Alan Ayckbourn: The Website Interview 2014

This interview took place between Alan Ayckbourn and his archivist Simon Murgatroyd in February 2014 and this is the first time the entire interview has been published; parts of it formed the basis for syndicated interviews for Alan Ayckbourn's 2014 productions at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. The interview looks at his play Roundelay and his production of the musical adaptation of his play, The Boy Who Fell Into A Book.

Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website: 2014 Interview


Simon Murgatroyd: Roundelay is your 78th play, what is it about?
Alan Ayckbourn: It’s one of my event plays. Roundelay comprises five short plays, which are written to be performed in any order. They are all quite varied, a bit like a box of chocolates - there’s everything from a dark caramel to a soft coffee cream!

Presumably the plays are connected in some way - despite the random order they can be seen in.
The plays have overlapping characters, several of which are in more than one play. The pieces are all related and sometimes elements of plot from one spill over into another. The fun things about Roundelay are the little reference points from one piece to another. It may be a reference you won’t get if you haven’t seen the other play yet or then again, equally, you’ll know what they’re referring to if you have seen the other play; it all depends. Each play in a sense illuminates the others. I think of them like a circle of mirrors which, depending on the angle you stand, you’ll see different aspects and reflections.

What was the appeal of writing a play with a random structure?
I’m intrigued by the thought of how we may perceive an evening which will never be quite the same. Indeed, in a sense that is true of all theatre, isn’t it? But in this case it will differ radically and there are 120 different possibilities in which the order of events might happen. As I say, the Roundelay plays have no order and, depending on how you see them, the evening can finish on a dying fall or a comic climax. Each play has a beginning and an ending but apart from that they just dovetail into each other.

How will the random element work at any given performance?
I’d always intended the audience to be involved. All the plays are known by a different colour – which definitely ensures they don’t have any order. What I planned was for someone to draw a series of colours - coloured ping-pong balls - randomly out of a hat in the bar before the show. Then, depending on what’s been picked, we call down to the Green Room to tell the cast and stage management what that particular night’s running order will be. In a sense the actors are the last ones to know.

So during the run, it’s very likely each evening will offer a different perspective of the same events?
Indeed. The other appeal, for me at least, is that those who are determined to impose an order on things won’t be able to do so. In the past, I’ve often been amused when people come up to me having seen, for instance, The Norman Conquests or Intimate Exchanges and say, “I did enjoy them, though I’m afraid I did see them in the wrong order.” Because there’s really no order, you see, they just are. But then a lot of people when they see randomness they interpret this as disorder and they have an irresistible urge to tidy things up. In the case of Roundelay, I think there are enough potential choices to make it genuinely random. 120 possibilities should ensure there is little chance of repetition.

Was there any particular inspiration for Roundelay?
The graphic novel Building Stories by Chris Ware was one of my inspirations. You have this graphic novel where you’re invited to just open the box and randomly select a piece of paper. There’s nobody there to say this is page one. You make your own story by choosing which pieces in the box you want to read next. I liked that idea.

It also, I believe, shares a little in common with your most recent success Arrivals & Departures in that it touches on memory and memories.
Memory is interesting to me and it’s a theme which pervades Roundelay. What we remember, how we remember, what we don’t remember. It’s all about memories and what we choose to share and what we don’t choose to share. What we choose to forget is another point. The rose-coloured spectacles we put on in order to remember something. The romanticism we use to say, ‘Do you remember those good old days?’ which probably weren’t quite so wonderful as we would like to remember. There is an echo not only of Arrivals & Departures but also of some of my older characters right back to Colin in Absent Friends.

It also appears to continue your current interest with structure and finding new ways to tell stories.
I’m always conscious of the need to keep pushing myself forward. I tend to say it a lot these days, but the greatest complement anyone can pay you as a playwright is to say they didn’t see that coming. Of course, the worst thing they can say is we guessed that was going to happen! In my previous play, Arrivals & Departures, I don’t think you could have guessed the climax unless someone has given you a spoiler - in Roundelay, you certainly won’t be able to guess the ending as it’s never quite the same each night!

Why is the need to explore structure so important to you?
I think, as a writer, it is inevitable you have to find new ways of telling stories - to challenge not only yourself but your audience. There are so many ways to tell stories, but the right way to tell a particular story has always got to be the one that is the most interesting and surprising.

It sounds as though Roundelay has not only been fascinating for you to write, but will also be a treat for audiences.
I’m always looking for something that makes an evening just that little bit different without departing entirely from the old basic skills. You need to keep challenging yourself. I think Roundelay does that.

You are also directing the world premiere of a musical adaptation of your play The Boy Who Fell Into A Book at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
It’s unusual in that I had nothing to do with it! The lyricist, Paul James, and the composers, Cathy Shostak and Eric Angus, contacted me several years ago saying they wanted to do this. They sent me a song and then, later, they sent me another song and I was thinking this is going to be ready in 2030 or something! And then last year they contacted me to say they’d finished it. They sent me the script, which I enjoyed, and I asked if they’d like to come and play it to me, so they came up to Scarborough to play it for me here. And we all liked it enough to want to proceed. So I talked to the SJT about doing it this summer.

Which led to a workshop in London last November.
They wanted me to direct it, which was another step closer to it coming together so we did this workshop last year and it seemed to work well. As a result of which, we’ve cut a couple of numbers and put a couple more new numbers in, where we felt the play needed to be helped with the songs.

What was it like working with something you’d created but which someone else had adapted?
It’s very interesting as Paul wrote all the lyrics - they were nothing to do with me - and they’ve caught the spirit of the play very closely. Paul, Cathy and Eric obviously love it because otherwise you can’t work on something you don’t like and I think they’re as passionate about it as I was when I first wrote the play. As a director, I’ll gladly hitch onto that.

Have there been any significant changes to the play?
Not really. It has stayed very faithful to the play. Some people might remember the Wooblies. They have changed to the Wublies as Paul couldn’t rhyme Wooblies. There’s nothing to rhyme with! He said, ‘I’m so sorry, can I make them Wublies?’ Of course, I hadn't set out to make a rhyming musical, so it was fine.

Who do think The Boy Who Fell Into A Book will appeal to?
It is a family show - it’s not a children’s show, definitely a family show - and it’s a play for anyone who was a child and anyone who read under the bedclothes under a child and anyone who’s ever been captivated by a story or a book. It’s quite a neat show but with big potential.

It seems both Roundelay and The Boy Who Fell Into A Book are going to be treats this summer and pushing you in new directions again.
I’m always looking for something that makes the evening just that little bit different without departing entirely from the old skills. You do just need to keep challenging yourself and I think both these plays do that.

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