Ayckbourn Talks: Ayckbourn In Action (2011)

On 25 September 2011, the BBC marked Alan Ayckbourn's 50th anniversary as a director with the BBC World Service radio documentary Ayckbourn In Action, looking at his career as a theatre director.

Alan Ayckbourn
I consider myself to be director who writes, rather than a writer who directs. Somebody suggested to me this was my 50th year as a director, which turns out to be accurate.
2011 is very special because it marks my 75th produced professional play,
Neighbourhood Watch. This is a little group who form - with the very best off intentions - a neighbourhood watch group. The police are too busy to advise them, so they set off fatally at the wrong angle and get deeper and deeper into trouble because - as we know -quasi military groups attract sometimes quasi military elements who are not the best people to be doing it and they finish up regimenting against the very people they’re trying to protect. It’s really quite topical play, as it turns out. I wrote it last October, my play is now being seen on the screens! It’s a satire, it’s a parody, but it’s quite dark.

Paul Allen (biographer)
Alan always starts his rehearsals in the same way. Everybody gets invited up to the rehearsal room, which is really an extension of his own house; this high room with the fans going. You’re on this sloping hillside in Scarborough and with one window there’s a glorious view of the South Bay - which is one of the great views of the British coastline. On the other side, there’s a castle on the hill which has been used since Roman times at least. The play is read through and then, as soon as it’s done, Alan says ‘right, on your feet’ and he goes straight in - act 1, scene 1 - from the beginning to start to get the pace the writing imposes on the play.

Alan Ayckbourn
There’s two personalities involved really. No-one can help you out as a writer - it’s a very private and personal thing. Directing is the fun bit. When I started directing, I turned to my mentor Stephen Joseph and I said to him, 'what is it about this directing?' and he put it very, very succinctly: ‘Directing is very simple. You have to create an atmosphere in which other people feel free to create.” and I said, ‘Oh, is that all….’
As a director I have to encourage the performers from normality, which is the usual starting point of my plays, into more and more uncharted territories. To orchestrate, to accelerate, and to heighten it as it goes. I’m aware that 50% of my job is visual, to create visual impressions. I’ve read some wonderful potential stage plays when I was running the
Stephen Joseph Theatre, which I read and thought, that’s interesting and then I thought, what on earth am I going to do as a director with this play? What they’re saying to each other is very interesting but I can put them in two armchairs and never move them. And then you think, well, shouldn’t it be on the radio?
These days I’m often solving directorial problems as I’m writing them, which is the director in me, as it were, looking over my shoulder and going, ‘Oh good-o, this is going to be fun.'

Paul Allen
So Alan the director has to cope with Alan the author, who wants a tennis match on set [Joking Apart] or three complete bedrooms on view at the same time [Bedroom Farce] or two plays - on one occasion - in adjoining theatres making a single interlocking event [House & Garden]. The space dramatises the conflict, the dysfunction. Anyone who’s been crammed in a small boat for a week with kith and kin will recognise where the play Way Upstream is going. It’s set entirely in a cabin cruiser on real water.

Michael Billington (critic)
Without a shadow of a doubt, Ayckbourn being a world class playwright has overshadowed his equally brilliant career as a director. And I would say not just as a director of plays, but as a director of a theatre in Scarborough, of course, for pretty much four decades.
If I could just choose one scene from one Ayckbourn play that typifies his skill as a director and his skill as a writer, it would be a famous scene in play called
Table Manners which is part of a trilogy called The Norman Conquests. Ayckbourn is always very good at dinner parties and how they go horribly wrong and in Table Manners, we see a family gathered for the first time in the play around the table together. Off course it leads to terrible arguments because there’s a bossy woman who keeps trying to organise the place settings and people don’t abide by them.
There’s a shortage of chairs so one of the characters - who is very tall and was played originally in the West End by Michael Gambon - has to sit at a very low stool, so that his head simply rests on the top of the table and he looks like a little boy surrounded by adults. They all start being patronising to him and pat his head. As I describe it, it may not sound like much. I swear that, in the theatre, it made an audience laugh more constantly and continually than I’ve ever known an audience laugh at anything really. The laugher just went on and on and on. That a very good example of how Alan Ayckbourn as a director thinks of an image that is inherently funny and then makes it work.

Penelope Wilton (actor)
The fact the plays are very funny is because he’s an extremely good observer of the human condition. There are certain scenes in Sisterly Feelings where there’s a picnic. One of the sisters is handing out sandwiches and there are ham sandwiches and cheese and ham sandwiches and two peanut butter sandwiches for the vegetarians. So it was, ‘hands up who wants ham sandwiches, hands upon who wants ham and cheese sandwiches’ and people are having conversations and not listening, while they’re trying to hand out the sandwiches and then these arguments break out as to who’s ordered what. It’s a very complicated thing to do to get eight people with the right sandwiches and very tedious to rehearse. So you go over and over it until you’re blue in the face from getting it wrong. Once you’ve got it right, it’s hilarious, it brings the house down. He knows and it goes and its wonderfully clever.
There are very few who can do both - write and direct. Writers don’t always direct their own work terribly well. There are some that do, Harold Pinter was extremely good at directing his own plays and an admirer of Alan Ayckbourn’s.

Alan Ayckbourn
Quite a lot of decent directing, I think, is counterpoint, so you’ve got something happening, which is the speech end and you’ve got something else physically happening which counterpoints it. I use the plumber in the cupboard analogy. The wife lets the plumber in in the morning and he goes into the pantry and he shuts the door and he’s busy working on some pipes in there and she conveniently forgets about him. And then the husband comes in and the they have one of those awful rows - which only married couples can have - in which they absolutely destroy each other and to read it is hair-raising. And you see it and then you see the plumber in the cupboard in two minds as to whether to come out, in which case he tells them he’s seen it all or stay in there, hearing more and more, so the audience is balanced on two sides. Half of them are laughing at the plumber and the other half are gasping with horror at the row going on. And that way, you can allow all three participants on the stage to remain totally honest to their own intentions and you don’t say to the husband and wife actor, ‘just jolly it up a bit.' You say, just get more and more savage really, just play it absolutely real and you say to the plumber, ‘Don’t ham it up. Just react as you would do.’

Helen Atkinson Wood (actor)
What Alan looks for is a completely truthful portrayal of a character. There is nothing funny for them going on in their world, it’s only the audience that finds - in his writing and then in the production - much hilarity ensues. So if you think you’re doing something funny on stage, you shouldn’t be doing it. For example, my particular character was defined in particular by the needless serving up of Battenberg cake and it can be a very funny thing to have in your mouth and it can be a very funny thing to cut in an entertaining way. Needless to say, of course, because of the close proximity to the audience because its a theatre-in-the-round and because there’s a very thin plate glass between the actors and the world that they’re portraying, its difficult to be on stage during an Ayckbourn play knowing you’re doing something funny but suppressing it.

Heather Stoney (actor)
He hates a lot of ‘acting’ - ‘oh, you can see an awful lot of acting going on there.’ People wave from the train, as he says, people get on the train and they feel they’ve got to add to the play, a little joke here - I don’t mean a verbal joke - but they indicate. I think he hates indicating acting; its the easy laugh, the easy gag and anything like that, he really hates.

Peter Bowles (actor)
We’d been on for a week or two [in Man Of The Moment] and Alan came and saw it - we didn’t know he was in - and afterwards he came backstage and he said that some members of the cast were waving out of the windows - I won’t tell you who he was looking at, but I know exactly what he meant by that. If you’re in a comedy, do not try and be funny, if you’re in a tragedy do not try and be tragic and never be sentimental at any time. In other words, don’t try too hard, don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t wave - in other words, look at me Mum!

Michael Gambon (actor)
Alan Ayckbourn has directed me in nine of his own plays. The expression waving from a train is perfect, actors drawing attention to themselves - he doesn’t like that. He’s uncomplicated, very straight. He once directed me in a play and a famous actor was playing one of the leading parts and he had a line which he didn’t know how to say and was getting cross about and he pestered Alan for quite a long time over what this line means. Alan said, ‘well to tell you the truth - I’ve got to tell you if you keep asking me - its to get you across the other side of the stage while she says hers and thats going to bring the house down with laughter! So yours is to fill in your movement across.’ He’s a very practical, down to earth proper theatre director. When you’re in an Ayckbourn play he’s directed, you know you’re safe, lines are drawn quite clearly, not to say they’re not inventive or imaginative, they’re just good to do.

Alan Ayckbourn
The sort of actors I like are those with an innate sense of self-ridicule but have a power. I always thinks its discomforting or distressing if you ever sit in or watch a show where you feel the actor is at the limit of their abilities, because you begin to worry for them. ‘Oh dear, his voice is going to go in a minute’ or ‘he hasn’t got the emotional depth here’ and so on. An actor like Michael Gambon, although nowadays it’s known that he can play searing tragedy, when I first knew him was a light comedian really, but always had that power underneath there; when he was asked to get a little bit menacing - the menace was there.

Michael Simkins (actor)
Alan best directs by anecdote, often particularly when he’s directing his own work. Alan has a beautifully anecdotal style whereby the comments that will unblock a part for you as an actor is often an aside that he might make often during a tea break, like, for instance if you’re playing guy whose marriage is breaking up and whose perhaps got a problem with drink or something like that, he’ll often say, ‘oh yes I remember in 1965 there was this man who was in the next room to me in a hotel and we got talking one night…’ and once you’ve been with Alan for a while your ears prick up, you think, hang on now, this is a note he’s giving me about this particular character.
Above any director I have worked with, he encourages a sense of merriment and happiness in the rehearsal room. He trusts actors, enjoys the company of actors and loves to watch actors at work.

Martin Jarvis (actor)
I seem to remember Alan saying one time he was in a tea shop - and it could well have been in Scarborough - and he heard a man lean across to his wife at the next little table and say do you want me to hit you now or shall we wait till we get home!
I can remember rehearsing
Woman In Mind and Alan just stopped the rehearsal one day and said, ‘Gerald’s based on my step-father, you know, I remember once when he was saying something sanctimonious one mealtime, my mother picked up a bowl of potatoes and emptied the bowl over his head. And the expression on his face was something like long-suffering, sacrificial ‘forgive her lord for she knows not what she does’, something like that’, and that little story I think was designed to show me the kind of smug, self satisfaction of my character, the Reverend Gannett.

Paul Allen
The family he grew up was a very mixed organism. He was born to a father who was the lead violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra, his mother was a writer, writing magazine short stories and occasional journalism. They were a tempestuous couple and never really lived together satisfactorily at all. By the end of the war, when Alan was six they were living apart. Alan was living with his mother in a cottage in Sussex and she was bashing away at the typewriter during the day and she bought him a child’s typewriter so he could sit alongside her. So from the beginning he gets a sense of women being rather badly treated by men and that is emphasised when she marries a bank manager. She had a choice between a doctor and a bank manager - she should have gone for health, but she went for financial security. That marriage was also disastrous and occasionally violent and that ended with his mother, who was known as Lolly, having Electro Convulsion Therapy way back in the ‘50s. So he kind of had a ringside seat of human nature at its most edgy, dangerous and often personally cruel - sometimes involving physical violence, but more often emotional violence. That gives him, if you like, a template of how people behave. And the way people get through that is by not showing emotion. Quite often in an Ayckbourn play you’ll find there is one big aria of a speech which is someone close to the end of their tether.

Michael Billington
I think Ayckbourn throughout his career as writer and director has struck this extraordinary balance between laughter and pain. I’m thinking specifically of a play like Woman In Mind, Ayckbourn shows one specific woman who’s going through a kind of terrible mid life attack of anxiety and, of course, as played famously by Julia McKenzie that character became one of the icons of modern theatre.

Julia McKenzie (actor)
He must have pulled somewhere from experience, I would think, or knowledge of these frail-ish women. With Susan in Woman In Mind, she was a woman oppressed by the husband - this seems to be a fairly dominant feature in Alan’s work.

Alan Ayckbourn
If you told the story of Woman In Mind - and I said to the press officer, for goodness sake don’t put that in the programme because no-one will want to come, they’ll say oh no that unbearable. I sent the script, I remember, to Julia McKenzie, after it had premiered in Scarborough and she rang me up and said, ‘Oh dear, its heart-breaking, that’s awful - you say it's a comedy…’ But it is a comedy and undoubtedly the comedy helps pick out the tragedy in it.

Julia McKenzie
Frequently people would stay behind in the stalls. I remember one woman sat there just crying and crying. Her son was next to her saying, ‘mum, mum.’ Obviously it had hit somewhere very deep inside that woman. I have to say I did take that one home with me. I think if you tell your body every single night that you’re having a mental breakdown, its bound to have some sort of physical reaction on you and it certainly did with me. My husband tells me I was hell to live with.
Alan was an actor, he knows our insecurities and how we need lots of pats on the back along the way and reining in.

Paul Allen
Alan Ayckbourn hasn’t always directed only his own plays and it hasn’t all been uninterrupted plain sailing at all. For years he wasn’t allowed to direct even his own plays in London until Peter Hall broke that particular mould at the National Theatre. In Scarborough, he used to direct just about everything, which is how we knew what a good director he was - except when he did Othello, for example, which he thought needed restructuring and critics didn’t like that and even some of his own cast didn’t like it that much either. I don’t think he actually gets Shakespeare, so there are chinks in his armour.

Michael Billington
With 20th century drama he is masterly and one of his great and most famous productions is A View From The Bridge which he did at the Cottelsoe at the National Theatre with Michael Gambon giving this superlative performance as Eddie Carbone, the hero of the play. But the whole point of Ayckbourn’s production - and which made it such a rich experience - was that he took a domestic play about a longshore man who has got an obsession with his niece and used it to give us a portrait of a community. Not just this one family, but he implied that what happened to this one family had enormous repercussions for what happened outside, in other words he gave us Brooklyn as a setting, as well as the domestic house. So you saw the cranes in the docks of Brooklyn and there’s a powerful moment at the end of the play because Eddie has betrayed an immigrant to the authorities - because he so jealous of his niece - and at the end of the play the immigration officers come and arrest this young man; Alan brought up a great wall of sound as the immigration officers arrived of traffic and the hum and the noise of Brooklyn. In other words he put the play in a context. It’s a kind of On The Waterfront play and Ayckbourn gave us all of that.

Michael Gambon
I remember Alan saying at one point that the way to do this play, A View From The Bridge, is to do it fast, lets not hang about. It could be described as a bit puffed up, melodramatic at times, but you find you can get rid of that by doing it quite quickly. I am, by nature, quite a fast actor and most directors have to tell me to slow down but with Alan I didn’t need to be told that.

Paul Allen
I think in some ways Alan is perfectly cast as a director. He would rather host a dinner party than go to someone else’s. Partly because he doesn’t always like their food, but partly because if he’s arranging it it’ll all be to his taste, the music will be right, everybody will be sitting in the right place next to the right people and it means he can orchestrate it. he can arrange it. When he played cricket and ran his own cricket team, he played wicket keeper and this is the place from which you can direct the entire operation on the field. It used to spill overt into his directing, if it was a summer when he had a lot of cricketers in his company, he would instead of telling them to sit stage left or whatever, he’d say would you take up the third man position, would you be silly point here and the women in the company would go, ‘oh god for heaven’s sake, this is all boys stuff’ but it illustrates something which he likes to do, which is get together a company which will enjoy each other’s company through the summer and they’ve got to get on and they’ve got to play as a team.

Alan Ayckbourn
The rehearsal is the best time, It’s invigorating. My happiest moments are spent with groups of actors that I trust and enjoy the company of, working on a script of mine that I’m excited about and watching it breathe and live and come to live. It’s like the best of all worlds.

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