Interview: Playbill Online (6 February 2001)

This interview was a published on the Playbill website on 6 February 2001.

Brief Encounter With Alan Ayckbourn

by David Lefkowitz

When approaching Alan Ayckbourn for a phone interview, I considered conducting the first part of our chat in his kitchen, the second part in his den and the last in his yard, with each successive question asking only about events that moved chronologically backward in time, while both of us got more and more drunk. However, since Ayckbourn is not at his home but at a hotel in Pittsburgh, and since he has nearly as many projects planned for the near future as he has on his resume, and since I don't drink, Plan A went out the window, and I chose a more Aristotelian approach. Best to leave the tricky plots and intricate layering to this most prolific of playwrights, author of Comic Potential, Communicating Doors, Woman in Mind, The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular, Bedroom Farce and Taking Steps, to name six of more than 50. With By Jeeves at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre and House & Garden at Chicago's Goodman, Ayckbourn ploughs forward in what may be the most astonishingly fertile period of his career.

Playbill Online: Perhaps the most impressive part of what you do is not only that you write so many plays but that so many of them have special rules or gimmicks or complications. Why and how do you manage to add that extra element, which assumedly is also a lot of extra work on your part?
Alan Ayckbourn:
I'm entirely a theatre animal. My contemporaries write for many media, but I've almost exclusively written for theatre. And I've directed theatre. I consider myself primarily a director, since I spend more of my year doing that. So I love to explore the uses of theatre. I'm well aware of the growing "death knell" for theatre: "Here comes television, radio, web sites, virtual holograms in sitting rooms" and all that. But theatre will always have a part to play - provided it doesn't try to emulate George Lucas [1]. It has the live-ness. The positive live response to a uniquely live set of people who arrive on that night. The shared experience. Cinema may be big and overwhelming and one-to-one. But theatre, when people come out, they come out talking wildly. In a sense they've been sharing the experience with each other. So I like to write plays that involve the audience to that extent. It's a journey, folks, so please suspend disbelief. For example, in Taking Steps, you had three floors but they were all on the same floor. What's gratifying is how readily audiences will go for that: "You've set up the rules, you keep them, and we'll go by them." And you know it's working if they laugh. I try always to keep my devices relevant to what the play is about. The reasons were always to do with the theme of the play. Communicating Doors [which involved time travel] was about changing our lives when we really can't. It had a Back to the Future - type linkage, with a bit of Psycho thrown in.

Do you think that because you nearly always write comedies, you have to fight the second-class perception that has plagued writers like Neil Simon or Ray Cooney?
Well, I don't necessarily want to be the clown who wants to play Hamlet. I think my plays are inherently very serious, but I'm fortunate to make people laugh. For some people, it may appear that the work isn't serious. And if you go to By Jeeves, I'm the first person to say it isn't a 'serious' evening. P.G. Wodehouse himself claimed, always, never to be serious. But House & Garden is. I don't think I look to the future in that sense. I started out as a kind of king of light comedy, with How The Other Half Loves. I was called 'the new Ben Travers stroke-Noël Coward' and all that. But when Absurd Person Singular got a little darker, people looked at me much more seriously. Then came Absent Friends and Woman in Mind. The last one was funny but very moving, because it comes out of comedy. In any very serious play, an audience ends up suppressing an instinct to giggle. With that one, it was 'if another member of this family dies, I'm gonna laugh.' But I don't want to be just a dark dramatist. In a rich play, comedy and drama belong side by side, they can co-exist. I mean, not to compare myself to Shakespeare, but I wonder if he was regarded as comic or serious.

Well, some of your contemporaries are in the same boat. Any thoughts on, say, Neil Simon?
I've always admired him very much, and I've directed quite a bit of his work. They lump us together, but we're different as chalk and cheese. The problem: When his plays come to England, everyone expects an Alan Ayckbourn play. And when my plays are done in New York, they expect Neil Simon. But one is New York sharp humor, the other is laid-back British situation comedy.

Ray Cooney?
He's pure farce. I visited his 'land' a bit. And I spent my childhood at the Whitehall Theatre where Ray first started. He's greatly underestimated because he writes farces. They're difficult. Any fool can write a drama; it takes a real craftsman to write a farce. Technique, construction and skill. And there's no such thing as an 'interesting' farce; It's funny or not funny. I don't belong in that area, but I admire it very much.

Harold Pinter?
A great influence on me. I played Stanley in his second production of The Birthday Party, which he directed.[2] The first time, it'd been destroyed by the critics; and he was a very angry young man. So Stephen Joseph invited Pinter to do it again: 'Do it as you want it done.' We went through the gamut of deconstruction, and the play's enigmatic construction was completely baffling, but we followed him. And it was absolutely electrifying. Later on I acted in and directed several of [Pinter's] plays. He had a profound influence on the way I wrote. A very precise choice of words, almost poetic construction, and repetitions and inversions. I do much the same. I bend sentences. And woe betide actors who invert us. There are no misprints. I wrote those words in the wrong order for a reason!

Tom Stoppard?
I like his more human plays. I find some a little bit clever for me.

The Americans?
I'm a terrific admirer of Arthur Miller, as well as Tennessee Williams. Both had a great influence. I like David Mamet and A.R. Gurney very much. I love Horton Foote, but it's very difficult to do. He's not done a lot in England.

Well, speaking of plays translating across the water, how is By Jeeves progressing?
The current version started in my own theatre in Scarborough in 1996. It went to West End ran for nine months, and it's had a long U.S. career, starting in Connecticut at the Goodspeed then off to the Geffen and then to the Kennedy Centre. We're now having the fourth incarnation in Pittsburgh. We've more or less finished writing and have a slightly new cast. It's a curious piece. Unlike some of the big musicals, which create an identity and then recreate the same production - like, say, Evita - By Jeeves is more a 'let's do the show right here' musical. So every space has been very different. At Pittsburgh Public we have a quite interesting, almost concert-hall shape, with no formal proscenium arch. Still, it's a very light piece. It's Wodehouse, although funnily enough, this new version has never been slavishly adhering to the books. That's very dangerous with Wodehouse because his stuff is so ethereal. It's beautiful in its descriptions and funny, but it can disappear in dramatic terms. So we want to translate a comic novel into a comic musical play.

Has it changed much over the past couple of years?
By now, It's physically more varied than verbally. Since 1996 we changed two songs, Andrew [Lloyd Webber] and I sat down and re-did them; they weren't quite strong enough. We've tightened it a little. But it's structurally very much as it was.

And will Broadway get it after Pittsburgh?
I wish I could say I knew what the next step was. I came to Pittsburgh because there's commercial interest from Really Useful Group as well as the Pittsburgh Public Theatre. They'd very much like to give it a go on Broadway, but it's an odd thing. There's no such thing as a small musical anymore. They have bands, musicians - the costs tend to multiply. By Jeeves has enough people on it to make it a very big venture. So everyone's weighing whether to take a risk. It's up to them to crunch the numbers. In London, people were paying musical prices to see what is essentially a small-scale show. At the same time, you can't put it in a huge musical house. You'd lose the informality and intimacy. The actors wander off the stage into the audience, giving the feeling that there is no formality. Andrew ambitiously wanted it on Broadway. I'm more sort of sanguine. I just take the show from production to production. At present there is no green light on Broadway at all; it's just a hope. They'd have to make a decision quickly or have to deal with everyone dispersing again. The last time was in Washington, two and a half years ago. I'm a bit like an opera singer these days; I get booked up. I know what I'm doing till mid-2002.[3]

So what are you doing till mid-2002?
Well, I've been running a regional theatre up in Scarborough since 1970 [4]: The Stephen Joseph Theatre - SJT, as it's known affectionately. In part I program, in part direct. I also supply at least once a year one play. By Jeeves was the 1996 contribution. This year we're opening the summer season in April, and then I'll be directing two new plays of mine: FlatSpin and GamePlan, under the overall title Damsels in Distress. [5] Both plays share the same company of seven actors (though I don't know who they are yet). They also use the same set, since the author is running a regional theatre on a tight budget. The plays will run from May to the summer and tour extensively after that.

What are they about?
They're good old-fashioned comedy-thrillers. I love that format. It reminds me of films of my youth starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. GamePlan concerns a mother and her daughter. The mother ran an internet business with her husband, and it burst. She lost the lot. Her husband took off with the female partner. The mother is living in a very nice apartment in London, but her lifestyle has shot through the floor overnight. Her daughter is appalled. The mother then has an idea to advertise on a website as a sort of hooker, to bring in money that way. Something like "" But... their first client dies on them. [6] In FlatSpin, a girl's uncle is in a minor car crash. He asks her to please be temporary janitor in this building till he gets back. It's easy work, because they're corporate apartments - kind of based on my flat in London - leased by people who are always in Japan or something. All she has to do is water the plants, open the windows, that sort of thing. A very attractive man from next door rings bell, and the girl makes believe she lives in the flat. A romantic dinner arranged, and she takes on the identity of that woman and gets into real danger. The flat is linked to drug-trafficking; and who's the young man from next door? Is he what he says he is? And then there's the annual Christmas show after that. I just produced a new Christmas show, which just finished in January. I so enjoy writing for a family audience - I've written about 12 now, but they don't get seen outside Scarborough much. The theatre for children circuit is so poor; that age group is often forgotten. I'm deliberating about writing another one, or I'll revive one of my earlier ones. The good thing is that kids grow up in a couple of years and you get a new audience.

What about House & Garden at the Goodman? Are you involved in that production at all?
I don't know if I'll be able to get to see it. My wife's going to Chicago to see those shows. Bob Falls is directing it in Chicago, and he says they're working like a dream. They dovetail - both simultaneously in different theatres. Actors move rapidly between Garden to House and back. Then it all finishes in a wild, semi-formal moment, when both audiences come out into the foyers, where there are games and produce for sale. I wrote it for my 60th birthday just to have some fun. It was done at the National Theatre in the middle of last year and took over the two huge spaces, the Olivier and the Lyttelton. We had audiences of 2000 a night, which is huge for straight plays.

Do the logistics put Broadway out of the picture?
You need two theatres very close. The Kennedy Centre or Lincoln Centre, for example. You need the common foyer. We never really thought of translating them to Shaftesbury Avenue. But when it was done it was fascinating for actors to play two separate spaces simultaneously. It's a weird experience, trying to hold both sets of horses at the same time. It's really quite an interesting challenge.

Can you even conceive of what career path you might have chosen if theatre had not worked out?
I can't imagine my life without some thought of theatre. I love sound. I would probably be working in a sound studio somewhere. I'd love to produce records. That'd be my next job choice. Or even sit there working the levers. I do all my sound effects for all my plays. I have a makeshift studio and mix stuff together and sample stuff. It's really good fun. I love the digital.

You've made it clear that a number of your plays are about having fun, both for the author and the audience. Do any other themes or subjects tend to crop up repeatedly in your oeuvre?
I think my plays are about the way people relate to people. How we live within a family. How fathers treat daughters, mothers treat sons. And how husbands treat wives and wives treat husbands, of course. They're an exploration of how drawn we are to each other. Many of us say we wish we could live alone in a space ship - a feeling which lasts a half an hour. In the end we're not isolated. I know when I write, that's the loneliest part of the job. You're sitting on your own with a blank screen and a sheet of paper. For me it's about getting through that and onto the rehearsing room floor. Making that piece of writing live with real human beings. And exploring that love-hate with the human race.

Website Notes:
[1] The film-maker who created the
Star Wars film saga.
[2] After Harold Pinter's
The Birthday Party flopped in the West End in 1968, Stephen Joseph - Artistic Director of Scarborough's Library Theatre and Alan Ayckbourn's most influential mentor - asked Pinter if he would like to direct the play himself with the Scarborough company. Pinter agreed and directed the play in-the-round for a tour - with Alan Ayckbourn, then an actor, playing Stanley. Pinter would later say this production - which also marked his professional directing debut - restored his faith in both the play and his own abilities.
[3] By Jeeves did eventually go onto Broadway, opening on 28 October 2001 at the Helen Hayes Theatre.
[4] Alan Ayckbourn became the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough - now the Stephen Joseph Theatre - in 1972, not 1970.
[5] Although originally conceived as a duology,
Damsels In Distress eventually became a trilogy with a third play, RolePlay.
[6] This synopsis predates Alan Ayckbourn actually writing
GamePlan, for which the plot changed substantially. Although the mother has lost everything, it is her daughter and her friend who set up www.lovechicks as prostitutes with unforeseen circumstances.

Copyright: Playbill. 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.