we had to eat and drink to swindle the company, and it meant having two main courses. Everyone ended up throwing up over the side, but it was great! I think I spent the entire tour in a sort of haze!"

Describing other aspects of Haileybury life, Alan remembered the annual '"Dance versus Queenswood,' as it said in the calendar; like a rugby fixture! It was actually. All of these young women were released like an atom bomb into the school. It was a lethal cocktail! Fifty raring-to-go boys, and fifty girls with enough make-up on to sink a boat, all released into dining-hall. It must have been psychologically damaging for the girls. The Head of School chose the first girl, and then it went down in order of seniority - so the last girl to be picked must have really felt a million dollars".

I asked if he had always wanted a career in the theatre. "I wanted to be an
actor. I felt that was what I was destined to be. My first few jobs were designed specifically to inveigle my way into the acting ranks and away from stage management. This meant taking anything really, in the hope that someone would fall over, leaving a gap."

Alan spoke of when he joined
Stephen Joseph's theatre, "Stephen was always very prone to invite people to try their hand at other things. One of the planks on which he built this theatre was that writers should be encouraged from within the ranks. This was in the late fifties, when writers on the whole, as with Noël Coward, were creatures who lived outside the theatre, preferably two or three hundred miles outside, and were only seen on first nights in dinner jackets.

"Of course this is a switch from how it used to be. People like 'W. Shakespeare' were very much part of the business. By all accounts he was a smallish part actor within the company when he wasn't writing. Stephen encouraged this. He encouraged me towards writing, and I eventually wrote myself a play to act in - attempting to further my acting career. It turned out to be a better way to forward my writing career.
"He also encouraged me towards the other discipline which I was later to embrace with great joy, which was
directing. So before I was twenty, I was directing as well as writing. Although not at the same time. The acting sort of withered away gradually over about eight years." Alan went to work for the BBC in 1965, and has not acted since.

By 1966, Stephen Joseph was seriously ill, and he died prematurely at the age of forty-seven in 1967.
[4] The amateurs who ran the theatre-in-the-round, then in a corner of the town library, on a shoestring budget, realised that without Stephen, the theatre may be forced to close. Ayckbourn was asked to direct, and by 1970 [5] he had left the BBC and returned to Scarborough full time.

He sees his job as one of the very few "full time practising stage dramatists" in the country, to pass on his experience about writing stage plays to young playwrights, teaching them the technical side of writing, without smothering people with advice that they don't really need."

Stephen Joseph helped Alan to learn how to put the "nuts and bolts of a play together" despite "not being able to write a word." Alan says how a writer has to create "a two hour narrative for people who get exhausted watching a television commercial" and to do that, you really have to know how to write a story.

"I have a theory that plays are formed by several seeds coming together. It is very important to have a theme that you wish to pursue. Take a play like
Way Upstream as an example. I wanted to write a play about the nature of leadership, and why some members consider themselves to be leaders and others don't, and the ones who do consider themselves to be leaders are obviously the ones who shouldn't be anyway, and the ones who don't consider themselves to be leaders would probably make very good ones if they put themselves forward. It's an ironic twist. Just to write a play with five or six people sitting in a living room discussing it would probably be very boring, but I got the idea of setting it in a cabin cruiser on the River Thames,[6] because that is where the nature of leadership always comes out. You see these red-faced men in yachting caps shouting at their reluctant families 'Come along darling, tie up, tie up, come on!' That was three or four ideas in one play.

Man of the Moment the idea came from a poster advertising Buster, the story of the Great Train Robbers.[7] It's a strange quirk of nature that we are always more interested in the robbers, than the poor bloody train driver who died. He was hit on the head, and few people remember who he was, but they all remember Buster and Biggs, and they became folk heroes. All our folk heroes are criminals; Jack the Ripper, Robin Hood - he was a thug, and Dick Turpin. We'd hate them if we met them today!"

We returned to the subject of the new theatre. The larger building will have two auditoria, "one not too dissimilar to the one that we are in, slightly bigger, and better equipped."; and a more conventional workshop theatre.

Workshop theatres, like the Ayckbourn Theatre at Haileybury, represent what Alan feels is important in the relationship between the audience and the actors. "The only thing that we offer which none of Virtual Reality and the others can offer, is the live experience, not just between the actor and the audience, which is of course the centre, but also between audience and audience, because of course, you are sharing the experience together. I call it 'the assertion of common humanity.' It's nice in a world of television, computers and faxes to find that other human beings are out there, and not just the ones that you know, but strangers. To have a group of strangers sitting there in that theatre, discovering that they share a sense of humour or tragedy - is what I think that theatre is about. You can go back to your bedsit, having been out with other people and say, 'Well, they share my problem!'"

Website Notes:
[1] The building was actually the town's former Odeon cinema, which opened in 1936 and closed in 1988. It was originally designed in an Art Deco style.
[2] Alan Ayckbourn has always objected to this description of Scarborough. He does not consider the original Scarborough productions to be previews or test-beds for London. Generally he feels they are the definitive productions of his work produced in the space they were intended for with the company of his choice.
[3] Alan considers Edgar Matthews to be one of the most important influences in his life. Further information about Edgar Matthews can be found
[4] Stephen, who was born in 1921, actually died at the age of 46.
[5] Alan Ayckbourn was appointed Artistic Director of the company in 1972, not 1970.
[6] The play
Way Upstream is actually set on the fictional River Orb, not the River Thames.
[7] Although the story of Buster Edwards undoubtedly influenced
Man Of The Moment, it was unlikely the movie Buster had any influence as the play was written far in advance of the film being released and advertised.

Copyright: The Haileyburian. 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.