Interview: Hull Jounral (1991)

This interview was published in Hull Journal during 1991.

Cement Mixing

by Sue Mason

As the Scarborough sun shone through the open window, the world's most prolific living playwright sat down in his armchair. Reputedly shy and reluctant to bare his soul to the world, his deep brown eyes were instantly welcoming, and his multi-coloured striped shirt and luminous training shoe laces created an air of easy informality.

Alan Ayckbourn CBE has made Scarborough his home, and choosing once again to premier his latest play here, he brings more than a touch of glory to the culture-starved north.
Wildest Dreams is Ayckbourn's 42nd full-length play (Shakespeare wrote only 37), and the 38th to be premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, where he is Artistic Director.

Ayckbourn's work has a universal appeal, winning both popular applause and critical acclaim. After his first great success with
Relatively Speaking in 1967, he was described as "a playwright for real people". When Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal and Michael Gambon performed in his wicked comedy trilogy The Norman Conquests, tickets were sold on the blackmarket. Prestigious awards for best play, best comedy and best director followed, and this man has even had a fuchsia named after him. So what brought him to Scarborough?

"I came here in 1957. Someone had told me of a rather exciting man called
Stephen Joseph. I went along [to a production in London] and it was the first time I'd seen a production in-the-round. I was 17 or 18 and it was an amazing experience.

"Later I heard there was a job going with this same man, who was now running a season in Scarborough. I'd no idea where Scarborough was but I was very anxious to be an
actor as well as a stage manager. I'd been working here two or three weeks before I actually met Stephen Joseph," recalled Ayckbourn.

Stephen Joseph became Alan's mentor, guiding him and encouraging him in what proved to be the right directions. "I reckon he thought I wasn't going to be that great an actor, but he saw in me an embryonic
writer and encouraged me to write for the company. Then he offered me a chance to direct and I became what I am now - a writer and a director - and when Stephen died in 1967 I was offered the job of running the theatre."

Another important influence in Alan Ayckbourn's life was his mother, who made enough money from the stories she wrote for women's magazines to finance his education at a private school. The Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round was always important to Scarborough as a cultural centre, and when Alan took over, it was his aim to extend its scope.

"When we were playing under Stephen, it was very much a 12-week season. We were thinking of expanding into the dreaded winter months at the same time that Scarborough too was becoming an all-year-round resort. In 1970 we became more than just a theatre for the visitor. We have proven by working here that we can provide a fresh string to London - but it's because it originates from a different source. I get my source material from here and I think we are an individual company."

Despite his desire to be considered as "a director who writes", it was only when Sir Peter Hall invited him to form his own company within the
National Theatre that Alan achieved true recognition as a director. How does directing at the National compare with the tiny Scarborough theatre?

"The National is huge compared with this place, but there are similarities. Because of the size of it we work closely together as a tight company and its rather like Scarborough in microcosm. And there isn't much difference in press reaction either nowadays. On a first night of my plays here you'll get as many critics from the national dailies as you would to a London premiere."

Although his plays are not particularly "Scarborian", they are influenced by the town and its people. "I write for the audience that I know, and Scarborough has a wider audience span than most. The conventional theatre goer is white collar, middle class and female, but in a seaside town people go a bit mad and do things they would never do back home - like going to the theatre! So my canvas is wider. I have a longterm gratitude to Scarborough and my audiences."

Writing, says Alan Ayckbourn, is like working in wet cement. "Once I start, I've really got to work fast because once it dries I've had it. I've got to throw it all away and start again, so there's an awful nervousness and tension about it. And then wondering whether I've got it right..."

"Directing is much more gregarious," he continues, as if to deliberately explode the myth of the shy, introverted playwright. "Writing is so lonely - it's only you and a piece of paper. But with directing, you have the actors, the technicians, lighting designers and costume designers all adding their bit."

It is fashionable nowadays to say that Ayckbourn's work is becoming darker, more sombre. But he has recently returned his attention to writing for children, after a gap of over 25 years. "My adult work is becoming more serious - I suppose that's why I've started to write for children again. I'm just widening the canvas," explains Alan.

"All my plays have humour in them - I'd hate to think that I ever wrote a resolutely unfunny play - that's admitting defeat. It's difficult for me to analyse my own work, but I'm becoming increasingly interested in the tension that can develop in a play between parallel streams of humour and tragedy happening simultaneously."

But again it was a sense of responsibility to his audience that has made Alan return to writing for children. "I was very worried that in about ten years we wouldn't have a younger audience. Most people who go to the theatre went when they were kids, but equally a lot who did go then wouldn't return because it was such a disastrous experience - being told to shut up, sit down and watch because it was educational.

"I wanted to write entertaining, intelligent plays that children would like, that would give them a full range of emotional experiences. It wouldn't be just a lot of custard being poured over each other (although I'm a huge Laurel and Hardy fan and I think custard is great!). I want plays to be a bit frightening, a bit sad, a bit everything - all things adult.

"I used to write about one play a year until I began with these children's plays, which are beginning to occupy me more and more. Now, very careful scheduling is allowing me to write two plays a year - a family play and an adult play. It's liberating to work in a different form, and this children's work is affecting my adult work, which is very interesting. Writing for kids makes you feel a bit more daring - you can depart from the curse of realism. I've started to float away a bit - as in
Body Language and in Wildest Dreams - and I hope the adults will come with me."

Copyright: Hull Journal. 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.