Playwright Alan Ayckbourn on ACT, temptation and self-deceit

The legendary British director and playwright is directing the North American premiere of 'Sugar Daddies' at ACT. His take on theatre, rewriting and the lies we tell ourselves.
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Emily Chisholm as Sasha in ACT's 'Sugar Daddies'

The legendary British director and playwright is directing the North American premiere of 'Sugar Daddies' at ACT. His take on theatre, rewriting and the lies we tell ourselves.

Since 1976, ACT Theatre has produced ten plays by Alan Ayckbourn – and that’s just a fraction of the 74-year-old English playwright’s catalogue. But this fall’s production of "Sugar Daddies" (2003) brings Seattle not only the honor of a North American premiere, but the presence of Sir Alan himself in his West Coast debut as a director. (He was knighted in 1997.)

Ayckbourn’s breakthrough hit came with the London production in 1967 with “Relatively Speaking,” a fresh, hilariously constructed twist on the well-worn gag of lovers caught in a web of mistaken identity. Here already was the characteristic Ayckbournian touch, with its preoccupation with role playing and marital discontent. Some claim him to be one of “the world’s most-performed living playwrights,” though Ayckbourn’s own website points out “there is actually no plausible way to prove this statement.”

But what sets him apart is that his undeniably widespread – and sustained – popularity goes hand in hand with his untiring experimentation with theatricality and stagecraft.

And while he is usually thought of first and foremost as a comic master, Ayckbourn’s plays have become significantly more complex over time. “Sugar Daddies” in particular mingles satire and clever dialogue, taking a dark slant on a youth and beauty meets age and power scenario.

Set in the contemporary London flat shared by half-sisters Sasha and Chloé, the play explores how they are affected when the younger, naïve Sasha is befriended by the elderly Val (old enough to be her grandfather). His extravagant gifts and nights out to the opera distract her from asking too much about Val’s sinister background – even when she’s warned by Ashley, their one-eyed neighbor and a former cop whose own past connection to Val is veiled in mystery. Ayckbourn’s absurd yet meticulously crafted symmetries resemble a cautionary retooling of Cinderella, where sudden shifts in fortune prove too good to be true.

I met up with Sir Alan during a break from rehearsal to talk about “Sugar Daddies,” his remarkable career and the future of theatre.

How were you persuaded to come to Seattle – and what made you choose “Sugar Daddies” in particular to show audiences here the director side of your career?

It has been brewing for some years. When [ACT artistic director] Kurt Beattie came over to visit me in England, he slid me a schematic of the Allen Theatre, which is not so far removed from our own theatre in the round in Scarborough. [The Stephen Joseph Theatre on the northern coast of England, which has served as his artistic home base for decades.]

The ethos [of ACT] is very close to it. Both are interested in new writing, but are also very egalitarian – not like the old style, where the stage management were below stairs, the actors upstairs. And much more friendly. I’ve gotten asked dozens of times in England, “Why are you going to Seattle?” And I said, “Because they asked me!”

I chose “Sugar Daddies” as a play that hasn’t been done here and that I would like to revisit. From my knowledge of working in the States, it’s the sort of play American actors could embrace. Some of my plays are so English you’d spend most of the rehearsal period explaining the class system. We are doing [“Sugar Daddies”] as set in England, but nonetheless it’s fairly universal in its concerns.

It’s probably a bit of a surprise to many who love your plays that you actually spend much more of your time on directing than writing. Yet somehow you’ve managed to remain a wildly popular and prolific writer (77 full-length plays and counting).

I’ve had three careers in theatre: I started as an actor and then took, as I call it, the “poison chalice” of directing. Once you feel you’re in control as a director, it’s harder to go back to acting. The directing career developed quite independently from my writing career at first. Then the two almost inevitably merged, but quite later on.

The rehearsal room can be quite a hostile place … if the actors suspect you don’t know what you’re doing. It takes quite a lot of experience before you can confidently handle a whole room of actors – particularly because they are often rather eccentric and extraordinary individuals. I do spend more time in the rehearsal room than at my computer these days.

In a sense, “Sugar Daddies” is about the art of theatre itself, the way we’re constantly playing roles, whether we are aware or want to or not.

I was fascinated at the way we pretend, we select. It’s best summed up by when you’re very young and you meet a girl and the inevitable moment comes when you want to take her back to meet the parents. And then you’re thinking, “How am I going to look against the backdrop of my parents, who still look at me as 8 years old?” And she’s thinking the same thing.

People like Sasha respond to other people she senses have an expectation of her. She in turn has an image of old people as being friendly. “Uncle” Val is trying to put a very dark past behind him, and Sasha presents him with an edited version of herself. For most of us, it’s a presentation of ourselves, which we sense the other is expecting.

For example: as a director, actors don’t want to meet you socially if you’re rolling drunk. Not that they actually think you are infallible, but they like to assume a state of infallibility. If you go out of your way to encourage that, with a confident manner, it helps.

So no drunk Tweeting once rehearsals have started! But what you describe sounds almost like the same dynamic you show Sasha experiencing. She’s looking for some kind of approval and validation from her Sugar Daddy Val.

It touches on the old Faust legend of selling your soul to the devil. A lot of the play is set up so you’re asking, is she going to go down the path of eternal damnation with Uncle Val or is she going to find a way out? Fortunately, there is a turning point and a momentary glimpse of the monster. It’s not that Sasha doesn’t know about that [part of him], but she chooses not to know about it. The pleas of ignorance – we do a lot of that; it’s a considerable human characteristic.

One recurring idea in critiques of “Sugar Daddies” is the issue of the play’s tonality. Critics have seemed confused by its mixture and want to have it both ways: a dark, confectionless, yet entertaining play. For the ACT production, you’ve even decided to rewrite the final scene between Sasha and her half-sister.

Rereading the play, I thought Sasha goes through this experience pretty well unscathed. She escapes with just a singe. I wanted those last few moments to show that there’s part of Uncle Val that’s been left with her. If you’ve supped with the devil, you’ve probably burnt your tongue.

There is a sense that Sasha is refreshingly clear-eyed at the beginning, the “country mouse” who has come into the city, but she has a sort of mistrust of human nature by the end – something you see in children growing up. … Sasha’s not quite the girl she was at the beginning; there is a sort of ruthlessness about her.

Among other modern playwrights, who would you single out as the great “bards” who will last?

I’m a great admirer of David Hare and Alan Bennett. One of the writers that had the most profound effect on me, when I was directing other people’s plays, was Arthur Miller. The great thing about being a writer directing other people’s work is that as a director, you’re more or less compelled to take the play apart in order to put it together again with the actors. You see the mainspring here, the cogs there. Miller was a terrific craftsman and had a brain on him the size of Britain.

I was very lucky I grew up at the crossroads for English drama. So I absorbed a lot of the old-fashioned, well-made plays, and then came [John] Osborne and [Harold] Pinter, who was an enormous influence of me. I even acted in an early production of “The Birthday Party,” which he directed. He was an extraordinarily unique voice. So I’m influenced by the Chekhovs through to the Pinters really. I was blessed with a double upbringing.

You’ve remained remarkably loyal to theatre as an art form, while so many of your colleagues – not to mention younger writers – have gone over to the commercial payoff of TV, Cable, film. What does the future of theatre look like to you?

There’s a bright curve of new dramatists coming up in England. I do think, because of the non-encouragement of new writers, there’s a danger in our theatres now of [these writers] not addressing the challenges of theatre, but of trying to adapt television and film ideas. I used to sit at my desk and read 3 or 4 plays a week. My heart used to sink if there was a play with 26 scenes: Where’s the conciseness of theatre?

And there is a veering towards monologue, which is quite popular now — not just as a dictate of economics, but a preference of dramatists. When I was teaching, I used to try to point out all the colors of the theatre palette. My mentor Stephen Joseph told me, “Yeah, break the rules, but first of all you’ve got to know what they are!” So he sat me down and made me write a well-made play. At least I’d been through the process, and I’ve been breaking the rules ever since.

If you go: ACT Theatre presents the U.S. premiere of "Sugar Daddies," written and directed by Sir Alan Ayckbourn, October 4 – November 3, 2013, in the Allen Arena Theatre, 700 Union Street, Seattle. Tickets online or at 206 292-7676.


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