20 Questions With...Alan Ayckbourn
Date: 25 June 2001
Writer and director Alan Ayckbourn, who premieres his 58th, 59th and 60th plays this summer in Scarborough, offers sage advice to young wannabe playwrights.
Alan Ayckbourn was encouraged to write by theatrical pioneer Stephen Joseph and, since 1971, Ayckbourn has been the artistic director of the theatre, now called the Stephen Joseph Theatre, that his mentor founded in Scarborough in 1955.
One of the most prolific playwrights in British history, Ayckbourn has premiered almost all of his plays in Scarborough, though they don't usually stay there. Since his first hit, Relatively Speaking opened at the Duke of York's in London in 1967, more than 25 of Ayckbourn's plays have subsequently been produced in the West End, at the National or the RSC. These include Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, Bedroom Farce, A Small Family Business, and more recently, Things We Do for Love, House and Garden, and the Olivier Award-winning Comic Potential.
Ayckbourn's plays have been translated into 30 languages, been performed on stage and television around the world, and received numerous awards. He has also written many plays for children, including 1998's The Boy Who Fell into a Book.
In addition to his work as an author, Ayckbourn is an established theatre director. Since 1978, he has directed the London productions of all of his own plays while his productions of other's work - such as A View from the Bridge, Conversations with My Father and By Jeeves - have met with critical acclaim.
In 1997, Ayckbourn became the first playwright since Terence Rattigan to be knighted by the Queen. This summer his 58th, 59th and 60th plays - GamePlan , FlatSpin and RolePlay - all receive their premieres at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
Date & place of birth
Born in London on 12 April 1939.
Lives now in...
Scarborough, North Yorkshire
I've had no formal training. I learnt through doing - everything from being a scene painter to stage manager, sound technician, actor, director and writer.
First big break
Working with Stephen Joseph.
Career highlights 1967 - My first West End hit, Relatively Speaking
1970 - Becoming artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre (then called the Library Theatre)
1975 - Having five plays, including The Norman Conquests, running simultaneously in the West End
1977 - Bedroom Farce playing at the Royal National Theatre
1996 - The opening of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough
1997 - Receiving a knighthood
2000 - House and Garden playing at the Royal National Theatre.
I don't have one - it's invidious to mention one more than any other.
What play (by someone else!) would you most like to have written & why?
There are quite a lot, all for different reasons - but not one more than any other.
What's the best thing currently on stage (not including your own productions)?
I don't go to the theatre very much - I'm too busy doing it so can't say.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Increase core funding for the regions so that theatres can establish their own individual voices.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be & why?
Anyone 40 years younger than me. I'd like their energy.
The Synonym Finder by JI Rodale
Favourite holiday destination
Anywhere I've been to once and returned to a second time. (I never go anywhere more than twice, though I secretly adore the Lake District, preferably out of season.)
I can never remember clean jokes. One of my favourites has the tag line, "But I'm afraid the rabbi's a goner". What do you like/dislike about the Internet?
I can never find anything (on the Internet) since any simple enquiry elicits 600 replies, the first 599 of which are completely irrelevant and 300 are direct links to hard-core porn sites. In general, it's quicker to pick up a reference book. The Stephen Joseph's - www.sjt.uk.com - is the best website I know of.
Why have you chosen Scarborough as your base as opposed to London or elsewhere? How important has the Stephen Joseph Theatre been to your work?
The Stephen Joseph Theatre has been immeasurably important - most of my plays would probably not have been written without my connection to it. In a sense, initially Scarborough chose me in that, through Stephen Joseph, it offered me a three-month summer job. Subsequently, I chose Scarborough because I believed in the work at the theatre, I loved living by the seaside and I am happiest being 300 miles away from London.
What is your secret for writing so quickly and continually coming up with fresh ideas?
Interaction with a company as a director, which stimulates me as a writer. I find it very hard to write in a vacuum.
You are also renowned for your innovations in concept and staging, most notably with House and Garden (which were performed simultaneously on two stages by the same cast). What inspires you in this regard?
Anything that can draw attention to the fact that a theatre performance is an event - and, unlike film or television or radio, a live one-off unique event - is important. And actors and directors love challenges.
Why do GamePlan, FlatSpin and RolePlay all utilise the same cast and set?
I grew to miss the permanence of the acting company. The strength that can be drawn from the group rather than the individual. Regular permanent companies are the exception these days, partly due to finance. To made such a company work requires a lot of planning and considerably ingenuity. It can be done, but it usually demands that the plays are either improvised by the company or specifically written to fit their needs or numbers. It seemed to me I was in the best position to address this. I'm a director who is known to enjoy planning, and I have a resident dramatist (me) ready, willing and still relatively able. So this is my attempt to return to an ongoing "permanent" company.
What special challenges do you think there are for writing comedy?
The best comedy lurks just above the surface of tragedy - these two elements illuminate each other. The challenge is to bring the comedy as close to the surface as possible so that it floats but doesn't sink with all hands.
Why do you also like to write for children and what special challenges are there in addressing this younger audience?
I wanted children to experience the joy of live theatre, and in the process, I found that it fed my adult work. I discovered a very thin dividing line existed between what I wrote for children and what I wrote for adults. If anything, I hope it's made me a better writer because it takes you back to basics. You have to be quite concise, you have to find ways around long expositions. It's best to leave out oblique adult or sexual themes because children really aren't interested in them. There's no harm in scaring them a little or making them a bit tearful. But I never shut them in metaphorical cupboards. Or close doors. I tend to say in my plays, anything is possible.
If you hadn't become a playwright, what would you have done for a living?
I would have been a theatre director who didn't write. Or a sound engineer.
What advice would you give to young playwrights just starting their careers?
Study plays that you admire. Dissect them in an attempt to find out in more detail why they work. Try and get close to the business itself as an actor, stage manager, technician, administrator or simply an usher. Playwriting is essentially a practical craft, and it does no harm to be close to the practice. Remember finally that you're writing for actors so develop the art of varying your voice.
How will you mark the premiere of your 60th play?
RolePlay will be my 60th, and I will mark it with a post show drink and a sigh of relief.
Is there any number after which you plan to stop writing plays?
- Alan Ayckbourn was speaking to Terri Paddock
GamePlan continues at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough until 25 August, FlatSpin runs from 28 June to 8 September, and RolePlay runs from 30 August to 8 September 200