Annual Interviews: The Independent (2003)

The Annual Interviews reproduces one significant interview with Alan Ayckbourn from 1969 to the present; 1969 being the year which saw the start of regularly published interviews with the playwright. The interviews are drawn from a variety of sources (of which they remain copyright of) and a variety of subjects.

Bard Of Suburbia
by Paul Taylor
The Independent, 7 May 2003

It is a fair bet that some theatre company, somewhere in the world is right now performing one of the plays of Sir Alan Ayckbourn.
"I have written an awful lot of plays - 64, I think - so I stand a good chance of getting performed," he says, modest almost to the point of being apologetic.
"The funny thing is that it is not like having your movies showing everywhere. You have no idea what some of the productions are like, or how good they are."
Thanks to the wonder of e-mail, though, he does now get occasional inklings of what happens to his plays when they are released into the wild.
"A bloke from India who was producing one of my plays was on to me saying 'I cannot get to grips with this man at all'.
"He did not have a handle on the character and it may be because he was an Indian actor in India and could not read the Englishness between the lines of it.
"I tried to explain to him that people like that really do exist in this country even if they did not in his."
And Ayckbourn's plays do reek of Englishness, often the hapless urges and vanities of the middle class, embroiled in fiendishly complicated relationships and trapped by ingenious plot-lines which some have likened to comic jigsaws.
Making that jigsaw even trickier is one recent work,
House & Garden, which is two plays performed on two stages for two separate audiences, but with the same cast scurrying from one stage to the other.
Sir Alan is intrigued to hear that Romiley Little Theatre will, next Wednesday, become the first amateur company ever to attempt the feat.
"Just look at your watches, that's all I can say," he offers by way of advice.
"The last time I did it at the National, it was two and a half minutes between an exit from an actor and them appearing again on stage in another auditorium.
"You can do it as a brisk walk in most theatres. But if you speed up one (play) by one and a quarter minutes and slow down the other by one and a quarter minutes, you leave the guy with zero time."
Sir Alan, 64, finds the idea of being the most performed playwright aside from Shakespeare "a bit frightening really - and rewarding".
More than 40 years on, he is still quick to express the debt he owes to his mentor, Stephen Joseph.
Fresh out of rep in Leatherhead, aspiring actor and stage manager Ayckbourn (who had, "like all true southerners, never ventured further than Potters Bar") headed north to join Joseph in Scarborough in 1957.
There he found the first professional theatre company in Britain to do theatre in the round, and an inspirational atmosphere in which Joseph encouraged members to write as well as perform.
"We did it in a tiny room in the library in Scarborough, the most unlikely venue, competing with the Black And White Minstrel Show, Val Doonican and The Bachelors - all that middle of the road conventional musical fare - and the only so-called straight theatre was the Opera House doing
Ma's Bit Of Brass and Bed, Board And Romance."
Joseph went on to co-found Britain's first university drama department, at Manchester University, before his death in 1967 at the age of 39.
[1]
Sir Alan went on to be Britain's most prolific living playwright, keeping his mentor's name alive at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, for which he has provided not just the plays and his artistic direction but also substantial amounts of his own cash.
As a playwright with his own theatre, he is in a unique position.
The link between Manchester and Scarborough continues to this day, with Manchester drama students enjoying theatre schools with Sir Alan at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
[2]
So, what does Sir Alan think, is the state of British theatre in 2003?
"There is still an extraordinary reluctance for the Arts Council to accept fully their responsibilities to the regional theatres, which are and always have been the producers of the new work," he says.
"It is very rare you will discover something new and exciting in the West End, in fact never.
"The West End is going through a moribund period, though they are starting to address it rather belatedly.
"The seat prices are ridiculous, which excludes a huge number of people from going, and the people who do go tend to go to things for which they are almost guaranteed a good night.
"Count the numbers who go back to
Les Miserables rather than trying a [new] good show."
As for the hoopla surrounding the likes of Madonna and a string of Hollywood and TV stars treading the West End boards,
[3] Sir Alan says: "OK, some of these film actors and celebs do the business and can be heard beyond row B. But for everyone who does, there are three who really ought not to be on stage.
"What they do is attract a so-called new audience who see them and are so disappointed that they say: `To hell with that. If that is theatre, you can keep it'."
But theatre's competition is not television or movies but apathy, and a class ridden "theatre's not for the likes of us" attitude which Sir Alan feels still pervades the English psyche.
"I meet this at grassroots level here in Scarborough quite a lot," he says. "Occasionally, and miraculously, you can make a convert by persuading them into something."
So what keeps this Hampstead-born playwright in the faded grandeur and seaside tat of the Yorkshire resort?
"I think it is a certain loyalty and affection which was built up over the years," he says.
"Having a theatre like the Stephen Joseph Theatre is an incredible luxury.
"You do have a completely free hand in a way you would not even get at the National Theatre if you were running it, because there is a board of directors, there are huge budgets and they would say: 'What do you mean you are announcing a new play in three months? What is it? Let's have a look at it'.
"Here I am very lucky. I have been allowed great artistic freedom."
Is he never tempted to take on one of the roles he creates? "No, I value a drink at six o'clock in the evening," he replies.
"I can go out on stage and talk to an audience for two hours with no problems, but to go out and play a role for 10 minutes would cripple me with fear, nerves and self-consciousness now."

Website Notes:
[1] Stephen Joseph was actually aged 46 when he died in 1967.
[2] The Ayckbourn And The Round events, launched in 2001, were initially produced in conjunction with the University of Manchester. This collaboration stopped after a couple of years with all the events from 2001 to 2005 open to the public and attracting participants to Scarborough from throughout the UK as well as Europe, North & South America and Australia.
[3] Alan Ayckbourn has been quite vocal about the trend of star-casting in the West End, particularly with regards to Madonna's widely criticised performance in David Williamson's
Up For Grabs in 2002. Whilst acknowledging there were obviously actors who could do stage and screen - such as Kevin Spacey - he was critical about star-casting for the sake of it with the suitability or ability of the performer for the role / production not given as much consideration as their box office appeal.

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