New York — "I can do plays whenever I want," says Alan Ayckbourn.
The tall, affable British writer and director is often described as the world's most prolific living playwright -- 69 plays in 66 years -- and the most widely performed were it not for dear departed Mr. Shakespeare.
"A playwright needs a home," he says in his tastefully beige room at Le Parker Meridien. Nearly all of Ayckbourn's plays have premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England, where he has been artistic director since 1971.
"I can write them, and nobody says, 'I've got to read it.' I say, 'My new one is called ...' and off I go! Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. But I have this wonderful thruway to the audience that is permanently open."
Ayckbourn is in New York for the U.S. premiere of his British repertory company's original production of "Private Fears in Public Places" at 59E59 Theaters until July 3. Said the New York Times' Charles Isherwood: "A minor-key comedy about six Londoners leading lives of quiet desperation, it is rueful, funny, touching and altogether wonderful." Newsday's Linda Winer was one of the critics to point out the advantages of seeing Ayckbourn's "very English characters" performed by "stylists to the manor born."
More than 30 of Ayckbourn's plays have been produced in London's West End since his first hit, "Relatively Speaking," opened in 1967. But it is at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, named for its founder and his mentor -- who gave him jobs as a stage manager, sound technician, lighting technician, scene painter, prop maker and actor and who was the first person to encourage him to write -- that Ayckbourn feels he does his best work.
"I've got more and more convinced the older I've got that my remaining future is in company theater," says Ayckbourn, who mentions his senior citizenry more than seems necessary for someone with his palpable energy and seeming good health, a slightly bum leg notwithstanding. Knighted in Britain in 1997, Sir Alan has been translated into 35 languages and twice nominated for a Tony (seven of his plays have been performed on Broadway, as was a flopped musical collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, "By Jeeves," that he refers to as "this foolish musical we opened next door to 'The Producers' "). "I've done all that West End stars-plus-three business, and I don't enjoy it anymore. I'm gonna concentrate my remaining years in just the company and trying to widen its range so it reaches more people."
Unlike his contemporaries Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, Ayckbourn has never worked in TV or film (though his work has been adapted for the screen in English and French). All he has to do is look at the proportion of theater coverage in the newspapers to realize he's working in an increasingly marginalized medium, he says. "But where I think theater is continuing to score is when you have a community with their own theater that is a social center used for many purposes. It seems to me, without being too grand about it, to be one of the few things that replaces the church -- it's where people go to discuss the nature of humanity, really."
A few days later at the 59E59 Theaters complex, Ayckbourn is teaching an afternoon of master classes -- one in which he coaches volunteer actors through scenes of one of his plays, another in which he discusses playwriting and signs copies of his book "The Crafty Art of Playmaking." During the acting workshop, he watches and listens intently as actors read, their booming American voices sometimes drowning the subtle English characterizations. He directs them afterward by chatting about the characters, not the performances.
"You can swamp an actor with notes and details about a performance," he had said in the hotel. "If you say, 'I think this man's more jealous than you're making him' -- if you can give those sorts of notes, it can make all the difference."
Ayckbourn believes that economy is a theatrical virtue for direction, lighting design and "writing dialogue that leaves space. Some plays are so dense, there's no room to act!" Writing plays, he says, means "putting away all the English grammar you learned at school" and punctuating text with dashes and full stops and ellipses, like musical notations in a score.
During the playwriting lecture, he describes the challenges of planting information in dialogue that allows the audience to follow the story while keeping it moving and how to write for characters knowing that people, "especially we English, never really say what we mean."
An eclectic cast of muses