Interview: Playbill Online (6 February 2001)

This page reproduces some of Alan Ayckbourn's significant quotes from the interview.

Brief Encounter With Alan Ayckbourn

by David Lefkowitz

"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."

"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.

"I've been running a regional theatre up in Scarborough since 1972: 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. 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. 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 "lovekicks.com" 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.

"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."

"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.