Ayckbourn Talks: The Early Years (2010)

This talk by Alan Ayckbourn was presented as part of the 2010 Ayckbourn Weekend organised by Simon Murgatroyd and run in conjunction with Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website. The topic was concentrated on Alan Ayckbourn's early years at the Library Theatre. The conversation was conducted by Simon who also transcribed the talk.

Meeting Stephen Joseph
I was working for Stephen Joseph before I met him as he had a habit of engaging people and then saying hello to them a month or so later.

I’d arranged to work, via a contact with a stage manager, for a theatre company in Scarborough, which I vaguely knew was somewhere in Yorkshire, run by a man called Stephen Joseph. So I was up in Scarborough before I knew it, rehearsing
An Inspector Calls operating the lights and sound and playing Eric, the young son.

It was only some weeks later I met Stephen; he turned up unannounced during the middle of a show. I was operating it and doing the lights and he was watching me and I kept looking at him and thinking: “I wish he wouldn’t be in here, because this is the control room.” This was a little narrow alleyway between the dressing room and the stage and there was no designated backstage area and this man obviously had no right to be there. I asked him very politely, as this was a reserved area, if he would move; he just ignored me and carried on staring. So I operated a light cue, which were old fashioned slider dimmers, and pulled them down with my fingers for a blackout and he spoke for the first time and said: “There’s an easier way to do that” and I said: “Oh, yeah. Thank you very much (mind your own business)!” And he said he just needed a little piece of wood, which he found in our untidy control room and said: “You lay it across the dimmers and then you pull them down like that.” I said: “You’ve just blacked out the stage in the middle of the second act.” And he went: “Oh, Jesus.” And ran out of the room.

The leading actor stuck his head round the curtain and said: “What the hell’s going on? You’ve brought the lights down on my scene!” I said: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. There was a great big man and he just drew all the lights out. I’m so sorry.” And he said “What was this big man?” I said: “He had a big hook nose and very short hair and leather trousers and a hat with a butterfly pin in it. The most extraordinary looking man, I think he must be a mad man.” He said: “Oh no, that’ll be Stephen.” I said: “Stephen who?” “Stephen Joseph, he’s always doing that.”

Stephen and I struck up a really good friendship after that. It was amazing, from having good ideas about fading lights, he got onto all sorts of technical matters and we found we were twin nerds really. We loved talking about technology. We were in the very early stages of tape-recording so he bought a tape recorder, but it had no pause switches on it, so we invented one. It was very primitive sound-effects, played on tape but moving away these ancient devices called panotropes. In those days all sound effects were played on records and these devices had three or four records on them and you’d have to find exactly the right place on the record and then drop the needle. If you missed it, there was hiss-crackle-crackle “BANG” as the gun shot went off. Every sound effect was often preceded by a series of hisses, crackles and scratches. It was not very satisfactory. So this wonderful new technology known as the tape was something we were pioneering and playing great games with.

Stephen Joseph
Stephen was an anarchist really in that he didn’t believe in order of any kind. He hated the establishment, especially in theatre. At the time there was many a threat to pull down current theatres in London and the whole of Equity with dignitaries such as Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were leading processions down The Strand saying ‘Save The St James’s Theatre’. Stephen was seen coming from the opposite direction with a sign saying ‘Pull Down the St James Theatre - and build a proper one’. Meaning a theatre-in-the-round.

He made himself very unpopular. I worked with him for a series of summer seasons and rapidly realised that in working for Stephen you actually put yourself out of reckoning for many another job. You sat there in someone else’s office and they asked you what you’d done. “Well,” I said, “I happened to have done this and that and I’ve worked with Stephen Joseph...” and you’d see their faces drop before saying they had nothing for you. So working with Stephen put you out of the reckoning for most other respectable jobs. But I was still under 20 at the time and I thought he was terrific.

He led the charge for different sorts of theatre and like many pioneers, he was an extremist. He openly attacked established theatre - proscenium arches and the conventional - and he had no time for what he called lukewarm compromises such as traverse staging and thrust staging.

He had enormous influence, undoubtedly. When I first joined the theatre in the late ‘50s, the British theatre professionally had no theatres in-the-round - there was one notable amateur society The Merseyside Unity Theatre which played in the round - but apart from that and possibly one or two others, there was nothing professionally. You either had proscenium arch or nothing. Slowly his influence, via an organisation called the Association of British Theatre Technicians - of which he was founder - drip-fed the idea theatre could be in one room rather than two rooms; which is really what Proscenium arch theatre is. And I, of course, was extremely excited by theatre in the round and got bitten by it.

Stephen was also, more significantly for me, an encourager of new writing. Writers were expensive; Stephen didn’t have any money for commissions so the next best thing was to start asking anyone else around the place whether they’d like to write a play as they were already on the salary - be they actor or stage manager or box office manager. The box office manager and I, between us, started writing quite a lot of plays. In fact there was one season where we wrote every other play. So he wrote one and then I wrote one and then he wrote one and then I wrote one! We looked like a monopolies commission. Stephen’s influence and his encouragement allowed me not only to write but to have a marginally good guarantee of production.

Stephen wasn’t that wonderful a director actually; he wasn’t that wonderful as an actor; he wasn’t that wonderful as a writer - he was just a wonderful guy! All these things he talked about though and was fluent and loquacious about. He could tell you more about acting in ten seconds than most people could have told you in ten hours. He could tell you more about writing in twenty minutes and he talked about directing with great knowledge and authority. But he couldn’t do any of them. He really was a Renaissance man and he taught me in short sentences what writing was about, what
directing was about and then left me to discover it.

Writing Plays
The writers among you will know that there is nothing worse than writing for a vacuum. If you sit down and write a play with no idea of where it will go or who will do it, it’s very hard to finish it - unless it’s a really burning idea. But once someone says I would like to do a play of yours, you set to with a passion. The deadline is never a bad thing. Some people look down on deadlines slightly - Alan Plater called them amateur writers, as professional writers like deadlines. They curse them at the time, but they’re the only way you actually stop and make the work finite. So not a play of mine has ever been written without a deadline in mind and Stephen started that noble habit.

The first thing most people often ask is what comes first when writing; is it the plot or the dialogue? Neither! Always the deadline and above all the title! In the early days this was because the title needed to be in the brochure, so a lot of my plays were brochure led. This explains why most of the titles have absolutely no bearing on the play. It’s a known fact my first successful play was called
Relatively Speaking, but long before that it was called Meet My Father which was actually a quotation from the play. Relatively Speaking has no bearing on the play at all. How The Other Half Loves possibly has some bearing. By the time you get to plays like Absurd Person Singular, that was a hand-me down title I had written on the back of an envelope long before I wrote the play. To my horror I once received a thesis from a student from America, who’d written a whole thesis on why Absurd Person Singular was called that. I wanted to write back and tell him that I can’t tell you the real reason, as I don’t want to ruin your thesis!

I have no time for writing schools; people have that innate skill in them already and they develop it. They may develop it through a teacher but you really develop by actually writing things to order. When you learn to write you read other people’s work and begin to recognise when it’s working and then you just take the play to bits. You actually see how this very clever other writer put their play together and you go: “Aha! I must use that sometime!”

When you start writing, you can’t read or watch enough. All you can teach is theory and I remember David Edgar invited me to Birmingham to talk about playwriting, which I did for an hour and at the end of it there was a long pause and this woman looked at me and said: “You make it sound extremely difficult.” I said “Well, it is.” She said: “Well, you’re making it sound more difficult than it really is, I’m sure.” And I said: “Probably. I don’t want to encourage you too much!”

I think everyone has a play in them. But writing is difficult. It’s easy enough to write, it’s more difficult to write successfully.

The Square Cat
I think one of the reasons Stephen Joseph first asked me to write was I let slip early on that I’d written at school. In fact, I’d written my first play before the age of 12 and it was an adaptation of an Anthony Buckeridge book Jennings at School; which I wrote and never got to see because I was ill in the sanatorium. I wrote sketches and little bits and pieces once I was at Haileybury, my public school, where the arts scene was covert and undercover and which was all very exciting; like being in the French resistance!

So I was writing and writing and eventually I got to Stephen’s company and I was overheard to complain about the play I was in one night, the way actors do. I didn’t have a very good part in it and Stephen threw down the gauntlet: “If you think you can write a better play, do so.” I said, “I can write better than this - I can write a play tomorrow that’s better than this.” And he said, “OK, do so smarty. There’s just one thing, if you write it, be prepared to play the lead in it.” Which he thought would queer my pitch actually as obviously I’m not going to be lunatic enough or suicidal enough to write myself an unplayable role in a play I didn’t have any confidence in. But I was so swollen with confidence and possibly a slight stupidity of youth, that I wrote a play in which I gave myself this starring role. The freedom was amazing and the actor in me was urging the author in me onward and onward, so the role was a rock ‘n’ roll singer playing a guitar, singing and dancing; it was an amazing role - Michael Crawford would have died for it! But I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t dance and I certainly couldn’t play the guitar!

So it occurred to me in the first two or three weeks of rehearsals that I ought to remedy this quite quickly, so I went for some guitar lessons. I didn’t even have a guitar and this boy looked at me in amazement and said “how long have you got?” I said: “Well, about two weeks.” He said; “You can’t play the guitar in two weeks! I can teach you a couple of chords.” I said, “Yeah, OK, that’ll do. So can we find a song to go with a couple of chords?” and he said: “Well, there’s a very boring song with two chords in it!” which I finished up playing in this play of mine.

The Square Cat was a farce because that was how it turned out. Everyone tells you; don’t write farces, they’re for old men. Farces are technically very, very difficult to write unless you’re a natural farceur, you have to know exactly all the wheels and nuts of play-building. Long before that, you’re supposed to write a very serious play about how your mother didn’t understand you and how your father was unkind to you. Write something rather introverted and gloomy and all about you - which is what 80% of all first plays written are; they come soaring out of a person’s unhappy childhood - if they’ve got a happy childhood, they invent an unhappy one. But I started with a silly play about a woman who fell in love with a pop singer and he arranges to go on holiday with her, to her family’s horror, who then turn up and try to stop her. The rest of the play is about pop singers running in and out of doors.

Farce is the most difficult sort of theatre to write, as I realised. Years later I still have only written a handful of farces - if you can call them that.
Taking Steps was significantly my next farce which was 20 years later. That took me ages and ages to write; it was most difficult.

But because
The Square Cat was light and had a few laughs in it, it made money because we were still doing, in those days, largely plays written by young people who were writing about their “unhappy childhoods” and this was a silly play about no childhood at all. The audience, who were on holiday in Scarborough trying to avoid the rain, ran in gratefully and saw my play, which made the theatre money. It made me more money in one lump than I’d ever earned in my life! £33, it was a fantastic amount! I went completely berserk and bought myself some more records!

Stephen Joseph realised he’d actually, like some freak accident of lightning striking, found himself an embryonic commercial writer and he encouraged me to write more. I, wanting to see more £33s coming in because by then I had a family and one child with another on the way, started to write comedies for Stephen and the first three or four all included exciting parts for me! And then as they went on I began to realise that possibly the one weak link in them was this bloke playing all the leads. So I recast them for another actor - to the eternal gratitude of the rest of the company, who were fed up with supporting me.

Development as a writer
My early writing was very plot-driven: “and then they do this ad then so-so comes in and then this happens and then....” I was getting very tired and it was only around the time of The Norman Conquests, when I was jumping higher than I’d ever jumped before by trying to write three plays simultaneously happening in three different locations, that even my youthful inventively as far as plots went began to run out. A small black hole of no action appeared in the middle of the ‘so called’ middle play, Living Together, when the family sit down and because things were happening all around in the other rooms, they had nothing whatever to do. I thought: “Oh my God! I’ve hit a brick wall here.” I began to panic and then I thought, well why don’t they talk about their family for a couple of pages. They talked about themselves and it became one of my favourite scenes because out of the madness of the games and the dinner party seating and the rolling around on the terrace and the tangle of the lecherous Norman chasing three women simultaneously, there came this moment of calm which was actually the beacon which led to further plays.

You don’t have to have everything happening on stage providing the chat is interesting enough. So then I swayed towards - because the magic word, which is very dangerous for a writer - Chekhov came to mind. I started to write plays with less and less happening in them until nothing happened in them at all! By the time we got to plays like
Absent Friends, people were just sitting, having tea and talking. Anything that happened had happened before the play started and the most dramatic action was a woman pouring a jug of cream over a guy’s head and that was it.

I then tried to blend the plays a little bit more. I went back to the farceur and realised that even the great Chekhov had moments when people took pot-shots at each other with guns that didn’t go off and he had his farce moments, so if he could, then I could.

Stephen Joseph gradually encouraged a second career in order to put a spoke in the wheels of my acting career. He encouraged me to direct and that is the poisoned chalice for an actor; if they really get the taste for directing, they slowly tire of acting because directing, of course, is global and you have a view of the entire production. Whereas acting you’re in charge of one section of the play - unless you’re one of those actors who gives other actors notes! As far as acting, once you’ve directed, I think the power of it takes over.

The two careers - writer and director - developed separately. I didn’t begin with the idea of directing my own plays; in fact at the time, people said writers should not direct their own plays. It wasn’t done, although there were notable exceptions including Noël Coward and a few others, but really you weren’t supposed to do that. And then I was allowed slowly to direct my plays in Scarborough, but never in London.

I think the experience of acting in the plays was so mind-blowing that I initially had no thought of directing at all. But as my directing career developed, it encouraged me towards a director’s eye and so the last few plays I was in as an actor, I spent the time checking the lighting, checking the set, checking the pace of the scene and was really a bore as an actor. I would have fired myself! I became more and more objective to what was happening as a director and a less objective actor. I was a waste of space as an actor by the end of it.

It was only a year or so before the two careers joined up and one or two of my writing contemporaries at the time saw this and said “This is good, you can direct your own show” and many a writer tried to follow me, but they didn’t have, of course, independent directing experience. They were going into a rehearsal room with their own play for the first time as a director - it’s difficult enough going in as a director full-stop, but going in as a writer-director unless you’re really experienced is incredibly difficult. I was reasonably experienced by the time I got to direct my own first play, I was at least able to understand the procedures, the geography of directing and I was able to do the plays.

I’m able now to step away from the writer and become the Mr Hyde or the Doctor Jekyll side of myself. I think of Mr Hyde as the writer and Dr Jekyll as the director. I’m slightly more benign as a director than I am as a writer.

Writing for children & Miss Yesterday
Children’s theatre in this country used to quite often encourage inexperienced actors and inexperienced writers to write for very young people, which is of course a terrible mistake because kids deserve the best. Adults will put up with second best quite often, because they think it’ll probably get better. Kids just look at it and go boring and other things too horrible to mention!

You need to be experienced as a writer:
Dad’s Tale was my third professional play and it failed. Christmas V Mastermind - which was a horrendous mistake and followed it - was even worse.

I then gave up writing for children and it wasn’t until
Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays, by which time when I had a rudimentary grasp of structure and character, that I began to explore writing for young audiences again. By then I was far enough away from childhood to realise what I thought children would want, which is strong narrative, strong characters and an on-going thrust in the play.

That was the youngest of my children’s plays. Ironically, as I went on with
Invisible Friends, My Very Own Story, My Sister Sadie, the age ranges began to get older and I began to see the adults’ stream and the kids’ stream of my writing joining. They are really not that different.

The things I was trying to write in my children’s shows were exactly the same as what I was trying to do with my adult shows, only more so. Plays like
Communicating Doors would never have been written if I hadn’t written my children’s shows because it’s a ‘what if?’ play. The kids’ plays are ‘what if?’ Children’s stories allow you to do things like this and I mistakenly thought you couldn’t do this in the adult shows. But I think the option of writing kids’ work where you can make fantastic jumps and they will jump with you, led me to trust adult audiences to also make that jump with me. I found out that most adult audiences, providing you justify it a little bit more, will make the jump. The children’s plays liberated my adult work.

They’re really not that different except I’ve always pursued to the end the notion the children’s plays would not have final negativity; I refuse to leave children at the end of a play with all the doors shut and no hope; sometimes you can do that with adults, although not too often as you depress them all. By the later children’s shows, I still let people die because kids can deal with that. I just don’t want to shut off the possibilities for them. I would never write a character in a children’s play where there was an actual incurable illness; a character might die of it, but there’s always the possibility of a cure. Because I think if I wrote a play for an audience of children, there could be the greatest future cancer specialist sitting there at seven years old, who just went “oh bugger it. I won’t bother.” I might have put off a possible saviour of mankind. It’s a whim of mine, but I just don’t want to do that - everything’s possible, kids, just go for it. That’s my little tiny belief for the kids’ shows but other than that they’re exactly the same.

Miss Yesterday is a good example, it’s an interesting play as it’s not dissimilar to Communicating Doors. It’s about Tammy, the central girl, who has the choice of going back in time and saving her brother. She’s the youngest sister of this fantastic brother who is a brilliant cricketer and a marvellous scholar and she’s a rat-bag of a girl - apparently absolutely useless and her parents have written her off. They put all their devotion into this wonderfully successful boy, who is head and shoulders above his contemporaries and leaves his sister very much in his shadow. Our heroine spends the night breaking into her school to steal the exam papers and that’s her life up to then.

Then her brother is killed in a motorbike accident and that rocks the family and Tammy is, of course, absolutely devastated. Then she is offered, by a mysterious woman she meets in the park, the chance to go back in time and save her brother, which she does and she sabotages his motorbike so he can’t go out for the ride. He survives and it looks like that’s it, when the mysterious woman comes back - who looks in a terrible state and is dreadfully ill - and says: “Wrong, shouldn’t have done that. You have to go back and this time, your brother has to die.” And when Tammy asks why, the stranger says: “He dies, so you can live.” So Tammy goes back and the brother is killed and she then becomes the saviour of the family and begins to step into his shoes. She goes on and becomes this wonderful Nobel prize-winning scientist who cures the very disease the mysterious woman, who turns out to be her older self, was dying from.

Maybe the brother’s death was tragic, but it allowed Tammy to reach the horizons she would never have reached otherwise. Things happen because they happen and good things are waiting around the corner; so it was quite a moral play but quite touching in the end when the older mysterious woman steps forward and say: “This is me Tamara Elizabeth Laidlaw. But you can call me Tammy.”

Meet My Father / Relatively Speaking
Writing Relatively Speaking was an extraordinary experience because I’d just written Mr Whatnot, which had gone into the West End and sunk without trace; this play was the old experimental me trying to find a new way to go forward. Mr Whatnot was a silent film of a play with very little dialogue. Visually it was based on every Buster Keaton film I’d ever seen with a bit of Chaplin and everything else thrown in. And that hit a brick wall and as I say, sank without a trace at least for the time being. Stephen Joseph then said to me: why don’t you go back and write me a well-made play? Which was like telling an experimental composer to write a Venetian waltz. It didn’t seem very exciting but I reluctantly agreed.

So I tried to write a well-made play and I wrote it over two or three nights in a cottage out at Collingham which I’d rented, as I was working at the
BBC at the time. I remember a strange cat used to come through the French windows in the middle of the night from next door and sit on my lap and I’d write on its fur and it seemed to like people writing on it in the middle of the night. My notepad was all over the place! With this cat called Pamela - an extraordinary name for a cat - we finished the play together and I sent it to Stephen who didn’t say anything. I’d already had a deadline which had passed. I’d also been forced the title of Meet My Father, which I was very pleased to have worked into the curtain line of the second scene - it was like writing one of those essays where you have to include a ball of string and a rocket!

Stephen started directing it and because I was working at the BBC in Leeds, I didn’t get to Scarborough for the first read-through or indeed any of the rehearsals. About the second or third week of rehearsals I met Stephen by chance in Manchester and, being Stephen, this was logically where he was supposed to be - he was supposed to be directing a play in Scarborough and there he was in Manchester shopping! So I asked how’s the play going? He said: “It’s fine. I’ve done a bit of cutting.” I said “I bet you did... Is it working alright? Are you sure?” It was a load of rubbish as far as I could see. Stephen said: “No, it’s alright. It’ll do.” So I thought that’s encouraging... It’ll do and the director’s in Manchester when he should be in Scarborough! So I reluctantly went through to see it, not to the first night but the second or third night. Stephen had taken whole loads of pages out, so it seemed to have jump cuts; like a film where a bit had been lost! It seemed to still work though. So after that I did some work on it, smoothing out the jumps but it was actually fine, it worked very well and the audiences seemed to be enjoying it.

I’m still a little suspicious of the play because there was such an unpromising start to it. It was then picked up by the producer Peter Bridge, who had produced
Mr Whatnot before it and therefore I didn’t have a lot of confidence it would do anything else but run for three weeks in London. But he began to assemble an extremely good cast including Celia Johnson, Michael Hordern, a very young Richard Briers and Jennifer Hilary. All four of whom were pedigree actors and then he got a pedigree director, the very irascible Nigel Patrick. So I did more work on it and then it went out on tour and we did some more work, niggling at the ending and it was, like all early plays, a team effort - although I think it still remained mine, just about!

Both it and my second West End play
How The Other Half Loves went through these strange team transformations. Sometimes it was quite hard really, because the trouble with being a young writer - and the trouble with being a young director - is your youth. People suspect young people of not knowing what they’re doing; which is generally true, but sometimes not. When you’re a young writer brimming with ideas, everybody down to the office cleaner has a good idea to add to it. Now nobody even suggests they sort my play out, so I’m really working away in a sort of vacuum, which is maybe self-imposed.

The Sparrow
The Sparrow was a four hander with a leading girl, which was quite unusual in those days; a young woman who was supported by two other blokes and there was fourth woman who popped in. So it was a one girl show really and unfortunately - or fortunately for her - Ann Jellicoe’s The Knack had opened around the same time, which I hadn’t seen, with the same idea of this leading girl. And the London producers said, oh it’s a bit like The Knack. I thought it’s not like The Knack, I don’t even know The Knack. But its format was the same and they got nervous - despite the fact The Sparrow was quite successful and went very well in Scarborough.

Peter Bridge, who had produced
Relatively Speaking in London, couldn’t find any star parts in it as it was quite a young cast, so it got lost. I think it was because there was no part for Robert Morley or Celia Johnson or Michael Holdern in The Sparrow, there was no part for anyone.

Rita Tushingham had made her name in
The Knack, but that had started at the Royal Court, and I was now set on a commercial track following the success of Relatively Speaking. So Peter Bridge cast round in vain to think of anyone who could play it and they couldn’t think of anyone - as from the original cast, Robert Powell had yet to do Doomwatch , let alone Jesus Of Nazareth and John Nettles was in his very first play, his very first role straight from drama school, and had yet to do his extraordinarily successful television career playing detectives here, there and everywhere with his forays into the Royal Shakespeare Company inbetween. So we were four unknown actors and a vaguely unknown playwright. It was also never going to be a follow-up to Relatively Speaking, no mistaken identities in this - it had a man trying to build a boat in his bedroom! My instinct after the success of Relatively Speaking was to move on. So it was me deviating, but the trouble is when you’re a young writer you have to start writing only slightly differently , so people say: “Oh, it’s this chap.” And eventually you move further away. But if you’re not careful you only move on a fraction and you just go round and round like Feydeau and I wasn’t interested in that.

Reviving Plays
Reviving shows is like looking at a snapshot of yourself. I’m not the same dramatist now as I was when I wrote Relatively Speaking. There are very few similarities between what I was writing then and now in terms of construction. I’m the same writer but I’ve moved on.

I think it’s like not seeing someone who you knew many years ago as a child and then you see them again in five years and you see the difference in them. You suddenly see a snapshot of yourself, of your life and of your attitude to writing, which is so dramatically different and that is fascinating and also fun.

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