Ayckbourn Talks: Tea For Two (2012)

This talk by Alan Ayckbourn was presented as of the Stephen Joseph Theatre's Tea For Two talk series on 19 July 2012. It coincided with the world premiere of his speculative fiction, future-set play Surprises.

I was a passionate reader of science fiction when I was a lad. I loved the premise of good science fiction which is to take a logical trend and to take and extend it to a possible conclusion.

We know in our hearts that artificial intelligence is coming and in the next few decades, there will be artificial intelligence strongly among us. The great science fiction writers such as Asimov and Bradbury carried it a little further, which is what I’ve tried to do and say, ‘when AI gets to a certain stage and becomes just short of being equal to mankind, what happens then?’

Mankind has its fascination for longevity and it’s surgeons replacing bits of us as fast as they can. I’ve already got an artificial hip, I’m a bit early for total replacement but that will come. Certainly someone, somewhere will soon find out how to download a human brain onto a chip. Then you get the question of which is the android and which is the human. Is there a difference? For those with strong religious beliefs, yes, mankind undoubtedly carries a soul, whereas a piece of machinery doesn’t. But it’s quite interesting and it fascinates me.

My robots are all children in adult bodies; they are simple, honest souls and often become the most popular characters. Audiences frequently say I like this machine, I can trust it, whereas I can’t trust these furtive humans skulking around and wishing ill or at least having motives they are concealing from us.

But I really writing science fiction, as you get older, you slowly lose touch with your childhood. It’s interesting that I’m not alone amongst writers who have turned their attention in their middle years towards children’s writing. Look for an area in which you can start on a level playing field and one of the things is, if I was to write about my childhood in the '40s / '50s, it wouldn’t be very recognisable to children today, there’s no mobile phones or the gizmos children love today. All this was non-existent in my childhood.

So we invent another world and a world you come to is a sort of fantasy, fictional, futuristic world, in which you can put recognisable characters, because people don’t change that much, it’s only the trimmings really. Children today hopefully still recognise human beings they’ve seen on stage in an environment in which you metaphorically say to the audience, listen, these are the rules of this world - everyone walks two inches off the ground and you have to imagine that - and they will go with that. If you establish that, children will go with it, until you break the rules. So I carried that into my adult writing with plays like
Comic Potential and Henceforward... and now Surprises, which is another chapter in my robot saga and which also has some avatars. I’m exploring possibilities.

You have to outline the broad parameters; one of the heart-sinking things of approaching a science fiction play, although I never call them that, is the thought of having to sit down and have a rudimentary science lesson, which is heart-sinking to most audiences: “Oh no, I’ve got to learn all that lot!” Really you go straight into a recognisable world and then introduce things which are no longer... for instance in s
Surprises there are 'hipro machines', which are my invention, and which give a hologram image projected into your officer or living room. It’s a telephone call carried logically forward.

Of course my machines have blips. I’m a great admirer of Ridley Scott, whose films are marvellous, and his films are very worn and not clean shiny metal, but rather dirty, grimy and rain-swept. The spaceship in
Alien looks as though it’s on its last legs. I like that sort of science fiction, where you sort of know that if I was to get a 'hipro machine', it would go horribly wrong. I’d get a crossed line with half my mother-in-law and half another person appearing. You know the science is a bit dodgy as anyone who has been cut off by BT must appreciate the hazards of technology and never being totally reliant on it, which is a nightmare now due to our reliance on computers. How will we ever survive without them?

Technology is the only thing I get angry with - I don’t get angry with people, but I’ve destroyed an awful lot of technology.

Standing Room Only was a play which never quite worked because it was a nice idea, but putting a bus on stage isn’t easy - certainly in the round. It was a little experiment suggested by Stephen, but he wanted it seat on Venus. But I said, no, it's too far away from the audience! He wanted a play about over-population, so I tried to put it in more recognisable terms. I thought I can set it on Shaftesbury Avenue on a number 11 bus, because people can say I’ve been on a bus. The characters are all from the future where the government has taken hold and there’s a very strong anti-children legislation - a bit like in China at the moment - with a maximum number of children they’re allowed to have which has slowly been reduced to zero. They’re stopping the population from expanding at all. But essentially it was a silly old comedy about delivering a baby on a bus with people running up and downstairs with buckets of hot water and it was quite funny.

I kept meeting people I really admired such as Sid James and everybody had a go at it, but every time Peter Bridge would ring me and go ‘now Sid James would be wonderful for this role, could you build the part up a bit' and I’d say well it’s not very big and he’d say, 'just make it big! and describe him as a crumple-faced curly dark haired man in the character description', so I would write this spitting image of Sid James in my description and I would build the role up and then a few days later, Peter would say, no Sid doesn’t want to do it. Hattie Jacques now wants to do it, so I wrote Hattie and this was a role I originally described as an elfin like creature and bless her, Hattie was never elfin even as an baby. So I wrote a more substantial, handsome woman but the play just got longer and longer and longer. And then the leading role, the guy who had been slated for that said well all the other roles getting bigger and bigger and I don’t want to play this any more. So it an object lesson in not being slavish to West End desires and certainly don’t tailor your scripts to the box office.

The known markers on my career up to the point of
Absurd Person Singular were Relatively Speaking, How The Other Half Loves, Time And Time Again and they were already sort of darkening. Now it’s interesting, post Absurd Person Singluar, people began to take me a rather serious writer and that was quite alarming as the box office began to drop away slightly. People, en bloc - and there are exceptions to this - tend to want to see comedy. It’s well known that plus or minus 10% if you can actually put 'hilarious comedy' on the front of a play, which we tried to do for years - Uncle Vanya….

But after
Absurd Person Singular, people began to look at the earlier plays and the seriousness in them and there’s been some extremely glum performances of Relatively Speaking for example. Suicidal husband and a manically depress wife having tea in the garden!

The more I've written, the more I've become aware that I’m writing for a particular musical instrument, which is the human being, the actor. Once I acknowledged I was scoring for the actor and writing for a three dimensional living breathing instrument. I then became interested in exploiting what their potential is physically and emotionally. In the silences they leave, it’s sometimes quite tricky to encourage actors to be silent, as they don’t really trust it at least not initially. But once they sense it’s a tight-rope towards another moment.

The whole of theatre is narrative really, whether its character narrative or story narrative. The nicest thing people say to me is ‘I never saw that coming.’ and I think in a way, I’m disappointed if people say, I saw the end of that coming.

Once you start the narrative, it’s your job to hook the audience, to intrigue them. I say with a children’s audience you have ten seconds, because if you haven’t got them by then, they go 'boring' and stop watching.

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