Ayckbourn Talks: Better Off Dead - Post Show Q&A (2018)

This page contains extracts from the post-show Better Off Dead Question and Answers with Alan Ayckbourn and company at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, on 20 September 2018. All the quotes are Alan Ayckbourn's own.

Algy is not a self-portrait and that’s the first thing to say. I was interested to write a play about a writer but who’s not a playwright. Over the years, when one’s writing characters, one gets very, very empathetic with them. You get a great deal of empathy for them and often it’s quite difficult to let one go and to hand it over to an actor. But then I’m always moving onto another second chapter so that’s not a problem for me. I just wondered what writers with a continuing set of characters feel about them - detective writers in particular seem to go on for 30 or 40 books, how did Agatha Christie feel about Hercules Poirot? They must have developed a sort of relationship in their mind with that character, which they so vividly created. Indeed there are examples of Dorothy L Sayers, for instance, and her detective Lord Peter Wimsey and this is a character she actually fell in love with and then wrote a character very close to her own in a number of books and teasingly had a relationship with Wimsey. She has a relationship with the characters that we, as playwrights, probably don’t.

I didn’t have an adviser for
Better Off Dead, I just read a lot of police books. But my excuse is that I hid behind Algy whose track record was - according to the play - getting increasingly creaky as time went on. I didn’t worry that the books were not actually terribly up to date, in fact they were deliberately a bit old fashioned and - indeed - Algy continued on on autopilot really. Thirty-three novels is a lot of books. His readership was beginning to decline as a result of repetition clearly.

The journalist Gus Crewes was my revenge on journalism! I always think they look as though they’re dying to talk about themselves but they’re honour-bound to get some detail from you, so they just sit through it. I try to sound interesting and I try not to repeat myself but you know perfectly well that I’ve done so many damned interviews over 50 years now, that they must be able to get the whole lot off the internet and there can’t be an original question anywhere in the world.

I just write for me really and as I get older, so do my characters occasionally - but I’m desperately trying to keep one or two young ones around! It’s a fascinating area for me to explore. In some of my early plays, I had some cranky old people but they were never written with any knowledge of what cranky old people were really like! Now I’m a cranky old person myself and I can empathise with the characters in the play, particularly Algy. Every time you wake up these days - at my age - one checks whether your memory is still working. I do a quick crossword or something and say that seems to be OK. There is a little daily check you have to do just to make sure everything is still in full working order - the legs aren’t too good now, but the mind still keeps going.

I have a permanent fear and doubt really every time one approaches a new play. One you’ve written your first one, you’re then competing with yourself. If it’s successful - pray God it is - then you start on your second one and see if you can do it again! And by the time you get to, as I have, 82 plays and counting - hopefully - you’ve really got competition as somebody is always going to say ‘oh, you’ve never topped Relatively Speaking’ Thanks, that’s my life wasted then.

Algy was writing a chauvinistic character and he veers into Middlebrass’s id occasionally. I’m a genuinely sympathetic feminist and this is a rather macho play for me. It’s very Yorkshire. In creating Middlebrass I went through Algy creating Middlebrass and it’s a very strange feeling to write a writer who is writing another character which has nothing to do with me! It wasn’t my hand in Middlebrass, it’s Algy entirely. When we were rehearsing, I remember Naomi saying to me, she found the character of Gemma a bit one-dimensional and I said, ‘Algy is not very good at writing. Blame him.’

You learn when you’re in theatre - working in any department really - that less is more. Whether in dialogue or acting or design or lighting, practically everything in theatre is better with less of it. That’s the sort of theatre I like, when you suddenly wonder, indeed, if people are acting or the dialogue was actually written. One of the exercises I sometimes do when I get a bit stuck with a play is I take one side of the dialogue out. So in the original scene with Jason and Algy, Algy said a lot more, but the silence compelled the publisher into saying more and more and more. The silence was beginning to get to him and so he got himself into a very terrible man trap and attacked Algy, which he never intended to start. It’s a very long journey - three huge pages of uninterrupted dialogue with Algy just glowering increasingly in a creaky chair. It works quite well. Whereas years ago I would probably have had them going at each other hammer and tongs and it would have been slightly less effective.

One of the devices I use in this play is all the police scenes happen at night and all the real scenes happen in the daytime, which probably helps to tell the story quite clearly, then it’s just a matter of getting the characters not in the scene hidden or off-stage.

As a playwright, as opposed to a novelist, I know I’m going to hand my work over to people to interpret and if I didn’t want that to happen, I wouldn’t be a playwright. But the whole joy of being a playwright is you get that far, you create a play with hopefully enough information for the rest of the team - the actors, designers, stage managers, designers, prop makers, etc - all to grab a piece of it. And they say, ‘Ah, I can enhance this’ and then I’m also there as a director just to applaud or discourage their efforts.

The danger with writing with an actor in mind from the first act 1 scene 1, is inevitably you write within the known capabilities of that actor and I can probably present he / she with nothing new to add to their repertoire. Most actors within my experience thrive on the fact that there’s a bit of difference. They say, ‘this something I can use another set of skills for, another set of experiences.’ Its quite delightful working with the same actors just to throw them something a little bit ahead of them and say, ‘pick that up’ and it’s a little game one plays with a fixed company. We did it for years in the very early days when the company would stay together for years and one really needed to try and keep the whole thing fresh. So far from writing specifically for each individual, I try desperately to try something that that individual will respond to. So I was in fact writing for them but I was always writing outside what I’d seen them do . So it creates a friction, a fission, which is interesting to explore. it’s the sort of theatre I love, company theatre where everybody assists each other and challenges each other - in a sense. Its very exciting.

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