Alan Ayckbourn: The Website Interview 2016

This interview took place between Alan Ayckbourn and his archivist Simon Murgatroyd in 24 February 2016 for the playwright's official website.

Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website: 2016 Interview
by Simon Murgatroyd

Simon Murgatroyd: This summer marks an entirely new challenge for you, what can you tell us about it?
Alan Ayckbourn:
The Karaoke Theatre Company is an idea I’ve carried around in my head for a long time. It continues my pursuit of the idea that theatre is live - and there’s nothing more live than The Karaoke Theatre Company!
It’s ostensibly about a small touring fringe group brought in with the idea of improvising their shows with the encouragement and participation of the audience at various stages. During the course of the evening four short plays of varying genres are presented: a farce, a period comedy, a sub-titled piece of BBC4 foreign drama and a full-blown gothic horror. The evening is rounded off by a live magic act.

What makes this so unique within your body of work?
Simply put, The Karaoke Theatre Company is never going to be quite the same at any performance. Over the years, I’ve been working towards defying the SJT - and the audience! - to know exactly what’s going to happen in any one night of my shows and The Karaoke Theatre Company is certainly not going to be the same any single night.

And how are the audience involved - and do they have to be involved?
There are opportunities for everyone to join in at some stage, even if it is only producing sound effects when called upon to do so from your seat; I’m aware that by no means are 100% of the audience wanting to willingly jump up on stage to take part.
There are various degrees of involvement rising from that: operating Victorian sound effects machines to people with one line in a sketch right through to reading out subtitles for a character who essentially mimes to your badly written subtitles.
The prize of the evening is to be a central character in one of the sketches. At this point, you’ll have seen the sketch as played by the actors involved, who then turn to the member of the audience who has already volunteered and say, ‘which role do you fancy?’ Then we present the sketch again a little later in the evening with the role being played by the volunteer, who has by now been persuaded into a costume and is jostled around by the other actors while the actor they’re replacing holds up the lines for them with cue cards. That is the ordeal by fire for both the actors and the participant!
I very much hope it’s going to be quite a fun thing to be involved in.

It sounds unlike anything you’ve attempted before, where did the idea come from?
The idea of The Karaoke Theatre Company sprang from an idea I had when I was doing a workshop for the National Student Drama Festival more than a decade ago. It was about how to direct a farce and - in order to facilitate that - I had the students contribute sound effects to it; creaking floorboards, door-slams and all that business. Afterwards, I thought that was fun and they seemed to enjoy it.
It is all a completely new experience to me and it’s not even billed as one of my plays as part of the fun - and also because I’ll have no idea which way the show will go any night! This is also quite a fun way to get round the fact it’s not the 80th play in the canon.
It is going to require a certain degree of nerve from the actors and confidence. We’ll certainly be including quite a lot of volunteers during rehearsals to give us the feeling of what it’s like to have live, unrehearsed people taking part and seeing how quickly we can get the actors to adapt and learn it.

Presumably, it may also need a different type of actor to those you’ve worked with before too?
Another reason I came back to the idea of The Karaoke Theatre Company - having had it in my head so long - is that none of my current company are in Scarborough, as they’ll be in New York with Hero’s Welcome & Confusions at the Brits Off Broadway festival. So I have to use fresh people and I thought if I have to start with fresh people, why not for something different? We already have Andy Cryer - who I’ve never worked with before except fleetingly in The Divide - and Leigh Symonds, who was in Roundelay. They’re both actors who like a bit of an usual challenge and I just have to find three women to match them.
But it does mean working with a different sort of actor. It’s not exactly young - but certainly young in attitude - actors. New generation actors, which will be an experience for me as well as the audience. I like to have everything prepared well before I go into a production, but I’ve prepared nothing for
The Karaoke Theatre Company, because I have no idea what is going to happen. I’ve left it all to the designer Kevin Jenkins - who I haven’t worked with before either - who’s young, bright and enterprising.

Given the improvisational nature of the play, how did you script it - and how are you going to rehearse it?
The script is written in two bits. The dialogue for the sketches is written in stone - as a normal play would be. Between them are sections where I say, ‘please feel free to play with this speech and vary from it as long as you put in the salient points that are contained within it.’ We’ll certainly be including quite a lot of volunteers during rehearsals to give us the feeling of what it’s like to have live, unrehearsed people taking part and seeing how quickly we can get the actors to adapt to this situation. We open each evening with a warm-up, which is a version of the Mr Whatnot tennis match with the audience doing the sounds for the actors playing a foursome of tennis. It’s a sort of human video game really because if you give the sound too early, they will probably slice it and if you give it too late, they’ll miss it.

Any final thoughts on The Karaoke Theatre Company?
I very much hope it’s going to be quite a fun thing to be involved in. You will need to be on your toes as an actor and the audience though and woe betide those people on the front row who occasionally fall asleep. They’re in trouble!

Your second new piece for the season is your 80th full-length play, Consuming Passions.
What I really wanted to do was to bring lunchtime shows back to the restaurant - or the Bistro as it is now.
Consuming Passions is my 80th play - but it is a play in two parts, initially, they will be performed individually in the Bistro and by the end of the season, they will be joined together and played in The McCarthy.

What is Consuming Passions about?
I’m describing Consuming Passions as slightly Hitchcockian with a touch of The Twilight Zone. It’s a little bit of a thriller in which you don’t know whether the protagonist is mad or not. A woman overhears a murder plot, but has she really overheard a murder plot or is she fantasising about it because it may or may not have happened yet.

Will Consuming Passions take advantage of the restaurant setting - as well as offering the audience the chance to get a bite to eat with the play?
It was written with the Bistro in mind and it takes place in two restaurants. It reintroduces two of my favourite restaurant characters with Aggi and Dinka from Time Of My Life - the very jolly waiter and the rather bad tempered one. Ristorante Calvinu raises up from the ashes once again!

Finally this season, we have the revival of your award-winning 1987 play Henceforward…. What brought you back to this particular play?
It was an interesting play of its time and I was spurred on by a recent production in Hamburg, where its been massively popular and done phenomenally well in a huge theatre. I think on that evidence, it may well talk to a contemporary audience.

For those who haven’t seen it, tell us a little about the play.
Henceforward… is - at its serious centre - really about the nature of creativity. It’s about a composer, Jerome, in a dysfunctional near-future, living in a northern London no-go area. He has reached a crisis point, where he no longer has access to his source of inspiration or his muse; over the years he has come to believe his only way forward as a composer and creative musician is through his daughter, Geain. Jerome is trying desperately to win her back from his wife - who long ago left with Geain - and in order to lure her back, he goes to some extraordinary lengths. But when that opportunity does arise, the questions are will he even recognise his daughter when she returns and also be able to complete his life’s work?

You obviously believe it has relevance to today’s audiences.
I definitely think it is still relevant today, particularly with regard to the idea of the artist; Jerome records everything and then uses it for his music. He has recorded everything single thing his wife and daughter did before they left him, put them into a computer and then used it for his music. So they had no personal privacy - even in the bathroom and certainly not in the bedroom! This applies to many artists - the most popular question I get asked is, ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ It’s from the people I live with and who are around me. Conversations I hear - even sometimes part of private conversations - inform my writing. I don’t think I’m as blatant as Jerome, because his is completely committed to his personal artistic ambitions. But how artists create and the lengths they go to is as relevant today as ever.

Why did you decide to make Jerome a composer rather than, say, a writer?
It has to be a composer as they are visually far more interesting to watch; watching a writer struggling over a pad of paper or staring at a screen furiously is hardly entertaining! And no-one paints a picture that quickly unless they’re one of those extreme artists. At that time in the 1980s, composers were going through a phase which - of course - continues through to this day, in which they were becoming much more instant in their creations. A composer allowed me to plausibly show an act of creativity on stage.

The original production featured an extraordinary climatic composition by Paul Todd, which utilised the nascent idea of sampling. How have you approached the music for the revival?
With the best will in the world, I think Paul’s music from the original production might just sound a bit old fashioned today. Although at the time, we recorded it on a machine that one could rarely lay one’s hands on that was valued at a quarter of a million pounds! We cajoled a programmer in London to help us and the machine was the size of this room. We sat looking at a vast cinema sized screen with dancing sound waves on it and it was amazing. It was an early form of sampling, which she assembled under Paul’s instructions; something that one presumes an eight year old could now do on their laptop.
For the revival, I’ve created a composition and have forgone melodics for a sound montage built up from sounds that Jerome has assembled; it’s much more modernistic and non-melodic. It re-iterates that Jerome is not a successful composer and stoops to recording sampled babies for commercial reasons. His real interest is serious music for a very few select people who are probably amongst the minority. For that reason, I think my music might well fit the bill.

It’s also your first play in the science fiction genre and introduced us to the first of your many androids.
It is one of my 1980s science-fiction dramas and my earliest brush with pre-Comic Potential androids. The one here, NAN, is even more dysfunctional androids than those which follow - which is saying something!

How has the advance in technology affected the play?
I think most of it is just about right now actually. When I wrote it, it seemed way into the future - we just about had robot dogs being developed! Now we know that robots can walk, talk and look reasonably human. Bizarrely, it’s the little ideas from the play which we haven’t got round to; I don’t think we’ve got round to the self cooking meal yet! Although certain technology was anticipated in the play in 1987, the technology has certainly moved on since then and so I’ve moved it on a bit for the revival. Good old fashioned DVDs have gone and its now all solid state tech - I guess there’s always going to be keyboards though so Jerome still composes off a couple of keyboards even though he’s not playing conventional sounds off them.
When we recorded the original music, we were still working on reel to reel so to be looking at CDs and video discs at that point was really reaching ahead and assuming this would be normal in the future. I remember when CDs came in during that period and I was always an early adopter of technology. I had a very early CD player and I went out to buy some CDs for it and I think I bought a copy of every one that was available in Scarborough, which was about twelve CDs! This included some very strange music such as Ry Cooder - I’ve never bought Ry Cooder again - but he came out on CD and I thought ‘hey, I’ll play that.’

For a play so interested in technology, how do you think technology has changed since it was written?
I think we as a race generally take one step forward and one step sideways and two steps backwards! So there is never a tremendous sense of progression. There was a moment in the tail end of the 1980s when it seemed the sky was the limit; men had already gone to the moon and at the speed we were going, we were going to be on Saturn within three weeks and then everything slowed down tremendously; yet other things such as computers have sped up behind belief. So who can tell? When I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, you thought that could be very possible. But now you think, a huge spaceship going to Jupiter? You must be joking. A space station on the moon? You’re kidding. That huge space station circling the earth with all those people having cocktails looking out at the planet, I suppose it’s foreseeable now but some way off, I suspect it’ll probably be 2101 now before we hit that.

It’s also the first of your plays to tackle the increasingly relevant question of what it is to be human.
Jerome is, I think, a man possessed, who is willing to carry his obsession to the nth degree - I suspect we all have moments like that, but hopefully we let our own humanity click in. But Jerome carries within him the seeds of his own self-destruction and - if faced with the possibility - would seriously consider completely sacrificing his personal life to his personal ambition to write the perfect piece of music.
One of my favourite moments in the play - and which begins a recurring theme of humanity vs technology - is where Jerome’s wife says: ‘For God’s sake, explain to your daughter why she would live with a machine and why it’s better to be with living beings, come on.”
And he says, ‘I can’t think of a single reason.’
That is as pertinent as ever today.

Henceforward… is undoubtedly one of your darkest plays. How do you think it will be received today?
I don’t know, but I’ll be very interested to see what people think of Henceforward… now because that is a very, very dark play indeed. What could be darker than a play where the entire cast are wiped out by the end of the evening? Even the poor android sits down and dies on stage, whilst the rest are all banging on the door, probably about to be slaughtered and can’t be heard above the din of Jerome writing his futile, final composition. It will be interesting.

Looking even further into the future, you’ve got something planned for Christmas too.
There’s another play after the summer season, but nobody’s talking about it! It's called No Knowing and will use the company from my revival of Henceforward…. I originally wrote it as a sort of Christmas entertainment in that it’s set around Christmas and it's a short piece which is a companion piece to Consuming Passions.

Can you offer us a sneak preview at the plot?
It is about a couple celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary with their two mature children sitting by. Both halves of the play start with the husband or wife making a platitude in a speech about the secret of a good marriage being an understanding between the two. Then the wife gets up and says I’d like to thank my husband for standing by me and the two kids sit there open-mouthed going 'What!' Then we go back and discover the secrets behind the marriage in both cases. It is a light gentle thing that fits Christmas time; just 90 minutes of fun for The McCarthy.

Presumably there’s nothing further along!
No. I think with the SJT being in the state it is at the moment with no Artistic Director, it would be foolish to start pushing plays at the SJT with no-one actually taking responsibility for saying yes. There’s no Artistic Director and no Executive Director, so the chicken absolutely has no head at the moment.[1]

You seem to have embraced the shorter work this year - Consuming Passions is probably one of your shortest full-length works and can also be performed as individual acts, which is much the same as No Knowing - what is the interest for you?
I like the one act format because it encompasses two things in me, one is economy of writing. In fact, dramatically speaking, one always attempts in the ideal world to keep it as short as possible. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t - it depends how much story you have to tell over the course of an evening. One always tries to be concise and I equate it to drawing a picture using the minimum number of lives to convey the maximum effect.
So to that extent my work is being drawn in whilst expanding, as I’m still looking for the big ideas.

Which takes us back to The Karaoke Theatre Company and challenging yourself as a writer.
The Karaoke Theatre Company actually at heart reflects that drawing in, whilst expanding. Although it is one big idea, at heart it is four or five one act plays. A few years ago I wouldn't have put any money on me writing one act plays, but nowadays I see them as a challenge which also influence my full-length work. I’m interested in trying to incorporate stories that have a finite size to them and incorporating them into a Tarantino-esque ‘Pulp Fiction’ like structure. I have a penchant for looking at Hero’s Welcome as three separate love stories that each impinge on one another; similarly Surprises is several separate love stories which are loosely connected and whose paths cross and occasionally collide.

Finally, let’s touch upon New York. You’re returning to the Brits Off Broadway festival at the 59E59 Theaters this year with Hero’s Welcome and Confusions. How do you think they’ll be received?
I’m not quite sure how they'll be received. I’ve noticed on tour that Confusions is finding an audience very readily and I think there is an audience already for that sort of play in New York. It’s interesting to be presenting the New York premiere 40 years after I wrote it because it didn’t seem very promising when it first opened in the West End. It was given no chance by many of the critics, but - like many of my plays - four decades on and it’s still going. So I like to think, in my defence, that it was not that I was getting less popular but I was just staying ahead of the game!
I remember a searing review for
Confusions when it first came out from one of the few national critics that covered it and he said this is obviously a man scraping the bottom of the barrel and I just thought, ‘hang on thats not very nice.’ But Confusions survived and all those early plays keep finding new audiences and going on.

Website Notes:
[1] At the time of the interview, the Artistic Director Chris Monks had officially stepped down in December 2016 - although had little actual involvement within the company since summer 2015 - and the theatre was being run by interim Executive Director Mathew Russell.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.