Alan Ayckbourn: Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University

In 1992, Alan Ayckbourn was appointed the annually appointed position of Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University. In this article published in Oxford Today in 1992, he discusses his experiences of the year with Graham Topping.

Oxford Today

"I'm not a natural academic - I haven't the faintest idea how universities work, never having been to one." An unlikely comment for a professor, but few would question Alan Ayckbourn's credentials as the 1992 Visiting Professor of Contemporary Drama.

As a stage-struck teenager, his 'university' was a year in the mighty Donald Wolfit's troupe, a place he got because his school cadet corps training guaranteed he wouldn't pass out (and steal Wolfit's thunder) after 40 minutes' standing to attention in the great man's next production. Spells as actor, stage manager, director and radio producer (where he could indulge his passion for sound effects) followed, alongside the 48 plays which have made him the second-most-produced playwright in the world (after one W Shakespeare).

As a 'total theatre animal' Ayckbourn feared that Oxford would take a restricted, theoretical approach to theatre, but he has been amazed at the mass of practical theatre he has found.

"I thought, maybe, there would be two or three productions per term in Oxford. Ha! There seem to be two or three dozen at least, like the Edinburgh Fringe all year round. Extraordinary energy."

But for all their productivity Oxford's thespian students, like the Edinburgh Fringe, have not proved notably enthusiastic about Ayckbourn's plays. His stage world is not one of grand ideas or metaphor, and intellectuals have always mistrusted popularity. Is he even on the same wavelength as the students in his writing and directing classes?

"Well, that terrible period in history, when kids wanted to burn anything from an earlier generation, seems to have passed. I'm sure that the students I've met are much more mature than we were at that age." Which is not to say that Oxford is suddenly going to produce Ayckbourn clones. "They're their own people. I've got one student writing about transvestites, another writing about two women starting a family by artificial insemination, and one researching a play set in a hamburger shop. The most bizarre is the chap who wants to write about decapitation; it struck me as a tricky thing to get over more than once in the theatre. Anyway I said 'Go for it, but for God's sake give me a structured play about decapitation, not something clever…'"

"I won't interfere with their subject matter, but I have been stressing that you need structure and narrative as a platform for ideas. What's going to keep the people who don't agree with you watching for two hours? The male audience for your feminist drama? You can write for the hard core of theatre-goers who will plunge into any world you care to invent on stage, but eternally producing plays for short runs in basements is not helpful to writers. Plays need to be bench-tested in front of large crowds, and the more important what you have to say, the more people you should be saying it to."

Ayckbourn is also adamant that unless writers do learn to address the widest possible public, there won't be any theatre left for the hard core, either.

"The whole rep system, right through to the National Theatre, is that you do a Tom Stoppard, or one of mine, to pay for Joe X's high-risk project. Unfortunately the few of us who are lucky enough to fill theatres today - David Hare, Alan Bennett, me - we're all close to 50. Pinter's finished as a writer, Frayn's vowed to quit, Peter Nichols keeps quitting, and there's no new generation of 30-year-olds starting up. We're actually losing good younger people like Anthony Minghella [the success of whose first film,
Truly, Madly, Deeply, has probably bolted the door on a return to theatre]. If a theatre management had encouraged and taken care of him he could have been one of our mainstay writers. Of course, there's no reason why Oxford should produce ten new writers any more than Slough, but hopefully I can impress principles on my students that will help to pay the bills in the future."

Ayckbourn himself, uniquely among British playwrights, writes to pay the bills of his own theatre. His association with the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough now stretches back 35 years, and he has been the theatre's Artistic Director since 1972. The huge demands of administration have led to an extraordinary writing method, rather like an extended Oxford essay crisis. Twice a year a deadline approaches - rehearsal and production dates are already fixed, posters and tickets are ready. Finally he takes about a week off, sleeping during the day and writing all night, improvising speeches out loud around ideas and scenes that have been lurking in his mind for months.

"I've been lucky in the combination of pressures at Scarborough. I've had to write plays that decent actors would cut their salaries in half to come and work in. That means they shouldn't have to throw their brains out of the window to act the parts. On the other hand I've had to write plays that the local audience will come and see - that's sort of meant comedy. But they're not mindless farces, except the early ones where I was experimenting technically. It's rather depressing that those are the ones revived annually by the Penge Amateur Dramatic Society."

In fact Ayckbourn's development refutes the intellectual myth that popularity rests upon the lowest common denominator. His 'comedies' have become darker and darker, especially the series of plays he has written for Scarborough's winter seasons.

"I'm now running so-called comedy and so-called tragedy side-by-side, like two electric wires generating emotional sparks between them. There's a scene in my last play [
Time of My Life] in which a man leaves his wife in a restaurant to go off with his mistress. After he's gone, the waiter comes with the sweet trolley - it's horrendous, but it's so bizarre that the audience half laughs - and because the wife's slowly rocking with grief, the waiter assumes she's saying yes to every suggestion, and he piles up the tarts and the pastries…

"The odd thing is, at the Scarborough box office they ask two questions: First 'Is it by 'im?' (meaning me). If the answer is yes they usually buy a ticket. If no, the second question is 'Is it a comedy?' and a second 'no' means no sale 70 per cent of the time. But it's clearly assumed that if it's by me, it's a comedy, though we never put that label on the posters any more."

The tone may have shifted, but the key theme has always been the same - desperation. Desperation is the motor of farce, but either the desperation isn't really serious, or the characters are too thin for their problems to affect the audience. As Ayckbourn's characters have become richer and deeper, their desperation has become part of their existence, despair even, and the characters are truthful enough to make for uncomfortable watching.

"I long ago stopped trying to manoeuvre my characters into situations. Literally, I used to say 'I really do need a big scene here chaps, so we'll have to get you all in this room with a bowl of custard... ' I was delighted that I could engineer that, but it was usually at the expense of the character's dignity or credibility. Once I'd learnt about play construction, I could allow characters freedom to develop, with the result that the plays have the same inevitability as tragedies. I once coined a phrase that might almost be original: that a comedy is just a tragedy interrupted. You stop the action at the point where they lived happily ever after, not when he wakes up the next morning to find she eats cornflakes off her knife."

Surely this all adds up to a pretty bleak view of life?

"Well, drama is a matter of strife. I don't think people are evil or malign. They usually intend well, but people can harm each other entirely by accident - by loving them too much, like parents, or by marrying them…."

Hence Ayckbourn's growing stream of women on the verge of nervous breakdown, in sad, trapped lives, with husbands who never listen to them. Ayckbourn's obvious sympathy with these women has led one (admittedly male) critic to call him 'our best feminist playwright'.

Despite his success and reputation as a writer, Ayckbourn still thinks of himself first and foremost as a director, often with a taste for plays surprisingly remote from his own work. When offered the chance to direct at the National Theatre, he went for the austerely, philosophically serious Arthur Miller, one of the few contemporary writers he will admit to admiring, and the Grand Guignol of John Ford's
'Tis Pity She's a Whore.

"Actually, Miller was surprised at how much humour we found in
A View from the Bridge. And it was the author in me that was fascinated by the Ford play. That extraordinary narrative drive is trying to do what I'm trying to do: keep the intellectuals and the groundlings happy. It also runs comedy and tragedy hair-raisingly close together. We moderns tend to try and squash down the comedy, we say it's unintentional, but as Ford knew it's actually the way through. We're so used to sitting powerless in front of terrible TV news images, and mentally we duck, we stop watching. In the theatre, the comedy keeps the eyes open to the horrors, like a kind of emotional Optrex."

The greater part of his work with Oxford students has been concerned with directing.

"Of course, the universities have traditionally been a tremendous source of good directors - most of them seem to be running the RSC! - and I suspect I've probably got two or three here who will make a mark in the next few years."

On one day per term he has brought in four professional actors for his student charges to practise on, and he has been very impressed by their response.

"You see them go in with their student heads on, and within an hour they've seen that the game is slightly different, and they're doing U-turns in their thinking. You can back off from the professional actor, you don't get in among them and start telling them how to use their hands - you woo them rather than bludgeon them."

Both strands of Ayckbourn's teaching came together last term in the First Four Festival, which presented four new one-act plays by his student writers, played by four professional actors with a professional backstage team. Students shadowed the technicians, and one student for each play shadowed the director - Ayckbourn himself.

It is remarkable how completely Ayckbourn has been willing to enter his students' world, but then there is nothing remotely aloof about him.

"It's been exhilarating, a bit like playing handball with someone 30 years younger. You find you're running again, and they're throwing ideas at you over the net faster than you can get them back - great fun! It's even nicer when they ring and say 'that was really helpful - I've rejected half of what you gave me, but it's helped me formulate my own ideas' That's the best I can do, really.'

He has also enjoyed the round of high tables.

"Of course, you get the sort of people here who couldn't live anywhere else, the resident eccentrics. But you also get some amazing mixed disciplines, philosophers who are experts on telephones, that sort of thing. And they're genuinely interested in the theatre, though I'm a little sad that my conversations tend to be rather one-way streets. I sat next to an immunologist the other night, and after saying my cat has just had a jab for cat 'flu, I was finished, really. Not that people seem too disappointed; they spend their lives unable to communicate except with other immunologists or crystallographers."

So will Oxford's dons turn up in Ayckbourn's next play?

"Possibly! I record all the time. I suspect their least academic traits will turn up, because I'm more interested in them as people than as teachers. The best thing I've seen was at some college dinner where a man was applying for a Fellowship. He leant over the candles to make a telling point and set his beard on fire. Suddenly he had everyone's attention and for a split-second he couldn't think why!"

Professor Ayckbourn, research scientist of human character, may not be a natural academic, but like all the world, Oxford is clearly his stage.

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