Interview: BBC (2009)

This interview was published on the BBC website on 30 July 2009.

Talking Shop: Alan Ayckbourn


He recently turned 70 and is celebrating 50 years in theatre, but
playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn says he will never retire. The playwright has just finished writing his 73rd play and already has an idea for his next one.

The former
actor has just finished directing his classic 1988 play, Man Of The Moment, at Northampton's Royal and Derngate theatre.

How does it feel to have a career that has spanned 50 years?
All I know is that when I am directing, most of the actors are younger than my career. It makes me feel a bit old and a bit awed, because who would have thought that when I started, I'd still be going? I wrote the first play [The Square Cat] in an attempt to launch my career as an actor. I wrote myself a thumping great part and starred in the play, all these years later I'm very happily taking a back seat - as far as the acting goes - but I'm still directing and writing.

What do you enjoy doing the most?
The most enjoyable, undoubtedly, is the directing. I've forgotten about the acting all together, I stopped that 45 years ago. The directing is obviously the gregarious part of the job, when you share the experience with a group of like-minded people - the writing is rather a lonely thing.

Man Of The Moment was recently reviewed in Northampton, how did it go?
It went terrifically well. Actors can rehearse all they like in front of the director in a rehearsal room, but until they get in front of an audience the play doesn't really move. The audience are a vital ingredient to light the theatre. Last night was their first meeting and they got on very well. I think the actors will learn enormously from that experience every time. An actor, no matter how experienced, goes into a show and they learn very quickly what they must do - the timings, the tiny adjustments - to allow for the hopeful audience interaction.

Despite being in the business for so long, do you still get nervous on opening nights?
For a brand new play I still get very nervous, because that's completely untried. I worry for the actors, it's a bit like sending your platoon over the top and saying: 'I wish I could go with you chaps'. All you can do is sit back in the stalls and wait and watch, which is always very frightening. If you're an actor, at least you have your destiny in your own hands, but if you're a writer it's in their hands.

Man Of The Moment is rarely revisited because it requires a swimming pool on stage, what problems does that involve?
Putting a body of water anywhere is difficult and in the theatre it becomes doubly difficult, because theatres are largely electrified places. So you have to make sure that the two don't meet. The first requirement is to make the thing waterproof. Water also weighs an awful lot, so most stage structures are not geared to carry that sort of weight. There are tricks you can learn about water, and displacement is one of them. The pool, although it looks quite deep, is relatively shallow. It's also up to the skill of the actors to convince us that's it very, very deep.

You turned 70 in April, do you have any plans to retire?
No, I would be very miserable if I wasn't writing or directing. My plans go through into next year, I've got a production in London at The Orange Tree early next year and then I'm hoping to writing play number 74. I shall either drop dead in front of the word processor or more likely, be carried out of a rehearsal.

Is there anything else you would like to achieve?
I would like to carry on writing for as long as I'm able, that's my biggest ambition. One naively hopes that one will improve as a writer. I don't know that I will, there comes a point where you might slither away and you'll overhear someone say: 'He's lost it'.

Copyright: BBC. 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.