2010 Tony for Lifetime Achievement: Alan Ayckbourn
Today, we continue our series of interviews with the recipients of this year's Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre with popular and critically-praised playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn, recently on Broadway with THE NORMAN CONQUESTS as well as many others over the last forty years. A generous, gregarious, impossibly witty genius, he was kind enough to let me conduct a discussion with him about his life and career, violence and nudity in the theatre, as well as his opinions on David Mamet, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller and Shakespeare. Considering he is the second most popular and successful British playwright of all time (Number One is Bill W.), - and to crib a phrase from Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN - attention surely must be paid.
House, Garden & Kitchen Sink Drama
Alan Ayckbourn has carved out a truly impressive place in the theatrical pantheon, having written more than seventy-five plays and theatre pieces over his astonishingly accomplished and varied career as a playwright and director - plus, in the late 70s he even found time to write a musical with Andrew Lloyd Webber based on P.G. Wodehouse's famous character JEEVES (later rewritten as BY JEEVES in the late 1990s). Truly a brilliant conversationalist, what follows is an excerpt of a much longer interview with other portions set to run on BroadwayWorld next month. Below are his thoughts on the writing process, his thoughts on his own work as well as that of his contemporaries, what working with Peter Hall and the National Theatre was like, as well as any number of other topics that come up over the course of the conversation. Of course, he also shares his feelings on receiving his first Tony this year. Truly hilarious and astonishingly sharp, the man behind the brilliant plays sets his sights on BroadwayWorld in this exclusive interview.
PC: What do you think of the internet revolution and sites like BroadwayWorld?
AA: I think that it's certainly trying. It's trying. I'm a great lover of the Web, but I never go on things like Twitter and Facebook. It's probably better off without people like me on them. The theatre is certainly a live thing, providing it can persuade people via other media so that they can come to it. You know, it‘s a very personal thing. I'm quite amused at the way that the big technical media is desperately trying to make things more like theatre. We mentioned 3D films and all that - an interactive experience- I mean, come on: that's what theatre does best. Technology is just trying to capture the excitement organic to theatre.
PC: Could you tell me the Noel Coward about the congratulatory telegram he sent you after seeing one of your plays?
AA: Yeah, I got a telegram. I never met him. I thought it was a joke. It was like the most wonderful telegram you could receive, but there was about four pounds to pay on it!
He was staying in London, somewhere or other...
PC: That's so bizarre!
AA: Yes, it sort of was.
AA: It was great and we got great press during that time. Peter was always so kind and generous with me. So, I didn't quite know what was going to happen, you know, co-directing?
I think directors of my work know I am very particular, but I don't know all the answers. Who does know all the answers to a play? When I sit down to write them I am starting to direct them already - because I know I have to - before I have even taken them to the stage. I know what I am after. I am starting to direct something very soon and I am starting to cast it... You know, the more and more I write, when I direct the less and less I write. I let the actors fill in the spaces.
PC: You've written seventy-four plays, a musical, and many other things. Are you constantly writing or do you take breaks?
AA: The process is I will - now that I've finished putting on one show - I then have a moment - a day or two - with nothing in my head. Or, sometimes, nothing in my head. But, there is a germ of an idea that probably germinates over nine months or so.
PC: Like a birth.
AA: Yes, it begins to grow and grow. I'm a great believer that not a single idea a play makes but there are several ideas meeting a crossroads. Mainly, that the idea is the theme and how do I treat the theme and the timeframe and the stage-frame and the setting and the number of characters, what sort of styles we‘re going to use... All these things create interesting choices where things come together. At the end of the ninth month I then make space to write and I leave myself a month - four weeks - of which I'm probably writing two. I've rarely spent more than two weeks writing a play - or at least getting it down - but the point is: it's all there. It should all be there if I'm starting it. I'm a great believer in not starting a play before I know how to end it. I have to at least the concept in before I end it. When I make the journey - and I think of it as a journey...
AA: On page one I will be very definitely aware of where I will end up on page seventy. As it progresses, you can make variations and let the characters tell you about themselves. You know, if your hero is going to die you've got to start off with that idea.
PC: Would you mind talking about some of your contemporaries, whether as a writer or a director of their work, such as your fellow Tony Award Special Honors past recipient Edward Albee?
AA: Yeah, Albee is - I've done very well with him, you know we got involved with WHO'S AFRAID OF Virginia Woolf? Of course- what a wonderful play. Searing play. (Laughs.)
AA: We also did another one called THE SANDBOX.
PC: I love it.
AA: I guess American writers, I've been particularly involved with Miller. A.R. Gurney is a lovely writer and I like him very much.
PC: What about David Mamet?
AA: Oh yes, he cusses! (Laughs.)
PC: Yes, he does!
AA: Sure, you look at the whole thing and say, "Boy, is he daring!" You know BOSTON MARRIAGE? I saw a production of it recently, it is a most extraordinary play. Scarborough did it and people looked a bit askance at it but I loved it.
PC: What about violence in the theatre?
AA: It's about strong ingredients. Along with nudity, extreme language, violence... I mean, my plays have their share of dead bodies in them. But because once you've done [violence] there is a resonance from some violence. You know that Mamet play, OLEANNA? It comes right at the very end, of course, which is quite clever. You don't have to solve it [as the writer]. So, it itself is a problem play.
AA: I mean, in a play by Christopher Hampton, in the first scene a man blows his head off with a revolver. THE PHILANTHROPIST. I've always thought, not much further you can go than that. I mean, when you've just seen a man stick a revolver in his mouth and - bang! - and his brains and blood are all over the back wall. You reckon that you've probably seen about as much strong theatre as you can smother for one evening!
PC: And nudity?
AA: I mean you don't want people staring. It's best used in mime scenes. (Laughs.)
PC: Since you are the second most popular British playwright of all time, what are your feelings on number one: William Shakespeare?
AA: Actually - it's a terrible thing to say - but I'm not a great lover of Shakespeare. I had to read him when I was in school. I love a handful of them. I love MACBETH and LEAR is really great. I love HAMLET. HENRY IV is terrific. I love the handful of tragedies but if I see never TWELFTH NIGHT again I'll be quite a happy man.
AA: Oh, God. I can't wait not to see it.
PC: I won't put that in. (Laughs.)
AA: Put it in. Put it in. (Laughs.)
PC: What is your favorite of all your plays that you've written? What would you want to see as a theatergoer? What would you want to direct as a director?
AA: Well, I'd like to see the latest one [LIFE OF RILEY]! I have this naïve belief that I am gradually getting better. Practice makes perfect. It seems to me I like best the ones that didn't quite make it. (Pause.) You know, I really don't want to see any of my plays. (Laughs.) Seriously, I'm doing a revival this year of a play that didn't work in London the first time out but was revived with much success in the Fringe. I'm also doing a repertory of plays later this year...
PC: What about your trilogy, THE NORMAN CONQUESTS? It was recently revived on Broadway.
AA: It was all written at once. I finished two of them in one evening.
PC: Two plays in one evening? That's impossible.
AA: Well, they're quite short scenes. Nonetheless, I was on a high at that point - the mid 70s - so, when they were cooking... I wrote them cross-wise. What I mean is: Scene One - Scene One- Scene One. Scene Two - Scene Two - Scene Two. Scene Three - Scene Three - Scene Three. Scene Four - Scene Four - Scene Four. You know, sideways. I wrote two of those Scene Fours in one night. It was quite strange, I suppose. You know, I wrote HOUSE & GARDEN simultaneously, too.
PC: Could you tell me about how you devised that play and how you worked out the logistics of it in the actual theater?
AA: We moved into this theatre, this new one. We had this space upstairs - a studio space, but I don't like to call them that. A one-hundred-eighty-seater. The idea occurred to me that I could write two plays using both spaces at once. So, I asked my stage my stage manager how long it took to walk from upstairs to downstairs and she did it and said "thirty-seven seconds". I said, "Are you running?" and she said, "No, I'm just walking." And so I thought, "OK." So, I went off now that I got the idea and I sat down to write it. I started and I came up with the idea of one of the spaces would be the garden and one of the spaces would be the house. You would see through the window in the back of the set of the house to the garden. The actors would walk out and they are apparently going into the garden, but they were really running down the backstage stairs, but they would apparently arrive in the garden. But, then I thought, "Hang on!" If two plays are running at once there are variations in timing. Actors being actors, there will be variations in timings. It can't be set to thirty-eight seconds. So, I thought, ninety seconds. And that's what I did. So, we rehearsed them and with stage managers working very closely where the actors were in the other so they would know and get used to them running concurrently. In theaters where the spaces are considerably larger, the gap has to be expanded.
PC: What's next?
AA: They're doing my new play, LIFE OF RILEY, in San Diego. I'm really quite proud of it.
PC: Define collaboration as a playwright and as a director.
AA: I have never collaborated as a playwright. The only time I collaborated in that capacity is in the musical [JEEVES]. I love music, but I don't know anything about it, so to me the whole thing is a sort of a miracle. The good directors always have respect for the writing. As a director, I prefer when the collaborators are dead, like Chekhov. (Laughs.)
PC: What does receiving a Tony Award mean to you?
AA: Well, I never go to award ceremonies unless I've won one. You know, I don't want to be in the audience after and have to say, "Oh, David Mamet, I'm so glad you won!"
PC: Well, you certainly are getting one on Sunday. We'll see you there!
AA: Thanks so much. It's been a joy.