Ayckbourn Talks: An Ayckbourn Exhibition (2003)

In 2003, Alan Ayckbourn recorded this following piece for a video introduction to an exhibition about his life and work in Japan.

This theatre, the
Stephen Joseph Theatre, is the third which we've had in Scarborough. I worked here first with a man called Stephen Joseph, after whom, of course, the present theatre is named. He was running a small company in Scarborough in 1955, housed in the public library which is about 200 yards from the current theatre. I joined this company in 1957 as a stage manager and aspiring actor. At the time, all I wanted was to act but later, due to his encouragement, I took to writing first and then to directing.

By 1961, I was a director and a writer, as well as an actor. Sadly, Stephen died in 1967; he was 47 years old - very young. I was by then the second director of the company and although I was only 28 at the time, I was asked if I would take over the running of the
Library Theatre because - without Stephen - the theatre was very likely to close. [1] It was still a small company comprising about a dozen people but it was very dedicated; dedicated to new writing and to in-the-round staging. I decided to take up the offer and in 1972 I became the artistic director. The company slowly grew and by 1976 we had to move home. We transferred to the former boys' grammar school just nearby where we stayed for another 21 years and where I did a lot of my important work. I usually wrote a play a year for the company, as well as directing a majority of the other plays we presented.

Then in 1996, we moved to an old Odeon cinema which had recently closed. A typical corner site favoured by the cinema architects of the time. We managed to raise the money - about five and a half million pounds - to convert it into the building it is now. To date I'm still running the building
[2], I'm still writing new plays. The Jollies is my latest play. It's my 62nd, so I've been writing for a long time. I write, primarily, for adult audiences. But I became interested in young audiences, the very young ones - the five, six year-olds upwards to about 11 or 12 year-olds. The Jollies is one of the plays which I hope appeals to a wide age range - from 5 to 95! It's nice when you see a family enjoying the show.

I've had a lot of my plays produced elsewhere, but everything I've written, apart from four plays, started life in this building, or the other two buildings that we've had. I guess it's kind of unique to have a writer / director in charge of a theatre. We don't have many of them in this country. But it's been very nice for me because nobody ever turns my plays down! They get staged because fortunately I'm the man who produces them. I'm very lucky, as a writer, to have a theatre like this.

On Director / Playwrights
Some colleagues of mine, some quite well-known playwrights, have tried to direct their own pieces and it hasn't always worked. My career very early on became two careers. I was on the one hand a director and on the other hand a writer. Indeed for about six or seven years I didn't direct my own work at all. I directed other people's work. I think you need to have directing experience before you begin to direct your own work because it is difficult, unless you do, to be objective. You can easily, I think, mishandle your own play - not be able to stand back from it. It's also difficult for actors, if you are too much on top of it, for them to interpret. Nowadays, when I direct my own work, I direct it as if it were somebody else's play, I really do. I think actors, often when they first work with me, forget that it's my play because I talk about it in the third person as it were.

On Director / Playwrights as a Modern Trend
It hasn't been as widely pursued as it might be. Harold Pinter has directed his own work, and he is a very good example. He's also a distinguished actor. John McGrath, a director / writer, who mainly worked in the north. Patrick Marber, of course. And indeed John Godber, another well-known writer / actor who lives and runs a theatre in Hull only 60 miles away from Scarborough, just down the coast. We're quite close neighbours, he directs a lot of his own work, well, practically all of it, like me. I have a suspicion he did it because he saw what I was doing and decided he wanted to do the same. But in general, most writers wouldn't want to touch directing. I don't remember Tom Stoppard directing his own work. I think of myself primarily as a director.

It's good in one sense because, as you appreciate, when a director and a writer work closely together, they often become like a married couple. I've had several directors of my work. One was the distinguished director, Eric Thompson, the father of Emma Thompson - the well-known actress. He and I worked on three or four West End shows together. We were very happy, because he understood me and I understood him. We were very good in the rehearsal room together. He would turn to me and ask me things he felt needed clarification, I could suggest things; he had no fear of involving the playwright which made us a good team. But when he died, and he died very young, I had trouble finding another mate, as it were, so I took on the role myself, which has been quite happy, very few arguments between... (myself)!

On Rehearsals
I'm quite a physical director. I like to get things moving. I believe very strongly that a play, a stage play, is a physical as well as a verbal experience. And it's very important that the two develop together. There are directors, and they're quite legitimate, who like to sit down and talk and read a script for many days before they begin to explore it physically. I have one read-through, usually in the Boden Room at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, where we all sit round a long table. The actors and a lot of the company come in, the carpenters, the box office, all the people who are not directly involved in the play but who are none the less very important to the production. The people who are going to sell it, the press people, the people who are going to build for it, the stage managers, the wardrobe people who are going to make the costumes, they all come to the first reading, which I think is very important because they need to know what they're working on.

It's good for them too because sometimes, with the best will in the world, they don't read the play that well, they look through it for things that are important to them, the lighting man for lights and so on. So I try to let them hear it read, albeit very early on. It's quite nerve-wracking for the actors to have a whole audience sitting around listening to them reading the play in public for the first time, but I say, listen, it's important that they hear the play so that they understand what we're doing, because - after today - we're going to shut ourselves away into the rehearsal room and get the play moving.

This is evident in
The Jollies, it's quite physical, there's a lot of movement. That came out early on in the very first days of rehearsal. Of course we discuss character and situation and dialogue and so on, but we do it on the run. I don't really spend a long time lecturing; I feel the play will develop as we move. And I like it if actors can find solutions for themselves, so the less I have to tell them the better. I will tell them if they look lost, if they look as if they don't understand or if they're looking as if they've got something wrong. But I like it when they are leading because I think theatre, as opposed to film or television, or even radio to a certain extent, is actor led. It is very important that the actor is in control, because that is the person the audience is going to spend time with. The director will have gone, the writer will have hopefully disappeared back into the framework of the play and it's the actor who's relating and challenging each new audience - playing with them, if you like. So it's very important that they feel in control of what they're doing. Obviously there is a degree of guidance early on as the director has an overview of the whole thing.

I will, hopefully, with a play that is working well, start quite prominently working in the middle of the room amongst the actors during the first week of rehearsal. We rehearse for about four weeks. By the end of the second week I would hope that I was less in evidence. And by the fourth week saying very little, except tiny things just to tidy up. I become important again as a director around the beginning of the fifth week when we go into the theatre itself and start lighting and technical rehearsals. Often there's a lot of sound as in, say,
The Jollies, there's a lot of lighting, we've got to bring the music together, the sets, everything else. If music is an integral part of the production, I often have the composer / musician working in the rehearsal room with me, so that he or she is relating to what the actors are doing. The music can then grow generically from that. As director, my job finally is to make sure that the play arrives, if you like, like a train at the platform at the right time, in time for the audience to meet it; that should happen in the last week of rehearsal, the fifth week if you like. The first four days of that week are taken up with drawing everything together.

We then do probably about half a dozen previews, which we call 'early bird' - early performances - when we learn more about the play from the reactions of the audience. They will inform us. We know nothing really until we hear an audience relating to the play, whether it be a tragedy or a comedy. And it's important, I think, that we listen to the audience, we learn from them and adjust the production accordingly. It's an ongoing process but we discover most during those first few performances. We'll probably give 30 performances of a play, maybe more but not many more. Even a show of mine will not play more than 30 to 35 performances. But it will be over a long period of time because we play in repertoire.

On the Rehearsal Room
Our rehearsal room is the exact size of our round stage. It's important, because whereas most proscenium arch theatres, most end-stage theatres, have an angle of visibility, sight lines, which sort of dictate what you can see, with the round everything is visible, every square foot of the playing space is viable playing space, you can stand anywhere. It's vital that the actors get used to where they are standing in relation to each other. This is perhaps much more important than it is even in the proscenium where the director often arranges people to look right. In the round they may look right from here but you walk round to the other side and they look completely wrong. You can't make arrangements and pretty pictures in the same way.

What you have to do is to try and arrange actors so that they relate in the right way to each other in a scene. Put simply, if you know two people are enemies, they will stand slightly further apart than they will if they are lovers. Certainly in the round, people rarely stand close together unless they intend to kiss each other or punch each other. A lot of the time we are playing with the subtle spaces that exist between physical beings, which is interesting and usually instinctive for actors.

A good actor will immediately feel how they want to stand in relation to another actor depending on what their relationship is with that character. Are they frightened of them, or shy of them, or being aggressive towards them? Also where they will stand on the stage. Again this is very, very simplistic, but a powerful character will probably take centre stage and dominate. A shy person will probably enter and slide around the edge of the stage, as you would if you entered a room, and go, "Oh, oh," and slide off. These are things you discover from working on a play and which actors again often do instinctively.

It's very much an actor-controlled medium. Having said that, they do need guidance, as indeed all companies need. It's interesting that theatre-in-the-round is very conducive to company acting but not so good for stars. Star actors tend not to be too fond of theatre in the round because they can't dominate the stage completely. It's very hard, in the end, to realize that if you're playing a scene with another person, then that person is as important as you to making the scene work. It's the sort of theatre I love, but there are some people who don't.

On Auditions
80% of a successful production is getting the right actors. If you have the wrong actor, you can be the most brilliant director doing the most brilliant play but you will only achieve maybe 50% of what you want to achieve because the actors are wrong for the parts. They may not be bad actors, just wrong. For instance, you can have an actor with slow internal rhythms playing a fast character, and so on. Sometimes when you get the right actors in the right parts, everything will just happen. You feel almost that it happened so fast you hardly saw it happen. It just falls into place.

So I do take a long time casting. I have a casting director who specifically works for me, Sarah Hughes. She sees a lot of other theatres. She travels, particularly regionally, where the young actors can often be first seen. Sometimes we see them at drama schools before they leave to embark on their careers. And we meet as many as we need to meet. Hopefully not too many, but we have taken days and days and days finding the right person. There is always someone, you've just got to find them. And then when you do find them, they go and get another job which of course is very frustrating!

I think we have a tradition here in Scarborough, which I guess must be down to me a little bit, that we usually have very happy, well-balanced companies. I tend always to work with actors that I think I would like to work with and whom I admire. Usually everyone in the rehearsal room is someone I like and admire as an actor and I hope, as a result, they will respect each other as well. If they respect my judgement, then, with luck, they will respect the fact that I think everybody there has talent. Sometimes that will develop. Working with actors who, maybe, are more talented than others rubs off; you work with good people, you get better.

As you get older as a director your tendency is to want to work with actors you've always worked with, it's safe, it's reassuring. You know you're not going to have trouble; you're not going to have to take risks. So I make it an absolute rule that I will work with at least a third of new people in any production. I will always work with new actors, new to me. And therefore, new to the other actors, so that the process is never allowed to get safe and solid. It's good for me. A new actor will frighten me slightly. I have to think, now how do I get the best from them because every actor needs to be approached differently. It's a psychological thing, directing.

What I try to do is to bring the best from an individual, and in order to do that, you have to know that some like a little more persuasion, some want to be left alone and gently coaxed, some need to be reassured and some you just throw things to and they run with it, they're inventive. You have to stop them occasionally and say, "Whoa, too much, too much. Less, less." You have to make sure they are aware of what else is going on around them, they can forget that. They get very involved in what they are doing, and you have to say, "Listen, listen, this is what the scene is about, although your character is very important to you, he is not so important in this scene, and you've got to be aware of what the whole play is doing at this point - not just what you're doing." That's something you sometimes need to be told, even the best actors.

But yes, we have found here some very good young actors who have gone on to become very good older actors. They started very humbly in very small parts. But the good ones develop very fast, they learn very fast. My only sadness is that some become famous and go off and become television or movie stars and you can't get them back because you can't afford them anymore. All you can do is wave to them and say, "Oh, we're still here if you'd ever like to come back."

But there are always new actors, and we have good actors at the moment. We have good young actors. They have a good technical knowledge of what they're doing, and a good attitude. Not too precious, and yet very serious. Clint Eastwood, I think it was, once said, "Take your work seriously, never yourself." There is a sense they can mock themselves as people but they take the work very seriously, that is a good sign.

On Supernatural Power in Drama

I'm known for comedies, but I'm a great lover of Science Fiction / speculative fiction. And although I know a lot of people in theatre aren't so keen on
Star Wars and so on, I like to use the fantastic occasionally. I started using it quite a lot with children's plays because children love the fantastic, they love the, "What if?" The theme of The Jollies is fantastic. What would happen to you as a child of 11 if your mother became younger than you and your little brother became older than you and you had to cope, how would you do it? You have to become head of the family. And that is a question which I think relates to any child in the audience, whether a boy or a girl, "What would I do?" But it is also, I think, fantastic.

Haunting Julia, an adult play for three men, has a father in it whose daughter, a brilliant music student, has committed suicide. With the nature of suicide it is often very hard for people close to the victim to accept that they are not responsible in some way. What did I do that was wrong? Why did she kill herself? Was it me to blame as a father? Could I have stopped it? Could her mother and I have done something? It's a ghost you carry with you and the play is about that.

Snake in the Grass is a companion piece, and a very dark one too, to the earlier Haunting Julia. It's a three-woman play which is interesting as I hadn't written that format before. It's also about the ghosts we carry with us all our lives but looked at rather differently. It's about what happens to us as children and how we grow up; in this case, two women who were severely traumatised by an abusive father who physically and sexually abused them, and what it's done to their lives. There is a great deal of coverage at the moment, certainly in this country, about child abuse, paedophiles and so on and the advantage taken of children, particularly on the internet. It's too distressing a subject for me to tackle, absolutely, using young children on stage. But I was interested to explore what the lasting effect would be on two women of 40-plus who had lived through it and yet still, in a sense, were damaged by the experience. It's another sort of haunting, another sort of ghost. My ghost plays, and I've only written two [3], are less about things in cupboards that jump out at you, than things in our heads that affect us at night, in the darkness.

The other thing about
Snake in the Grass, is that it's set in a garden in sunshine. I'd always wanted to write a ghost story in sunlight as opposed to dark old houses with wind and thunder, in the middle of the night when all the lights have gone out. Let's do it in the sunshine and tell a story where the sun slowly sinks and it slowly gets darker and the shadows slowly creep in as the play progresses and darkens. It interested me to write that, and it was interesting to work exclusively on an all-woman play which I had wanted to do for some time.

On House & Garden
I wrote House & Garden simultaneously. I had to. And I had to know, obviously, where people were going. I asked my stage manager, "Would you, one day when you've got a moment, walk not-too-fast between the McCarthy (the upstairs theatre at the SJT) and The Round (the downstairs theatre at the SJT) and tell me how long it takes." And she came back to me and said, "It takes about 37 seconds." So I said, "And that's walking slowly?" And she said "Yes," so I said, "OK, so if I make it a minute," I think I made it one minute fifteen, "then an actor leaving the stage in the McCarthy should be able to reach the stage in the Round in time to come on for a different scene in that play."

So it's truly simultaneous action, taking place in two auditoria with actors moving between the two quite a lot of the time. It was exciting because we were nervous and I didn't leave a lot of leeway for mistakes. We had to keep the plays very closely technically linked together. And - we can say it now - we never had anybody off. Nobody missed an entrance. Which says something for the actors playing it. They were very precise. We had television monitors in the wings so you could see on the video monitor where the other play had reached in the other theatre, and you could tell, after a bit, whether you were late or early, and therefore how quickly you had to move. But it had a serious intent. How we are all at some point walk-ons in other people's lives. Characters that are the main parts in one play became quite small parts in the other.

It was fun to do. It was very important too, that the plays finished together because the curtain calls had to happen simultaneously in both theatres with the actors, quite a lot them, about thirty in all, including children, moving pretty speedily between the auditoria. Finally, because it was about an English garden fete, we had a fete in the foyer. So when the audience came out they became part of an informal third act. The actors joined them and sold them books and food and goodies, they played games, the audience played with the actors, and it became a huge sort of party.

I said to the cast up here one day, "Listen, this will never be done again because this is a special theatre with these two auditoria. Nobody else will be mad enough to do it and besides, it's crazy." But it was fun and the audience thought it was fun. They loved it. They kept coming back. You had to come twice to see it all, anyway.

On the very last day, Trevor Nunn, who was at the time running the National Theatre, came and saw the matinee of
House and the evening show of Garden. At the end of Garden he came out into the foyer where all these games were going on, all the fun, and he was completely swept away by it, he loved it. And he let me do it at the National Theatre, which was lovely because I had the Lyttelton and the Olivier theatres to play with, which are huge compared with the SJT. I had an audience everyday of 2000 people. We had a large garden fete in the foyer with much bigger resources. We had a band, and we had games, and it was great. We took the National Theatre over really for a month or so in the summer of 2000. And it was packed; it was a terrific success.

It's my belief very much that theatre sometimes, not all the time, has to be an event. It has to be something special. People stop going, they get bored with it, or they get used to it. Or they think they've been going when they haven't for ages so I like to intrigue them. To make them say, "Hey, that sounds interesting, that sounds fun, I want to go and see that." So every now and then I do
The Norman Conquests, a trilogy, or plays with alternative endings, such as Intimate Exchanges, which is a two-handed play with 20 characters that had 16 different endings and you had to come a lot of times to see. And you know, just occasionally, when we do that it wakes the audience up, wakes us up, makes everyone panic!

I wrote a play years ago called
Way Upstream, set on a boat. I filled the stage with water. It poured with rain half-way through, too. When you saw the performance space you thought, "Crikey, how are we going to do that!" But it was great, everyone came to see the water and hopefully stayed to see the play. It was good fun. Making it rain in a not terribly large space was good fun. Everyone got very wet - including sections of the audience!

On Musicals
I've sort of had a love affair with musicals. I think everybody gets drawn to them. By Jeeves, which opened the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1996, we also did on Broadway. That was fun to do. But musicals are very expensive and very intensive. They use a lot of people.

In
The Jollies, I use a lot of music. It's written by a composer I've worked with a great deal, John Pattison. I've written a couple of full scale musicals with him, but mainly I use him for incidental music to plays. He comes to the read through. He'll then sit in rehearsal with his headset on, his keyboard turned down, working and listening to the actors while writing an underscore to the scenes. As we rehearse and as the actors become more certain of what they're doing, John will start to wind up the music a bit so that they begin to get used to playing against a score. Sometimes I'll cut it, if it's too much for a scene but often he'll add a little, maybe only a few chords, occasionally more than that, which just lifts the play and lifts the action and lifts it emotionally.

So we use music, but probably not in a true `musical' sense. People don't often burst into song. The last musical I did, and that was two years ago, was
Whenever. Denis King wrote the music. Whenever was another of my Time Machine plays about a little girl in Victorian times who gets transported into the future. We had a lot of songs in that. But I find it difficult actually getting people to burst into song. I think dramatically I find it a bit tricky. I was never convinced, even as a child, when people in movies suddenly took it into their heads to start singing in the middle of the road. I used to stare at them a bit surprised. Maybe that's just me.

Website notes:
[1] Alan is conflating events here. Although he did work as the annually appointed Director Of Productions at the Library Theatre in 1969 and 1970 following Stephen's death in 1967, he did not actually become Artistic Director of the comp[any until 1972, aged 33.
[2] Alan retired in 2009 as Artistic Director of the company but would continue to premiere his new work at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
[3] In 2008, Alan Ayckbourn would go on to write a third supernatural play,
Life & Beth, which was written with the combined casting requirements of Haunting Julia and Snake In The Grass allowing the all male and all female companies to merge for a third supernatural play.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Transcription copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.