The Boy Who Fell Into A Book: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview was published in the programme for an unknown production of the play in 2001. The interview was conducted between Mo Bhula and Alan Ayckbourn.

Why did you decide to write children's plays?
Alan Ayckbourn:
Well, working in theatre, I couldn't help but notice that there was a dearth of what I thought of as straight children's writing, for the five to ten-year-old age group. It seemed to me that what there was often written by the least experienced writers, people starting out, whereas I felt that children at that age also deserve work from the most experienced writers. So I decided to have a go, because although I was not very experienced as a children's writer, at least I had experience of how to put plays together.
And I wanted to do two things. I wanted kids to experience the joy of live theatre, (theatre in the round is a great medium for imaginative theatre because there isn't much scenery, the kids have to work it out for themselves), as well as appreciating the liveness of theatre. Something I had pursued in my adult work quite a lot, such as interactive gimmicks where characters toss coins or in some other way choose the way a play would go.
Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays was the first I wrote where the kids actually chose which way the play should go; they voted which route the girl and her dog would take. So it was an interactive play. And after that I basically carried on.
There were two things I got back from it. One was the terrific buzz from the liveliness of those children's audiences that roar at ten o' clock in the morning, which must fill actors' heads with horror. It was, in fact, very exciting for a dramatist used to rather more polite adults. And it opened up for me a huge number of new horizons like fantasy.
I began to write plays which were much more fantastic as a result of writing for kids. It was a slow, slow journey of discovery to find that what I was writing for children and what I was writing for adults were separated by a very thin fence indeed. They both relied on all the basic tenets of, hopefully, good play writing. But the subject matter and the emotional range was much wider than I'd imagined. The only thing I made a personal vow about with children is never ever to shut them in cupboards, as it were, or to leave closed doors. As I once said somewhere, there may be out there a five year old who has in them the ability to find a cure for cancer so I would never categorically say in a children's play you cannot do that. I tend to say in my plays anything is possible.

Are children different from adults as an audience?
Kids make a great audience, I mean a frightening audience. Their attention span is not always as short as people would have you believe. It can actually be very, very good, but only if you manage to engage them. Unlike adult audiences who will sit for maybe ten or fifteen minutes saying, "It's ok, it'll brighten up in a minute", kids will give you about five seconds before they go, "boring!" and turn away. You really need to sharpen everything: narrative, character skills; everything has to be finely honed for kids, and that's no bad thing.

Do you fee that you write differently for children?
I would say you have to write better. What I mean is, I think you have to be quite concise, you have to find ways around long exposition, things like that, because children just aren't prepared to sit and listen to that sort of stuff. I tend to leave out very oblique adult or sexual themes as well which, mercifully, are something that that age group doesn't have to deal with. Of course they know that their parents behave very peculiarly on occasions and that there must be something going on, and they often know enough to understand it, but they aren't interested in it. I remember when my brother and I went to see Westerns when we were kids, there was always that awful moment when the accordion started up in the background and the man and the woman leant against the fence and my brother would always say, "Oh God, he's going to kiss her in a minute!". It was really awful, so I try if I can to keep that to a minimum. Affection and love have a big place in children's plays, but not, I think, sloppy sex!

Do you feel that there should be more good plays for children?
Yes, I think possibly that not enough of our top dramatists, as it were, seem concerned about writing for children, whereas I think they should be. If nothing else it's a jolly good exercise; very, very good training in writing better plays. I think, I hope, that I've improved as a dramatist since I started writing for kids because, and I know it's an awful old phrase, it really takes you back to basics. You can't mess around in kids' work or they'll be gone. It's very frightening. I'm always much more frightened when I sit and watch a kids' play of mine for the first time than an adult play.

Can you tell us more about The Boy Who Fell Into A Book?
I'd had an idea for some time about characters moving into each other's worlds. I once tried it years ago in a revue sketch. I thought the idea of being able to switch locations in such a way would renew any flagging interest throughout the play. So not everyone's interested in thrillers, for example, but they might be interested in chess, or if they're not, don't worry, there'll be another world along in a minute and they'll have a chance to re-engage; every time there's a new set of rules, like everyone speaking in rhyming couplets or for a brief moment, you find you're into Kidnapped. Kids seem to like that, it's very popular.
At the same time, I liked the incongruity of a real hard boiled old private eye being forced to tag along with a kid and the slow affection that grows up between them; the way that very often the kid is more knowledgeable about the world they're getting into than the detective is prepared to admit. It's kind of like a buddy movie on one hand, whilst on the other it can be genuinely scary. I mean, the woman should always be very scary and the assassin who's after them.
It also provides another opportunity for children to experience theatricality, this time in terms of changing style. What I think is interesting for the performers and, hopefully, then for the children, is the way that with each little section you have to restart stylistically, visually and, of course, verbally. They all talk differently and that's a lot of fun.

The various books you have set the play in, was there any particular reason you chose them?
They offered themselves really, and again provided opportunities to stage things theatrically. And some, although not all, are hopefully familiar to children already. Obviously they tend to like the book of ghost stories and most of them have probably touched on Grimm. Kidnapped is probably a little old for some but nonetheless it is a story they ought to get onto pretty soon, certainly the upper age group. I suppose the books all fitted the bill in some way, and I wanted to make them different, to have as much contrast as possible.
The other problem was that I had to use books that were way out of copyright, or else invent them. If you start using
Harry Potter or Roald Dahl or writers like him, you end up getting a blooming great writ! I've tried that before. People get very suspicious when I ask for permission to use their work. I suspect they think I'm going to send them up rotten, so their agents tend to say no.

So what advice would you give to other playwrights thinking of writing plays for children?
One of the key problems is that often plays for children tend to narrow the emotional range right down, and they can end up being about bowls of custard being thrown at people. Now I love custard, too, but I think children do enjoy being a little bit scared, or getting a little bit tearful. These are all good ingredients to have in a play anyway because they create the necessary tension. I think that for writers starting with children the important point is not to be afraid to involve them on many levels. Child audiences are like adult audiences in the sense that they're much brighter and much quicker than you ever give them credit for.

Copyright: Mo Bhula.