Interview: Stagebill (1994)

This interview was published in the April 1994 edition of Stagebill.

First Person Singular: Alan Ayckbourn

by Tim Sheridan

There are plenty of good reasons Alan Ayckbourn is one of the world's most popular playwrights. For starters, there's Ayckbourn's keen eye for the hilarious possibilities underlying everyday life. In A Small Family Business, an idyllic suburban home becomes a three-ring circus of double-crosses and deception. In A Chorus of Disapproval, the audience gets a unique view of the mad world of amateur theatrics.

Ayckbourn's work ethic hasn't hurt either. He's prolific - 46 plays to his name - and serves as artistic director and resident playwright at his own theatre in Scarborough, England. Even in a long distance interview, Ayckbourn's generosity and razor-sharp wit shine through. In anticipation of the American premiere of his 46th play,
Communicating Doors, at the 1994 Chicago International Theatre Festival, Stagebill got Ayckbourn to share some of the secrets of his success.

Stagebill: One of the most engaging aspects of your plays is how you work within the conventions of theatre and live performance, exploiting time and space.
Alan Ayckbourn:
Well, I suppose, almost exclusively among British playwrights, I write only for the stage. Theatre has been my fascination. Over the years I've explored the potential of the stage tools available to me, and time and space are both extremely important. Time, obviously, as a result of the time span of the play: where you start and finish. If you start an hour or two early you bore the audience with yards of exposition. You start too late and nobody knows what the hell is going on. [laughs] Somewhere in between you get it about right. Those were the first lessons I learned about playwriting. From there I became interested in the use of time as a tool within the time span of the play. For instance, I rediscovered what others have found before me, that when stage time equals real time, the effect is to bring in a close-up lens, because people are working very, very slowly. The details of the stage are exposed minute for minute. Whereas the reverse happens when a play is set over 30 years in two hours.
Space has been influenced by working in the round. There one looks down on the stage floor instead of the back wall. You get people moving within their own spaces. So I thought that those spaces could be used as double spaces - two spaces at once.

You say you were rediscovering these tools. In what way?
As soon as anybody stands up and says "I've thought of something new," someone else stands up and says, "No, Webster did that 400 years ago." I was rather proudly crediting myself at one stage of my career on writing this peculiar blend of the dramatic and the comic running together. It was only when I directed a Jacobean play for the National Theatre that I realised that this was what they had been doing back then. We'd lost it. What fuels my approach at the moment is an attempt not to write a genre play, but to embrace them all. I don't know what category Communicating Doors falls into except that it's meant to keep an audience interested and stimulated for about two hours.

I read where you claimed that your plays were striving for a reaction of "laugh, gasp, laugh, gasp." Does Communicating Doors continue in that vein?
It's slightly lighter than my two previous plays, Time of My Life and Wildest Dreams. It has events in it that are designed to make the audience jump. I describe it as a cross between Back to the Future and Psycho.

It's interesting that you don't write for film, but you use that language to describe your plays. Does film have an effect on your work?
I spent my childhood, my misspent youth, in cinemas. This was at a time when every tiny town in England had at least three movie houses and they changed their double bills twice a week. My brother and I used to go for the whole day. I was steeped in the grammar of movie making but the theatre still attracted me. Sometimes people say, "Communicating Doors would make a good movie," and I say, "No, it won't." On the screen it's not all that remarkable, but I don't think you've seen anything quite like it on stage.

You acted in the original production of Pinter's The Birthday Party [1]; Pinter's work made a big impression on you. Are there other writers you admire?
To a certain extent, the way I became influenced by writers is by directing them. Because half my life is not spent writing, but directing. Directing someone like Arthur Miller is very helpful to me as a dramatist because you must dissect the play, find out the author's intentions. You can't help noticing how the watch has been assembled.

That's a good description for the process: finding out how the watch works.
So many people, for a long time, thought technique was a very dirty word. But if you find out the basics of how to tell a good story or how to hold an audience by just developing character, then these things only help when your dazzling message to mankind is presented. Otherwise, you can leave in the interval. So we have to keep them there. There are a hundred reasons these days for people not to stay in their seats for two hours. It's toughest with the theatre. I was talking with my actors the other day and I said, if you sit in any seat in this auditorium, it creaks, because it's an old theatre. If you multiply those creaks by 300, you can get quite a noise. But when you get silence, you realise that all those people have decided to freeze. They've made a conscious decision. If you can do that to all those strangers, then obviously the material is working.

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn did not act in the original production of Harold Pinter’s
The Birthday Party. He did though act in the second production off it which was directed by Pinter (marking his professional directing debut) in 1959 with the Studio Theatre company.

Copyright: Stagebill. 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.