Interview: The Press (7 May 1991)

This interview was published in the Yorkshire Evening Press on 7 May 1991.

Making The Wildest Of Dreams Come True

by Charles Hutchinson

Alan Ayckbourn had a dream, a wild dream, the wildest dream.

The result is his 42nd play, a fairy story that will fill one black hole, a theatre auditorium, with another, the gap that lies between dreams and reality, fantasy and failure.

By any standards his success would surpass the wildest of dreams. His plays have won numerous awards, most recently a record seventh Evening Standard gong for
Man Of The Moment; they have been translated into 30 languages and are performed on stage the world over, from America to Moscow to Japan.

For proof of his worldwide impact, guess where a permanent collection of his work is housed? London? Scarborough? No. Nihon University, Tokyo.

Ayckbourn is so prolific that no doubt the exhibition will need regular updating. Since 1989, when it was first mounted, he has written
Invisible Friends, Body Language, the children's show This Is Where We Came In and the futuristic Callisto Five. Wildest Dreams, written in only two weeks last October, is up and running. Play number 43, again for children, is written and ready.

The 'director who happens to write,' shows no signs of stage weariness at 52. The plays keep flowing, Ayckbourn being driven by the incentive to "make the next one better".

"It's like heartburn, every nine months, up pops another one!"

Wildest Dreams? "I was interested in the way so many of us spend a lot of our time finding ways to escape reality. I think we all do," he says, relaxing into a chair in his office, tucked away in the dark recesses of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.

"I'm fascinated by the minority, but nonetheless quite strong, cult of role-playing games. Theatre in one sense is an example of this."

Indeed so. Ayckbourn should know. Since leaving school, his life has revolved round the greasepaint industry, as stage manager, sound technician, lighting technician, scene painter, prop maker,
actor, writer and director.

"The play's about how we all have images of ourselves or what we'd like ourselves to be. At certain stages of our lives we start to analyse what we have done or achieved, or in the case of
Wildest Dreams, have failed to achieve. And I suppose it's what would happen, too, if our wildest dreams did come true, which they do, in a funny way, in the play. This in a sense is the re-telling of the old tale that you had three wishes, but when you've had the wish it's never quite what you imagined it to be."

Ah, disappointment again. Ayckbourn may be Britain's most successful modern playwright, with more reason than most to smile, but in keeping with his recent work his new play's characters are again struggling with a feeling of failure.

"I've been fascinated to examine four lives, four people, all of whom are not able to function successfully in the real world, and how they are almost dragged into the real world by a catalyst, a fifth character."
That character, he says, is fantasy; in childhood it could take the shape of coming out of a cinema and walking around as Robert Redford for days. But in adulthood the role-playing game becomes more serious.
"In the play, some of the characters, most of them, must choose where their fantasy figure finishes and they themselves begin. The game runs through the play the whole time and slowly changes as they change."

Who controls this game? In
Wildest Dreams, the characters' actions are caterpaulted by a character from outside "with her feet firmly on the ground, square bang in the middle of day-today life; the sort who does not resort to dreams, is brutally honest to people, quite engaging, but has no illusions".' 'She almost forces them to face up to themselves, which is perhaps not the sort of thing to do with games players. Seeing yourself tends to send you running in the opposite direction."

That sounds like the roles also played in the game by the playwright and his audience. How does the writer fit in? Ayckbourn laughs, as he mulls over his answer, casually playing with a piece of dark string.
"I am aware of being quite near to being a game player my self on occasions: You devise and write scenarios for plays and characters. Although, I hope I draw from life.

A playwright, he says, "rigs events to a certain extent. You are creating in a rather God-like way a whole micro-universe. One says, rather glibly, at my stage of writing, the characters can much more freely be themselves. They can flow without my particularly manipulating them.

"When you start writing plays, you are forcing them to go through the hoops that you devise because you are still concerned with getting the structure right. But later on, the structure hopefully takes care of itself, and the people are allowed to breathe a bit but nonetheless they are still controlled by parameters that you build into the play".

What about Ayckbourn himself? Where does he see himself progressing; what is his next hoop? "I feel I'm moving. Where... is..." he paused for further thought. "I've just written a new one for the summer for the family audience,
My Very Own Story, which takes up where I left off with This Is Where We Came In. It's quite interesting for me: it's very theatrical in the sense that it is unashamedly a piece of theatre. It makes me use muscles I have not used before.

"The whole battle for me is to make sure I keep moving. There is a fear at this stage, play 43, that your arteries are definitely hardening and you are going to start writing the same play."

Ayckbourn "has to feel some progress".

"At the moment it is the fantastic that interests me; the fantastic that is not out of our grasp. I mean, I wouldn't to write plays that no longer had a relevance. I do think there is a magic to be explored in the 'what if?'"

He believes his plays are becoming sadder. The evidence is there on stage, yet with his teddy-bear tummy framed by a raspberry shirt and brocade waistcoat, his face regularly wreathed in smiles, he often cuts a jovial figure.

"I don't think I'm bitter, but," he says, with a forlorn laugh, "I do find an increasing strain of irony in life, which is almost unbearable at times. Possibly the saddest thing is, as you get older, you rather touchingly believe you'll get wiser, but I'm not actually sure that is right. I think you just get to recognise certain patterns that repeat themselves."

Unprompted, Ayckbourn finds himself dipping into dream territory.

"I rather wish I had the firm opinions of the younger members of the company. It's a nice age to go through. But then you go through a feeling when you don't actually believe in anything. You become a cynic. Then you come back to believing, to re-found beliefs but they are much more general... much more open to listening to other people. I'm always prepared to retract now."

Exit Alan Ayckbourn, stage left, older, recognising patterns, and still dreaming of better plays ahead.

Copyright: Charles Hutchinson. 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.