Alan Ayckbourn has written more than 60 plays and directed many others. Now a year teaching modules on the theatre has inspired him to reveal his skills in a 'how-to' book. Oliver Double gets a few tips
Sir Alan Ayckbourn is arguably Britain's most successful and prolific comic playwright. At the age of 63, he has written as many plays as the years he has lived. And that doesn't include revues, children's plays, one-act plays, television plays and adaptations.
In his new book, The Crafty Art of Playmaking , Ayckbourn lays bare his methodology, as both playwright and director, in a witty and highly readable style. As an academic with a specialism in stand-up comedy (not to mention a former career as a stand-up), I was keen to discuss his ideas on comedy and teaching.
The book, after all, represents a form of teaching. It is as much a "how-to" guide for aspiring writers and directors as it is an insight into his working methods. Furthermore, Ayckbourn has had experience of teaching in universities. Confounding the old adage "those who can, do; those who can't, teach", he became the Cameron Mackintosh visiting professor of contemporary theatre at the University of Oxford in 1992.
Not having been to university himself, he was "very nervous" at first, unsettled by the "university jargon which you know nothing about". He also imagined that the students would be dauntingly intelligent. "I anticipated a sort of barrage of highly toned questions I didn't even understand," he says in his office in the Stephen Joseph Theatre, a converted Odeon cinema in Scarborough. In the event, he need not have worried. Giving out scenes from J. B. Priestley for a directing exercise, he found himself having to explain who Priestley was.
However, he enjoyed the year he spent teaching modules on playwriting and directing. "It was a very practical year, and very valuable to me, because I was forced to articulate what I'd instinctively been doing." Indeed, the experience provided part of the impetus for writing the book.
He also wanted to write it to answer the steady stream of letters he receives asking for advice. He points out that many new playwrights do not have much understanding of theatricality. "They often behave as if this is the first time they have ever set foot in the theatre at all. Like a Stone-Age man who has suddenly entered a busy branch of Dixons."
To extend the simile, Ayckbourn is like a successful area manager of Dixons: his plays are inherently theatrical, written with an impressive understanding of how visual elements and stage space can be used to great comic and dramatic effect, as well as a strong sense of what will work for an audience.
Given that he keeps the writing and directing processes separate, how does he manage to create such detailed visualisations of what is to happen on stage when he writes? "Well," he says, "I'm sort of a bit exceptional in that I do spend my life working in theatre, and, of course, I spent a whole other career as a director not touching my own work. I have directed infinitely more plays by other people than I have my own. I do now write in the sure knowledge that I'm going to direct, which means a lot of it is 'memo to self' inside the writing."
Indeed, when the scripts are published by Samuel French, Ayckbourn has to re-edit them, for example, putting in stage directions that weren't written into the original version.
Given my interest in stand-up comedy, which relies on direct address, I wondered why he so rarely has characters talking directly to the audience, breaking through the fourth wall (or, given that he often works in the round, the first, second, third and fourth walls)? "It can throw the balance a little," he says. "I mean if I write a play in which one of the characters tends to step out and talk, they become by default the main character. The audience say: 'Ah, this is our man on the spot, as it were.'
I think sometimes the soliloquy, the piece to camera in a play, is actually quite lazy really. It expresses everything straight out." He prefers to let the audience work out the characters' motivations for themselves, rather than have the characters telling them directly.
In the book, Ayckbourn says that comedy is often undervalued by critics. "I really am mystified by it," he says. "I always put it down to the puritans, you know: 'If I'm really enjoying myself, it can't be any good.'" He believes that one of his most significant achievements is to re-establish the idea that comedy is not separate from straight drama and that laughter can happily coexist with moments of tragedy. "I think nowadays it's much less unusual to find plays that do make you laugh and in the end have horrendous darkness running through them."
He contrasts this with the situation he experienced as an actor in weekly rep in the late 1950s, where comedy and drama were seen as separate, each with a distinct production style.
He argues that comic acting is no different from straight acting, except that, like stand-up comedians, his actors do need a strong awareness of audience reaction. "Most of my stuff gets picked up in a sentence and can be picked up in about eight ways, and the laugh could be there, or there, or there. And there is no way an actor can absolutely settle in a rut, because if they do, they'll lose it. So there's almost this antenna flashing out there, saying: 'Oh, they're one of these houses that laugh before the bloody line because they get so excited.'" Ayckbourn even puts in "for nothing" lines after a laugh line so that the drama can continue under an extended laugh.
Problems arise, though, when actors come to expect big laughs. "For some reason the night you're seeing it, the afternoon you're seeing it, they don't laugh, and it's almost like the actors turn around and stamp their feet and say: 'That is a big laugh, you bastards. Where are you?'" His understanding of the dynamics of audience laughter is so detailed it might seem as though he approaches his work mechanically, and to an extent the book seems to confirm this. Most of the advice he gives is practical, dealing with tangible matters such as organisation, rather than with more esoteric artistic questions. "Personally," he says, "I like to make schedules." When he works as a director the rehearsal process is timetabled in advance and given to the actors at the first rehearsal.
However, on the nature of comedy, he argues that "the best gags are made by people whose brains are wired wrong. You know, they go sideways. You say:
"How the hell did he think of that? Where did that come from?"
How does the essentially chaotic nature of comedy fit into his carefully ordered approach? While he admits that his direction is organised, his writing, he says, is a much less tidy process. Sometimes inspiration dries up, sometimes it spurts unexpectedly. "There is no real way you can marshal it," he says. He recently completed a Christmas show, but when he sat down to write it, after five days, he "hit this enormous brick wall". The answer was "to go off and do something". When he came back, "an entirely new play materialised. And that's very frightening because I don't know where it came from or whether it will come again. That's an area I can't control."
It is perhaps the uncontrollable nature of inspiration that makes him unwilling to discuss it. "People always ask you where you get your ideas from and you say: 'Well there's two answers to that. One is that I have no idea, and the second is that even if I did have an idea I certainly wouldn't tell you, because that's the one special area that I will protect.'"
Oliver Double is a lecturer in the School of Drama, Film and Visual Arts at the University of Kent at Canterbury. The Crafty Art of Playmaking is published by Faber next week, £14.99.