Ayckbourn Talks: Meridian (1989)

This interview with Alan Ayckbourn was broadcast on the BBC World Service Meridian on 5 September 1989. It celebrates his 50th birthday earlier that year with a specific look at the play The Revengers' Comedies.

Alan Ayckbourn
"It all started by accident - I’m a Londoner who never went north of the Thames really until I was about 20 [1] - but when I did arrive here in Scarborough, at first it was a fortuitous accident that there was a wonderful theatre-in-the-round and a very gifted and talented man running it, Stephen Joseph. But after he died in 1967, I was invited to take over the theatre as Artistic Director [in 1972]. I started out as an actor and then, progressively, moved from writing through directing. I liked the town and I like the tremendous artistic freedom that this size of theatre gives me. We have what I describe as a very tight turning circle, meaning that we can - I think - operate and produce new plays very swiftly and very efficiently, cost-wise and artistically. So there’s many reasons I stay in Scarborough - apart from the fact I’m also much happier in a small seaside provincial town than I would be in a vast metropolis.

"Stephen Joseph was a great teacher, like many great teachers - although I suspect it’s a libel in many cases - he was a great teacher rather than a doer. He taught good sense about playwriting in a way that I have never met in anyone else since. Most writers are completely inarticulate about writing and we can’t really explain what makes a good play or a bad play except that we know it when we see it. Stephen did sort of talk in basics and when I was a young writer, he was a man who encouraged anyone who walked into the theatre - I suspect - to write a play; at one stage the box office manager and the assistant stage manager, everyone was tapping away in corners or writing away in long hand. He encouraged dramatic writing as a practical craft rather than something you did in an attic and posted. He said, in a way, it’s a blueprint for other people to work on and he didn’t overvalue the contribution that a writer gave. He said it was important but he did point out to me, in very strong terms, that we also - eventually - as theatre writers want one end result, which is the moment the actor meets his audience.

The Revengers’ Comedies, I just wanted to see if I could do it really. One’s always committed to a canvas which runs at two hours plus, so I decided to write the five hour play, the four-act mega blockbuster, mainly because it’s always seemed to me that the tragedy men always seem to have first call on these and comedy chaps are expected to be down and out of the theatre about 70 minutes after they’ve started. I thought, ‘can’t we get any long comedies for a change?’ Having said that, I think it’s certainly more than a comedy. I don’t think you could possibly sustain a very lightweight plot for five hours - it’d get a little heavy going!

"It came about partly from working on
’Tis Pity She’s A Whore at the National Theatre. I suddenly was wondering at the way these old writers did it - write cracking good plots with lots of subplots. I think it’s something we lose sight of, that we got a bit moody we modern writers - partly due to television, partly because we all think we’re Chekhov, we all have a rather misguided view of what Chekhov did actually! - and I thought it’s about time we got a good story going. Yes, it is a long story. It takes as long to tell the story as it does to see the play, so I won’t try it."

Matt Wolf (Wall Street Journal)
"I think British critics undervalue Ayckbourn, I’m not sure even if it’s fairness. I think it’s just they’re slightly bored. The British critics expect an Ayckbourn play every year and they more or less get one every year and they respond politely and with due respect. I don’t think they’re very interested in what Alan Ayckbourn is saying in the play and they don’t really interpret the plays, they just kind of catalogue them. As a result, I think American - and other countries as well - viewers who aren’t used to the overall output are maybe a bit more startled by each individual play.

"If you see a play like
How The Other Half Loves it’s astonishing just how painful - deeply painful - most of that play is. You find yourself laughing through absolutely clenched teeth. The flip side of that is everyone talks about how much darker the plays are now becoming. I think what is often is overlooked is that they are still hilarious. The very opening scene of A Small Family Business is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in my six years here. And again, in The Revengers’ Comedies, although there is an enormous amount of pain and pain is ultimately what prevails, it’s still a hilarious ride en route. So I think it’s important to say he’s always interest in juggling those two balls. And he does, after all, want to entertain. He’s not polemicist and he’s not didactic. He wants to give you one entertaining evening."

Alan Ayckbourn
"I’m passionate about theatre in the round for several reasons. One of the best things about it is that it actually makes very economic use of theatre resources. It tends to put its money - it’s a direct extension of Stephen Joseph’s own theory of theatre - where it matters. It puts it into the people. Your production costs are amazingly low. Here we have a small stage, 24ft square I suppose with 300 seats, but every inch of floorspace is viable playing space so you can actually make very good use of that area. Yes, you do have to spend. Yes, you can’t send everyone on in very tacky outfits, but you can spend quite sparingly. Two or three good costumes and a very good BBQ set rather than acres of something to just fill a space. The second thing, which I think is more important almost is its relationship, of course, between actor and audience. Which is very close and very intimate. It demands of the actor total commitment as a player. From a dramatist’s point of view, the media also has one other very personal advantage in that it’s a great place to watch audiences from. When I’ve written a play for this theatre, what I love to do once it’s in production is sneak up and lean over the back rail in the latecomer’s gallery and watch not just the performance - which as a director I am keeping half an eye on - but the writer is watching the audience watching the performance and I think learning an awful lot about what isn’t working, what is working, why it’s working. I sort of attribute quite a lot of my popular success as a dramatist towards never losing sight of my audience. Literally!

"I am a sound freak. I love sound effects, they do provide the equivalent of the backcloth in-the-round. One of the lessons i’ve taken longest to learn - and I’m still learning - is never underestimate audiences, they’re very, very keen to use their imaginations and will respond if you give them little bits of information which actually do add up if they join the dotted lines. They will join the dotted lines and they will actually enjoy the mental stimulus. In fact, I do think we are in theatre guilty of over spoon-feeding audiences. They say,’ we know, we know - we don’t need to see the houses of parliament! The sound of a bus passing would be fine.’"

John Strickland (actor)
"Alan is undoubtedly the best director I’ve ever had the chance to work with. If he was directing in a shed in the Shetland Isles I would go and work with him. You have a marvellous time in Scarborough because of Alan, he sets the tone for the rehearsals, because they are fun.

"I think Alan’s major strength is he really does allow you to find your own way, but knowing that he’s always there to hold you up when you fall. There’s no sense of arriving and him saying, ‘this is how it’s going to be, you will do it that way.’ You always feel right up until the first night, that you have made all the decisions. And that he has very cleverly steered you away from making the wrong decisions. I think he’s very interested in actors realising his ideas as a director."

Christine Kavanagh (actor)
"What I like about him is he’s so inspiring. He loves actors, he loves them to death. he admires your skill and if you can come up with the goods, it’s like you’re running with him in a race. He throws a stick very far and if you can fetch it and run even further with it, he’s thrilled."

Alan Ayckbourn
"Some things sometimes are lost when they go into the West End, sometimes they gain, but more often than not, they are lost. And this is just the nature of the pressures of a West End commercial production. You do have stars and stars have extraordinary pressures on themselves. Sometimes they come out in ways of great selfishness, they just want to be directed to the exclusion of everyone else. Quite often, it seems to be quite a generous thing in that they just want to feel they’re giving you your moneys worth, but you want to say to them, ‘look nobody’s watching you at this point.’ But they can’t believe people won’t be watching them, so it’s quite a problem. I never think the dramatists name is enough on its own int he West End. Ever. Even William Shakespeare in the West End needs Dustin Hoffman to play him and I suspect I’m no different, I need some name. Alas, one of the problems is most of the names no longer come from the world of theatre, they come from the world of television. Some of them are wonderful, who started as stage actors and who come back to it. But quite often, they can’t be heard beyond row C and you really are in trouble and you long for your good old Scarborough company of unknowns. Also occasionally you lose something in just the change of theatre. The theatre becomes too big for the show, in which case it just disappears or it’s not as good as it was in the round or some of the magic just gets lost somewhere.

"You can always see the lack of new writing when you get to the West End. The preponderance of revivals is getting higher and higher; new plays they’re getting more and more nervous about. There are one or two writers - thank heavens - which you can rely on for some sort of return, but where are the new writers? I don’t think the answer is to stuff them away in small studio theatres, which is something we’ve sometimes tended to do so it doesn’t really matter if its empty. You say, ‘Noël Coward’s in the main house and he’s doing terribly well, so lets do the
Joe Eggs in the small theatre and we’ve got ten in tonight and thats good.’ One of the most important things I had from this theatre when I started was the unspoken but nevertheless very clear directive, that if my work didn’t bring at least a sufficient number in, we’d close. That concentrated the mind wonderfully, as they say, as regards writing something that an audience would come and see. And I try and say that to people now, ‘look I don’t want something that’s deeply interesting unless it’s entertaining.’ I always talk about this theatre as holding parties and whatever play we do, even if its a very gloomy play - we’re doing Othello this season - there’s no reason why you shouldn’t feel at the end of it, that you’ve been to a wonderful party."

Matt Wolf
"Alan is very much a political writer. Again mentioning A Small Family Business, I think that’s probably the best play yet written about Thatcherism. Interestingly, as far as I remember, it mentions Mrs Thatcher not at all. But - of course - her ethos is everywhere within the play. Whereas, other playwrights would be naming name sand scoring points, Alan Ayckbourn doesn’t feel the need to do that and I feel the plays are richer for it."

Robin Herford (actor and director)
"Every time Alan puts pen to paper, he is exploring another theatrical form, he’s breaking new ground in some way or another. People say we’ve seen the characters before, well sometimes you have seen people something like them - but if you look at the plays as they come out, the actual presentation on the stage, the thinking behind them is always breaking new ground. He’s tremendously aware of the construction of plays and he’s trying to see how far the bounds can be stretched. For example with Sisterly Feelings and Intimate Exchanges he was looking at how relatively minor decisions can affect one’s lives. How chance plays a part in it. Both those plays can’t be more different in the way they explore that area. if you take How The Other Half Loves, it’s an extraordinary piece in the way he uses two different time scales within the same set. Henceforward… goes into the future, Woman In Mind goes into fantasy - nothing is sacred to him and I think he feels a strong responsibility to go as far as his imagination will take him.

"I think Alan stays in Scarborough, partly because it’s the theatre space. It’s partly an intangible carrying on of the mantle of Stephen Joseph in his own totally different way. I think he feels a debt to Stephen for giving him first opportunity and inspiration and that keeps him in Scarborough."

Alan Ayckbourn
"Stephen Joseph was just passionate about theatre. A lot of us caught fire from him just in the way he talked and enthused and was outrageous. The maxims of his are quite legion. One of them was that every theatre should be built to self-destruct in seven years. he said if its still there in seven years, its probably so boring it ought to blow up! I can imagine what he would be saying about places like the National Theatre now. I know what he means, although I do think it’s not really economic to have self-destructing theatres! But I’ve always carried that maxim in my heart that we should keep surprising ourselves. People stay here for a long time and the reason I think is because we can never quite settle down and say, 'we always do that on Friday, oh no we don’t!' Sometimes the decisions we’ve taken here are quite irresponsible and ghastly! I’ve cut out shows for no reason and put shows in, but I think on the whole it makes for a healthy and vital theatre.

Website notes:
[1] This isn't strictly accurate as Alan Ayckbourn joined The Library Theatre in Scarborough in 1957 aged 18.

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