Researching Alan Ayckbourn: The Borthwick Institute for Archives

On 24 June 2011, the University Of York announced it had acquired the archive of playwright Alan Ayckbourn as part of the Borthwick Institute for Archives. Paul Tyack, Development Manager for the University Of York, interviewed Alan Ayckbourn and his Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, about the archive and acquisition.

Interview: The Ayckbourn Archive (2011)

Paul Tyack: How do you feel about the archive moving out of your home and into the University of York?

Alan Ayckbourn: I think a strange mixture really. You never delve into your personal archive on a regular basis; I don’t wake up on a morning and think ‘I must go and look in the archive and see what I was doing in June 1984!’ But you just know that it’s accumulating.
It’s my past really and I have mixed feelings about my past. Sometimes I get regrets and get very nostalgic, but mostly the person I look back on is someone I don’t really know. It was me, at that time, writing things that I’ve never really understood how I wrote. The writing process for me - and that is what the archive is mainly about - is why I wrote the play; how I wrote the play remains a complete mystery. I think how did I write
The Norman Conquests? When people ask me, I just trot out the stock answer: ‘I guess I must have started with one and then I went to another and so on’, but I have no idea really what happened except for necessity. The life of a playwright is a very pragmatic one. I write very much responding to a situation, in my case, the needs of a theatre company and the limitations and the potential that go with that. The potential being the quality of the company and the limitations being the building. When I started at the Library Theatre in Scarborough, you couldn’t have a play running after 10 o’clock because that’s when they closed the library and this awful bloke would stand there jangling his keys during the final moments!

Paul: What messages do you think your archive will have for future generations of writers and directors?

Alan: I think in that it covers quite a long span of time - my writing career has been pretty long at 50 plus years - at the very least it can be quite an interesting historical document. What it was like to write at the end of the 1950s at a time when there was a feeling of optimism about the arts coming out of World War Two; when the Arts Council was newly formed and very bullish and definitely wanting to encourage new writing. I was lucky to be there. I was also caught in the whirling cross-streams of the creativity of the old guard - Rattigan, Coward, Shaw and all the way back - with coming up around me at the time Osborne and the new wave. So I got caught in those two currents. It was very interesting although I never allied to either. I think people early on saw me as a direct descendant of Noël Coward, but then as time went on I became a direct descendant of Harold Pinter! I think I’m quite interesting historically to that extent.
Also, watching how I developed in the subsidised sector as the majority of my plays were directly written for the subsidised sector. I’m a sort of walking record of that.

Paul: Do you have any particular treasures in the archive that someone looking through it in 200 years’ time would consider an especially welcome find?

Alan: With the creation of a play in the early days - I’m thinking here of the playscripts - it’s an archivist’s dream. The scripts were all written in long hand with lots of crossings out. Now it’s all on a disc which is probably binned anyway at the end of the day and there’s no original document.

Simon Murgatroyd: There’s a fantastic example of Alan’s transition between physically writing and working on a computer with the play A Chorus Of Disapproval. In the archive, there’s Alan’s hand-written script of the first act in pencil on foolscap paper, but there’s no second act. I said to Alan: ‘Why did you get rid of this?’ and he said: ‘Oh no, I got my first word processor mid-way through writing this play, so I did the second act on the word processor.’ We know the exact moment Alan went to writing on a computer, because we have the first act hand-written and then nothing after that point.

Paul: Did your writing change after it moved to the computer?

Alan: I think it could have done. The old method was me sitting on a sofa dictating from my handwritten notes to my partner Heather Stoney at the typewriter; I just elaborated on the writing occasionally, just extending it. When I got on to the computer myself, I can remember vividly plotting A Chorus Of Disapproval. There’s a long speech in that about the arts, how you’re on a hiding to nothing if you’re part of a small community in England and trying to be an artist. I spent a good day on that speech just because I was able to. This was a new toy and I was shunting paragraphs, moving words, changing syllables. That speech must have undergone two hundred changes and I thought, if I go on at this speed, I’m never going to finish the damned play! I’ve got to just get on with it and go back to the way I wrote - get it down on the page and then tinker with it.
I have this phobia, which probably goes back to my childhood, I still have to go to bed with a tidy script. Often I write until I’m knackered and then I stop and just do a tidy, which of course on a computer is so easy as it reformats and takes out the mistakes. It’s much, much easier. In the old days, I would trawl back through several pages of typing and possibly blot things out with Tipp-ex or at the long-hand stage, most of my scripts were covered in arrows! Move that line back there - it isn’t what you say, but the order you say it in!

Paul: Have you any message you’d like to give to writers in the future?

Simon: I think what I’ve learnt from Alan’s archive is that writing is a continual learning process. Alan is still learning about his craft today and the plays are still moving on. You look at all the scripts and you can see he never stops. Even someone as accomplished as Alan is continually pushing and moving in new directions. If you look at his plays by decade, they’re not the same. His latest play, Neighbourhood Watch, is nothing like a play from even ten years ago. In recent years, there’s been a brevity emerging, a sparseness in the writing that you can trace back to the beginning of this decade. I think that’s what I’ve learnt from the archive; you never stop learning and you never stop improving.

Paul: Was it always your wish your archive would become available to the public?

Alan: Well, if you mean had I a burning desire to be remembered for posterity - possibly! But I’m usually too busy trying to think of another play to care about that, hence my high strike rate. At the moment half my brain is tossing around working through a new play for next year which is in the back of my head.
But I’m glad the archive will be available because I was persuaded a few years ago to write my first book,
The Crafty Art Of Playmaking, and I suddenly realised that because I’d been doing things instinctively and learning from the examples of other great writers and from experience, this knowledge was quite valuable and I wanted to chronicle it. I hope the archive is an extension of that in a much less self-conscious way. I just think that there’s so much to playwriting, it’s such an interestingly varied craft.
At the literary end of it, there’s a part of me that was rather pleased in the early days when publishers declined to publish me on the grounds I had no literary value! Thank God for that, because there’s something awful about having literary value as a playwright. You can have great literary value as a novelist, but the ideal play should be a working document for actors to work with. It’s quite interesting if you read a scene off the page, it doesn’t read quite the same as when you see it. Because when you see it, you realise there’s perhaps a third person on stage not saying anything but who is the one making that whole scene make sense. On the page, that silent person sitting there whilst this scene is going on around them, who unless you write in the script ‘She shrugs’ or ‘She looks at them’, you’ve no idea what they’re doing. That is something you only pick up when you have an eye for reading the sort of drama I write, which is the drama of the unsaid. If you read a play like
My Wonderful Day, the lead character Winnie hasn’t much of a part on the page. She only says ‘Oui, madame’ and lets people rabbit away for ages, but of course she’s bang in the centre of that play.

Paul: What is it about the University of York that makes it a suitable home for the archive?

Alan: It’s my local, isn’t it? I’m very fond of York and, of course, I’ve spent so much of my life here in Yorkshire. My affinity with York is quite strong.

Paul: Would you give any particular message to theatre and film students who are studying theatre and film at York as they start their careers?

Alan: Yes. When I went into theatre, I wanted to be an actor - I think that’s what a lot of people still want to do. But theatre is a wonderful institution and it has a big wide door through which anyone of any discipline can pass. Be they painter, actor, writer, fundraiser! There are endless opportunities. I think what I’ve had from it, though, is a lot of fun. There’s that old maxim, which is attributed to Clint Eastwood: ‘Take the work seriously, but never yourself.’ It’s still a wonderful maxim. I’ve had more laughter and fun in the rehearsal room doing something inherently quite serious, but nonetheless joyful and then sharing that with other people. If you take that as a starting point, then that automatically, I believe, conveys itself on stage and to an audience. There’s a sense of real joy watching a group of performers who have pleasure in each other’s company and pleasure in performing for you, whether it be Oedipus Rex or See How They Run. It’s that sort of feeling, that joy.
Theatre is live and people say are you worried about theatre dying out? It’ll never die out as long as people want to do it! It’ll be there and they may troll off to make mega-bucks from movies or television series, but eventually everyone says they want to work in theatre as that’s where really the magic lies, in front of an audience. I’ve been lucky enough to have been there for a long time.

Paul: Do you have any hopes for how the archive will be used over the years to come?

Alan: Well, hopefully in the same way my book has been used. Someone will go in there with an open mind and start to follow a thread and say this is interesting, I think now I can write. That perhaps I might inspire someone - if he can do it, I can!

Simon: Ten years ago, we launched Alan’s website and it was our first step in making archival material available. What came through, that was very surprising, was the interest from not only across the world, but from the ages. That you get nine year old children writing an email, ‘I’m interested in playwriting, any tips?’ or ‘I’ve just been cast in Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations, what advice would you give? Is there something in the archive to help?’ That to me is amazing. And I think this acquisition will develop that to a far larger degree, now that people will have hands on access to far more material than we can ever present on the internet. You will realise how widespread the appeal of Alan’s plays is, from Australia to Eastern Europe, America to Japan, which astonishes me. It’s one of the great pleasures of my job that I’m talking to people across the world about Alan and I think a resource where those people can come and access this archive can only be an amazing opportunity and an amazing resource.

Paul: One of the parts of the funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund is to help open the Borthwick up to young people, how do you feel that your archive might have a particular appeal to a younger audience?

Alan: If you have that glimmering of an ambition to be in theatre, I think the archive will offer not only fertile ground for ideas but I hope will inspire others to write.

Simon: I think it will provide an inspiration for the potential of writing. There are so many subjects and genres that Alan has written about. He’s written for audiences from three year olds to older children to teenagers and on across the main body of his work. I think it’s quite inspiring coming in as a young person and finding you can write about anything; that the sky is the limit. Here’s just one person that proves that you can do absolutely anything you want in theatre. His imagination as a writer and the challenge to realise those ideas in theatre is all there in one place, in this archive. It’s a very good example of what you can do in theatre and of the amazing potential of theatre.

Transcription by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.