Since 2005, Sir Alan Ayckbourn, the British playwright and director, has been bringing plays – often two or even three at a time – to 59E59 Theaters in New York from his home base at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, where he was artistic director for more than 30 years. On each of his six visits to the U.S. – save for one where he fell ill at the last moment – I’ve moderated a public conversation with him, prompted by our friendship dating back to 1996 and the U.S. premiere of By Jeeves at Goodspeed Musicals, where I was general manager at the time.
For the first time, this year I remembered to record our conversation on May 29. Because I always learn so much from discussing theatre with Alan – we’ve also done two lengthy audio interviews, the most recent (2011) of which can be found here – I thought I’d set down a bit of this year’s conversation, focusing entirely on what Alan had to say. These pieces of the conversation have been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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On Confusions, his 14th play, from 1974, which is only now having its U.S. premiere at 59E59 Theaters.
I hardly recognize the boy who wrote Confusions. He was very, very young. I never rewrite them, I just them be. I just don’t know the guy who wrote it and I don’t want to meddle with his work, in case he comes forward in time and beats me up….
It’s a great art form, one-act play writing. Just because you can write full-length plays doesn’t necessarily mean you can write one-acts. One of our great one-act writers was a guy called John Mortimer who wrote some wonderful one-act plays. But I think his full-length ones were slightly less certain or sure-footed than his one act plays, plays like The Dock Brief and What Should We Tell Caroline and all those were marvelous little examples.
It’s like the way Saki wrote a short story. It’s akin to short story writing because you just need a different set of muscles. Like an athlete, just because you’re a 100-metre sprinter doesn’t mean you can run a marathon, in fact you probably can’t. It just depends on the discipline.
The one-act is a fascinating discipline because everything has to be very concise, very quick By the time one of the Confusions plays is over, Hero’s Welcome [this year’s other Ayckbourn production in New York, his 79th play], in time span, is just getting underway and you think that’s leisurely, you can establish the characters, you can establish the situation, you can plant questions in people’s minds.
On working in theatre.
One of my crusades is live theatre and keeping it alive. I’ve never worked extensively in movies, or television or radio. I’ve always concentrated in theatre.
About every five years, we need to stop and just ask ourselves, why are we staying in theatre? The depressing Sunday morning when nothing’s happening or the Wednesday afternoon when nobody’s coming in, you think “What the hell are we doing this for?” and I just have to list the things which I consider important with live theatre.
One of those things, and it sounds like a total cliché, is it’s live. It’s when you do something here in this space, we’re all in the same room and in this tiny space a group of people will perform something and hopefully you will interact with them and they will interact with you. It’s a live, living experience.
It’s the one facet of theatre that’s totally unique. You can forget all the other things: big flying pieces of scenery and spectacular lighting effects and the huge orchestras that swell up. In the end it’s just a group of human beings with a certain talent for acting getting together and doing something, trying to tell a story which somebody else who has a certain talent for writing has constructed, and allowing it to happen.
On his eight-hour narrative for voices, The Divide, performed only once to date.
I think one of the things that drives me, apart from live theatre, is the need to surprise myself, or indeed in the case of The Karaoke Theatre Company [his newest play, debuting this summer at the Stephen Joseph], to terrify myself.
I’m aware that when you get to my length of career, 80 plays and counting, the danger is to rely on the tried and tested. There’s nothing in new in theatre. Always when you do something you consider totally new someone will come up and say, ‘I saw in 1921 an identical play to this’ or it was just slightly different, so you don’t try to do that but do something different.
Because I’m a director and a writer and the two roles are simultaneous – as I’m writing a new play I’m directing it in my head, I’m solving the problems, at least to a certain extent. I’ve got no unsolved problems by the time I’ve got them onstage, because I know what I’m doing. That’s not conceited, it’s just practice really. So when I sat down for The Divide, I wrote something I knew I couldn’t stage.
On science fiction.
Sci-fi gives you common ground with the generations you are no longer part of. You can invent a world which hopefully they will accept which doesn’t depend on me knowing their jargon or their way of texting or anything like that. I invent the ground rules. You ask them please accept the ground rules of this….
When you try and do an Isaac Asimov, when you start prophesying the future, you try and think of the trends. I got quite a lot in Henceforward [his 1987 play being revived this summer at the Stephen Joseph] right. What I haven’t got right is the technology, which has leapt through. Who could anticipate that since 1987 digital technology would advance as far as it has?
On relationships between men and women in his plays.
I always felt that I’m probably very calm and I hope pleasant person, but whenever I’ve hurt people, they’re always people I love, because it’s a sort of defensive thing. Over the years, when I was very young, I got quite aggressive to some people with whom I should have known better.
Nevertheless, you must have perceived in some of my plays that when men and women cohabit, when they choose to live together, they proceed to destroy each other and do terrible things they never would dream of doing to a complete stranger – even if it’s non-physical, saying terrible things.
On whether he sees much theatre beyond his own work.
When I go into a theatre I go to work. I sit in the auditorium, and I sit and worry, quite often. I think about how can we make this better, how can we make this right? So I go to the movies. I don’t have to worry there.
If you’ve ever been to the movies with a film editor they are appalling people. They go “No, no, no. Cut, cut, cut. For god’s sake they’ve let that shot go far too long.” And I just sit there going, “Oh, that’s good.”
Responding to an audience member who asked how, since he works so much, he’s learned such a great deal about human nature.
I’ve worked with human beings. They are actors, admittedly, and they’re rather extraordinary human beings. Actors have a tendency to live very close to the surface and they tend to be very fluent about themselves because they use themselves so much. I learn a lot about human nature from actors, and the rest I observe, staring out of the window and walking around.
The deep and interesting things, the psychological things I learn by working as a director. The director is an interesting mix of facilitator and dictator really and a little bit of something else, a sort of counselor, who hopefully is helpful.
Once I asked Stephen Joseph, “What’s the secret of directing?” and he said, “The secret to directing is to create an atmosphere in which other people feel free to create.” That is the most extraordinarily easy answer and the most difficult thing to achieve. Because you get a group of actors who are different, they’re fairly centered a lot of them, and you can persuade them, cajole them, to work together and sometimes they do very willingly and sometimes with great reluctance. It’s most interesting and informative thing for a dramatist and also I think it brings me a lot closer to the psychology of what makes people tick.
On casting and creating an ensemble.
Like many directors I try not to always rely on the same team because there’s eventually something stupefying about that. You sit there thinking, ‘Aren’t we wonderful, aren’t we wonderful?’ No, we’re not wonderful. You have to bring new blood in. I have a sort of rolling system. Hopefully I have enough actors at any one time in the company who understand the ethic of the way I like to work and then you bring the new people in who provide the new spark. It is a growing thing.
I’ve always worked on the assumption, it’s an old show biz cliché really: Take the work seriously, but never yourself. A lot of the time we work from having fun, just enjoying each others’ company and I think that is very helpful in the process of creation, because it relaxes people, they feel confident, perhaps. If you’re going to act, you’ve got to try a role out, try to do something with it, chances are you’re going to make a bit of a fool of yourself in the early stages, because you’re going to go too far or just do something that’s totally wrong, but if you give the actor the feeling they can do that without you going “Ga-ah, stupid,” you just say “Well that hardly worked, but well done. Moving on. Shall we try another one?” So it’s that sort of trust. I hope the actors who work with me trust me to say the right thing.