Interview: Time Out (18 November 2009)

This interview was published in Time Out (New York edition) on 18 November 2009.

Q & A: Sir Alan Ayckbourn

by David Cote

Here's Sir Alan Ayckbourn by the numbers: He turned 70 this year, and this week he opens his 73rd play, My Wonderful Day, Off Broadway at 59E59. He's had just under 40 plays produced on the West End. In January, he stepped down from the artistic directorship of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, which he ran for 36 years. [1] Last season, three of his plays ran on Broadway and won a Tony for Best Revival of a Play. That last bit of data might be slightly misleading. The three plays were the sequential comedic trilogy The Norman Conquests. The stupendous Matthew Warchus production (a transfer from the Old Vic) helped to remind New York theater-goers that Ayckbourn isn't just a technically facile farceur. For decades, he has been documenting the English character in seriocomic works that maintain a masterly balance between silliness and sadness. Even though he's about to start drafting Play No. 74, Ayckbourn hasn't lost his sense of adventure about the blank page.

Oh, one last number for Ayckbourn. He's given many, many interviews. They're archived on his capacious website. How many, precisely, you ask? Er - too many to count while holding down a full-time job. What do you ask a man who has given hundreds of interviews throughout the years he's been playwriting (50, to be precise)? Not to worry; Ayckbourn was graciousness itself as he sat in 59E59's offices for an hour of pleasant chat about childhood, the West End and what makes him laugh.

Time Out: It's great to meet you. The Norman Conquests was just magnificent. Were you as happy with it as critics were?
Alan Ayckbourn: Matthew Warchus had the great courage to do it in the round in London. They converted the Old Vic, which you know is a classic proscenium. And I kept saying, "No, no, no, no. Don't convert proscenium arches into theatres in the round - it's always a disaster." And normally it is, but they had a brilliant design. I came in there and was really relieved. My whole life has been spent in round stages. The Stephen Joseph Theatre is doggedly in the round. It doesn't adjust or adapt.

Was writing in the round always a plan of yours?
It was shaped by the Stephen Joseph. That was the theatre that offered to do my plays. As an actor or stage manager, in the very early days, I'd done one or two jobs, a couple of repertory theatres, which were conventional proscenium arches, but the in the round was Stephen Joseph's dream, which he'd imported from over here [North America], as an exchange student in Iowa. He became obsessed by it. Because of two things, really: (a) it broke all the boundaries, and (b) it was economic. It cost less for productions because the scenery cost plummeted, and all the money such as it was went on for the important bits like actors. And it was no coincidence that the National Theatre, when it was built, had the Cottlesloe and the Olivier and the Lyttleton: two out of three with open stages.

There's something democratising about open stages.
Well, Stephen wanted to open his own fish-and-chip theatre.

Fish-and-chip theatre? Is that English slang for something?
No! He said, "I want to open a theatre in Scarborough and let people bring in their fish-and-chips and sit there." And I said, "I'm sorry, I'm not acting with a load of people with newspaper and fish." And he said, "If you're acting is good enough, they won't even eat the fish." But it never happened, because the whole company refused to go on with a fish-and-chip theatre. He pushed the envelope too far.

Your new play, My Wonderful Day, is here at 59E59 - what were the special challenges or impulses for this one?
I'm 73 on, but I still want to try and push myself into new areas. My Wonderful Day is actually a direct descendant of one we did here called Private Fears in Public Places, which is when I started to explore the space between words. What you learn is that you've been overwriting for most of your life. If you are determined to write for actors, leave them something to do! I don't think it's a coincidence that Harold Pinter started to write shorter plays later in his life. And Beckett. So this is pretty sparse, this script. There's an awful lot of visual in it. We had an audio-described performance just before we left Scarborough: somebody sitting in the box with a microphone, for people who were blind or partially blind, so they had a blow-by-blow description. And that person worked a damn sight harder than anybody else on the stage. Because they were going: "Now she's picking up this, now she's doing that, now he's doing this, now she's sitting there, now she's writing..." By the end of it: "God! I'm exhausted..." [Laughs]

How are you exploring what's unsaid?
It's told from the point of view of a child, so everything she hears, we hear. If she can't see it, we can't see it. I wanted the audience to imagine that they were a child in a house of adults, not very child-friendly adults, at that. They're all awkward or uneasy with children. One of them openly hates them. And the other problem, which I realised as I was writing it, is that I wanted the child, Winnie, to be quite young. Young enough that the adults would misread her. And we found this wonderful girl, Ayesha Antoine. Within minutes of her coming on, people are just sold. They think vaguely Ayesha's probably a fraction older, but they buy into the eight-, nine-year-old idea.

But she's in her twenties, right?
Yeah: 28. It's ridiculous. And I realised it was working, because when I was in rehearsal, I tried to talk to her very slowly and gently, and she would say, "Yeah, yeah, sure." And then you get this total shock of seeing her in the bar with a drink after the show. You think, What's that kid doing here? Don't serve the child! Don't use that language in front of her!

Did you dip into your own childhood memories to write it?
I did, a little, because inevitably there are parallels. I was a single-parent child. My mother brought me up for quite a lot of the important years of my life: four through eight, after my dad left to spread more of his wild oats. It was quite interesting, because my mother was a professional woman. She earned our bread by her pen: She was a short-story writer for women's magazines. I got very used to her cooking the breakfast, and then she would swish everything off the table and throw it in the sink, and she'd bring out this vast, Underwood portable typewriter and bang it down on the table. And then she'd thunder away at it for the next two or three hours until lunchtime. I have a very early memory of sitting under the table with this kid's typewriter, just covered in blue ink, tapping away at it. Typing out my own stories. If my mother had been a plumber, I would have been a pretty good plumber. But fortunately, she was a writer.

You strike me as the sort of person who doesn't waste a moment of time.
I'm only very happy when I'm working. I've also been fortunate in having Stephen's encouragement to start with, and then with his very premature death in his forties, the offer of taking it over as Artistic Director, which gave me a sort of wonderful work space of my own work. And I commissioned myself year after year, and that's the reason for the prolificness. When the opportunity is there, a writer will take it. I've always had an end in sight when I've written a play. God willing, I have a new play opening August of next year.

Is it true that Winnie and her mother are the first characters you've written who are explicitly black?
Oh yeah, indeed. There were reasons for that. I knew specifically that most people would say, "Oh wait, that's a child of nine; she's bright enough to understand what we're talking about." But if we also added the conceit that they thought she was a non-English-speaking child, we have a "foreign kid" sitting there so we can talk freely. And we in the audience know that she's listening to every damn word, her little eyes are flicking around. Ayesha's very good at that.

Do you enjoy bringing your work to New York?
To a space like 59E59, yes. It's the sort of theatre I recognise and am happy with. I would be far less happy a few blocks down in a big Broadway theatre. As unhappy as I would be in London on the West End. I've never enjoyed the West End.

Really? Thirty-eight times on the West End and you never enjoyed it?
No, no, no: It was always compromises. And I was spoiled. I had the actors I wanted, and the designers I wanted, and the budget I wanted, and I just relinquished all that to some financial person saying, "Can we get so-and-so? He means a lot at the door..." But he's not even right for the role. I mean occasionally you get the Michael Gambons, but generally, we had to compromise on all the shows.

What makes you laugh?
Oh. Well. Sometimes accidental things. Terrible things. I'll tell you what doesn't make me laugh: people trying to make me laugh, the Jim Carrey, bombarding you, make-you-laugh humour. I have a lot in common with those sad-faced comedians - I sit gloomily. I'm a Keaton man rather than a Chaplin man.

My Wonderful Day is quite funny, but it doesn't shy away from sadness. At the centre of it, there's something odd and lonely about Winnie.
She's a strangely quiet, listening child. And all the other characters aren't used to dealing with children in a day-to-day situation. What you find yourself doing with kids is working a little too hard for them. You know that terrible patronising thing people do with kids? I can remember adults leaning towards me and talking down at me like I was some type of dog. The silent watcher, Winnie, very rarely says anything. She's actually quite a silent role. So all these adults, in turn, begin to say more. I told my actors, most of the characters in my plays never set out to make a long speech. They say a line, and because they don't get any immediate response, they then qualify it with another line, and they begin to spiral down into places they didn't intend to go.

It's really amazing how you marry technical expediency with emotional content. There's an emotional weight to her silence.
Well, I was known as the whiz-kid technician in my early stuff. You know, Relatively Speaking, How the Other Half Loves, right through House & Garden. But I've slowly, I hope, woven the two together. I look back on The Norman Conquests, which was a huge tour de force of technical writing, and think, How the hell did I do that? I finished two of the plays in one night. Amphetamines, probably. Just the desperation of trying to finish it. My God: We open in a few weeks!

Winnie's also rushing to finish a school assignment due the next day. If you want to get theoretical, you could say she's writing the play as we see it before us.
She's the recording angel, really. I used to have little nightmares when I was young, that there was someone up there writing everything down that you did. I'd think: Oh, God, I hope he missed that bit.

And then you became the recording angel.
Yeah. [Laughs]

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn was actually Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre for 37 years between 1972 and 2009.

Copyright: Time Out. 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.