Neighbourhood Watch: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
A Playwright's Guide To Survival (Stephen Joseph Theatre 2011 production programme note)
I’ve been asked to write an introduction to Neighbourhood Watch but really there’s not a lot for me to say about it. Except here it is, my (thereabouts) 75th play, certainly my 75th professionally produced full length play. This is its first but I hope by no means its last airing in front of a paying audience.
And it is what it is. Hopefully, straightforward enough to require no lengthy footnotes but not so simple that it fails to entertain, enthral and surprise. At least till some damn fool critic writes a review giving away the entire plot. (“I particularly enjoyed the heart-rending murderous confession by the alcoholic butler during the production’s final scene …”). Still, if that’s all there is to worry about, I tell myself, who on earth would ever revisit Hamlet again once they knew he dies in the end? (Apologies to those who haven’t yet seen it.)
Having spent a very long time indeed earning my living writing plays for theatre, I thought (following my informative book*) it might be helpful to jot down a few additional tips as a guide for aspiring dramatists, whether they’re those wishing to address burning personal or social issues right down to those who fancy having a go at it because, after all, it can’t be that difficult, can it? And believe me over the years I’ve met plenty of the latter.
Rule 1: Prepare Slowly; Write Fast.
Take as long as you like to think about it. Once it’s all there (or you believe it is!), then write, write, write as quickly as you can. On the principle that the longer it takes to write, the more time there is for Self Doubt to set in, that awful creeping feeling that you could possibly be wasting your time.
Rule 2: Think Big; Write Small.
Even Shakespeare despite the vast scope of his plays was presumably bound by financial restrictions. (Need to cut a few of those gravediggers, Will). Hence his two man onstage armies, the other two thousand lurking invisibly in the wings. But Shakespeare had it easy, no Arts Councils or County Councils’ sudden swingeing cuts for him. Today the golden rule invariably is if you don’t require it, don’t include it. Be it a character, a piece of scenery or a costly technical effect. In the end whatever it is will be cut by the producer or the director. Probably giving much personal grief to an unexpectedly redundant actor or a distraught scenic designer. In short, if you want to address the universal, try and reduce it first to the global; from the global to the nationwide; from the nationwide to the community; from the community to individuals; from there, see how many individuals you can afford.
Rule 3: How briefly can you say it?
In the early days, dramatists were faced with the problem of audiences coming in late, often slightly drunk, chattering and generally not paying much attention to the first few minutes of a play. This resulted in the poor dramatist being required to repeat essential salient plot information at least three times within the first ten minutes. Thus: - “Lady Fothergill’s residence. I’m afraid Lady Fothergill is currently upstairs, at present. Ah, here is Lady Fothergill now. I’m sorry what was your name again, sir? …” etc. etc. Later on by the mid-twentieth century audiences were becoming used to receiving and adroitly digesting information, conditioned by first radio and then TV (especially TV commercials), at a much faster rate, which was welcome news for stage dramatists. Lately, though, thanks to the latest age of simplistic visual movies, ‘text speak’ (Hi! Ldy Fthgll’s Rsdence) and an increasing reliance on pictures rather than words, people have in general begun to stop listening again. So by all means keep it brief but where possible mime it as well.
Rule 4: Be prepared to be adaptable.
Playwriting is a craft remember as well as an art. By all means write what you want to write, urgently need to write but where possible be ready to adjust to local conditions. Accept the resources and limitations at your disposal, human or inanimate. In our first home on the first floor of the Scarborough Public Library, on a performance night the building was plunged into darkness and locked up by 10pm at the latest. With curtain up time at 7.30, when we’d allowed for latecomers, extended intervals and the fact that the audience needed to be bundled down the stairs by 9.55, precious little time remained for the ‘art’ in between.
Rule 5: Don’t be put off.
By the occasional unresponsive audience, they may have had a rotten day or they all might, as Arthur Miller used to say, only speak Portuguese. Mind you, if you get 25 unresponsive audiences in a row, you might consider addressing the problem as being something to do with you. That is if the actors, the director or the management haven’t already done so.
As for the critics… as an American producer told me at the start of my career, in the long run critics’ll either give you more than you deserve or less than you deserve. One thing you can be certain of, they’ll sure as hell never give you what you really deserve. On the whole, personally, I think I’ve come out of it pretty well.
Alan Ayckbourn July 2011
* The Crafty Art of Playmaking published by Faber & Faber (2002)
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