Interview: Ink (May 2004)

This interview was published in the May 2004 edition of Ink magazine.

Bard Of Suburbia

by Fiona Kelcher

Recently Alan Ayckbourn has become something of an institution. And to prove it, Faber and Faber are publishing A Pocket Guide [1] to his plays. From humble beginnings in 1957, as the acting assistant stage manager, with occasional walk-on parts, Ayckbourn has become the most widely performed living playwright. [1] Now he's Sir Alan - the first playwright knighted since Terence Rattigan - and artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, where his career began, and where he's premiered most of his plays. A pioneer of theatre-in-the-round, and maker of over 60 plays, Ayckbourn isn't resting on his considerable laurels; instead he's casting his 63rd play.

When you read an Ayckbourn script, it takes little imagination to picture its performance, because he writes as director, producer and designer. For Ayckbourn the script is only half the affair. "Some writers," he comments, "come to a first night, and sit there amazed at what they're watching. But I know exactly how it's going to look."

Never mind the Ayckbourn touch; howls of laughter, dubbed "the Ayckbourn Roar", have broken theatre Tannoys.
[2] Edgy comedies like Absent Friends, A Chorus Of Disapproval and Absurd Person Singular have been performed repeatedly, in venues ranging from tiny amateur theatres to the National Theatre. But what makes Ayckbourn so enduringly popular? His plays aren't works of "high art", but focus on the enduringly difficult relationships between families, those jealousies and long-buried secrets, sibling rivalry, and the in-law intrigues. "I tend to be drawn back to plays about people rather than big issues," he explains. "I don't write in the David Hare style about the railways, although I think there's a very good place for that. If I'd done that, I'd have written about the station master and his wife, because I like to focus on the people outwards, rather than from outwards to the people."

Although cagey about being classified a "family farce" playwright, Ayckbourn concedes this is something he's drawn to. Even in plays like
GamePlan (2001) when themes of infidelity and class rivalry are replaced with teenage prostitution and murder, a cosy Ayckbourn touch remains. Schoolgirl Sorrel is worried about her divorced mother's financial situation, so she signs on to an internet prostitution agency. It comes as a shock when Ayckbourn claims himself as an inspiration for Sorrel: "She was autobiographical in the sense that when parents are quite emotional and have tempers, the child tends to draw in and think, 'Well one of us has got to become grown up', and often they become grown up a little too early."

Ayckbourn insists that comedy isn't inferior to drama, and makes this his number one rule in
The Crafty Art Of Playmaking. [3] In fact, he believes that if he's contributed anything to modern theatre, it's to encourage onstage collision of comedy and tragedy. "I often tend to start with quite a dark theme, but my natural way is to write quite humorously," he says. "In GamePlan I juxtapose Sorrel having a lark in the bedroom, and the next minute she comes out completely shattered and says,'I can't do it, I can't do it'." In the best of these two-tone moments, the audience roars, then stops guiltily and abruptly. In the worst, as happened in GamePlan, comedy wins over tragedy: "The man comes out of the bedroom, puts some money on the side and goes to the door. Suddenly he drops dead and there's a moment when the audience is stunned and then they start laughing and they just laugh and laugh." You might expect the writer-director in the audience to fume, but Ayckbourn is merely reflective: "It's really not funny, but with the build-up from what is quite a dark and painful moment, it's almost relief, so people laugh. And," he adds, "it brings people back from the interval." Mostly, he delights in watching the audience watching his plays. "Oh it's great, it's lovely," he enthuses. "Audiences vary so much; sometimes a show's bowling along, and at the end you'll get a lovely reaction.Then you'll suddenly get a house where it's almost as if none of them speak English. And the actors come up and they say, 'Was it us? Can they hear us?' and I'll say,'I don't think it was. It became you because you were beginning to panic' But that's live theatre." As Ayckbourn raves about audience reaction, it's all too apparent that this matters far more than critics' reviews: "On a good night, coming out of an auditorium after a show, I sometimes feel that I've been overall host to a big lovely party. And the place is almost vibrating with the feel of people going. They're almost an entity, united as a group before they all go off various ways into the night. That's really a lovely feeling, and that's what theatre is for me."

Film, in Ayckbourn's view, can never achieve this effect, nor can cinemas have the same place in a community. But he isn't anti-film: "I spent my entire school holidays in the cinema. All the little towns that I was brought up in had at least three cinemas, so I must have seen 18 films a week. My brother and I used to go at one and stay till six when we had to go home for tea." There were theatrical influences too - Pinter became a tremendous influence, as well as some of the older playwrights: "I used to love the Coward productions and the Rattigans, who were swept away momentarily by the 'new wave' dramatists, but they all came back again because they're good enough to survive it."

And the same happened to theatre itself. When Ayckbourn began working in the '50s, commentators were proclaiming theatre's imminent death, but, as he explains, "What happened is what always happens - theatre had to re-explore itself and look to its laurels." In Ayckbourn's view, this meant saving itself from trying to do "sub-television," and seeking something a little bit different. For Ayckbourn, it's the people aspect, not glitzy effects, that's kept theatre thriving: "The trouble with building two million pound sets on stage is that, generally speaking, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg do it better - they have more money and more technical resources. We've got a trap door with a bloke popping up. But what we do have and what they don't have, is an incredible one-to-one audience-actor relationship, and I think that's the strength of theatre."

And of course, there are elements of crossover, especially in the acting: "There is something about theatre which shows - people like Malkovich and Pacino are theatre actors and there's something interesting about the quality of them that suggests that they have been through a school of theatre." But when actors move the other way, says Ayckbourn, it's frequently less successful: "There's an awful habit of drawing people into the West End on the strength of being in
Friends or whatever. Some of them are wondrous, but a lot of them you can't hear beyond row two because they've never been on stage before." The Stephen Joseph Theatre seats a cozy 400, giving Ayckbourn's actors ample chance to concentrate, dil-actor-like, on low-key gestures, rather than whacking out their words to the very back row.
On the question of funding and profits - where films have a clear advantage - Ayckbourn isn't exactly optimistic, but he's not downbeat either. "In my book it's about accessibility," he says. "If you look at the average West End show, which is completely unsubsidised, the seat prices are up to 50 quid; it becomes exactly what it shouldn't be - exclusive. To me subsidy is about making theatre available to people who couldn't normally afford it.We have a peculiar attitude to the arts in this country; we look at it as an extra. Every time there's a row about the arts, we always get put up against some very emotive or ridiculous cause. Last time it was public lavatories in Scarborough. They'll close all the public lavatories in Scarborough, unless the theatre cuts its funding.
[4] And I think, Well why not the bloody brain-scan machine at the hospital? Everything is more important than something else - and it seems to me that in a civilised society you should find space for a theatre and a library and an art gallery - something in your community. Otherwise, what the hell are you hanging around for?"

The West End exclusivity is a far cry from the '50s, when every town had a regional rep. Some have survived: "A good regional company these days does music, concerts, lunchtime shows and community work with kids - with an emphasis on the human side." With weekly theatre events for children as young as three or four, and through his use of repertory companies, Ayckbourn has maintained these elements in Scarborough.

What he enjoys about the round auditorium is the closeness, the party feel. That it's also the oldest style of theatre, dating back to the classical world, pleases him too. Through Ayckbourn, the Stephen Joseph Theatre may be one of the most thriving modern theatres, but its emphasis on company and community are a firm part of thousands of years of theatrical tradition. And with Ayckbourn's unrivalled knowledge of all aspects of theatre craft, he doesn't dwell too much on theory or funding. In the end it's the people and the performances that count.

Website Notes:
[1] This is a frequently quote 'fact' which almost certainly is not true. There is no statistical evidence to back the statement that Alan is the most produced living playwright in the world, although he is undoubtedly one of the most produced living playwrights.
[2] This refers to the world premiere production of
Taking Steps at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round where the laughter on the first night was so loud, it overloaded the theatre's antiquated tannoy system.
A Pocket Guide To Alan Ayckbourn's Plays was written by Alan Ayckbourn's biographer, Paul Allen, and published by Faber in 2004.
The Crafty Art Of Playmaking was written by Alan Ayckbourn offering his thoughts on playwriting and directing. It was published by Faber in 2002.
[4] Alan Ayckbourn is here referring to the
'Luvvies Vs Lavvies' incident in 1997 when Scarborough Borough Council apparently had the choice to either fund the Stephen Joseph Theatre or the town's public lavatories. Despite the story making the national press, it eventually turned out to have largely been promoted by councillors negative to the SJT as the theatre and lavatories were funded from entirely different budgets and decisions on one could never have affected the budget of the other.

Copyright: Ink. 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.