"I guess a lot of my inspiration comes from eating in restaurants," acknowledges the English playwright, whose work includes A Chorus of Disapproval, Bedroom Farce, and Absurd Person Singular (which the Manhattan Theater Club plans to revive on Broadway later this season). "It doesn't come from my unfortunate dinner companions but by my leaning backwards slightly and hearing what was probably intended as private conversation at the next table. It's appalling, really," Ayckbourn says with a chuckle. "But it is always fascinating."
The private encounters of six people who interact with each other in different ways form the basis of Private Fears in Public Places, now receiving its American premiere as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival at the 59E59 Theaters. Like most of the 66-year-old playwright's work, this play originated at his home base: the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, a small Yorkshire seaside resort/spa town on the North Sea coast of England. Indeed, Ayckbourn has enjoyed the luxury of premiering at least one new work every year at the theater, over which he has total artistic control. (The result is a hard-to-beat record of 69 plays; the most recent, Improbable Fiction, premiered just last month in Scarborough.)
However, the Brits Off Broadway presentation of Private Fears will mark the first time that the Stephen Joseph company's actors have played on these shores. "I am pleased and proud that New York audiences will see the play as I originally envisioned it," says Ayckbourn, who is also directing the piece. "If this quite modest experiment works, we hope we can make it a regular feature." Theatergoers who have seen such works as Absent Friends or Woman in Mind will be familiar with the tightrope between laughter and pathos that Ayckbourn often walks. The playwright himself has described comedy as "tragedies that have been interrupted," and that description certainly fits Private Fears , a chamber comedy with a distinctly melancholy tinge. According to the author, "It's a tale of the misheard, the unspoken, and the sadly misunderstood."
The play presented a new technical challenge for Ayckbourn: "I usually write four-scene, two-act plays; this is a one-act, 54 scene play." It progresses cinematically through scenes of various length, some of which are wordless and last just a few seconds. "The play looks into a microcosm of lonely people," Ayckbourn says. "They are seeking love, if you like. Companionship. We get glimpses of them trying to put on their face to face the outside world. We get to see their vulnerability and the little fears that I think we all have of how we are perceived by other people. It's a hard business, living. Really, isn't it?"
Ayckbourn says that his hometown has proved fertile ground for observation of human behavior, since the 100,000-plus base population of Scarborough expands to accommodate a cosmopolitan throng that pours in during the summer. "I am not an urban person," Ayckbourn states. "I find cities like London and New York too big for me. I was brought up in the country, but the country is rather narrowing; you can't write about the same 12 people indefinitely." Ayckbourn was just 18 years old when he made his first visit to the little Yorkshire town; he came to work as a stage manager for a summer season but his true aspiration was to become an actor. Soon, he met Stephen Joseph -- the son of actress Hermione Gingold -- who had started a theater company there just two years before. "Maybe he didn't like the quality of my acting," Ayckbourn jokes, "but when I returned the next summer, he encouraged me to write and also, significantly, to direct." Under Joseph's guidance, Ayckbourn began to write plays for himself as an actor while directing other people's work for the company. By 1964, he was directing his own plays, establishing a pattern that has continued ever since.
In 1967, the same year that Ayckbourn scored his first West End hit with Relatively Speaking, Joseph died at the age of 46. The theater's administrators, mostly local amateurs whom Joseph had recruited to help him, turned to Ayckbourn. "I had moved on and was working for the BBC in Leeds when they approached me," he relates. "I was still under 30 and my career as a writer and a director was going pretty well; I didn't know that I wanted to be saddled with a theater, but I did feel that I owed Stephen a favor since he had started me off so brilliantly." So he agreed to take the reins of the theater, though "I thought I'd do it for just a year or two."
Now, Ayckbourn and the Stephen Joseph Theater are synonymous. "By default, and not by any clever planning of my own, I found that I was sitting very pretty," Ayckbourn remarks. "I was running a theater for which I was writing plays -- and since I was the artistic director, the work very rarely got turned down. In fact, if any of my plays did get turned down, it was before I even started writing them!" Ayckbourn was officially appointed artistic director in 1971. Since then, he has established a year-round theater company in Scarborough; and, in 1996, he realized Joseph's dream of setting up a permanent theater complex in the center of the town.
But his greatest source of pride is that he has continued, in the tradition of the theater's founder, to encourage writers and foster new work. "Stephen drove into me that new plays cannot just materialize from the ether," Ayckbourn says. "Writers often need to be encouraged over several years, several plays, before they show any real originality. The practice of playwriting can only be learned from production. We have a reputation now for new work; some seasons, 95 percent of the work is absolutely new." And how has Ackybourn managed to come up with a new play of his own every season? "So far, an idea has always presented itself," he says. "I'm touching wood here as I speak." Occasionally, he says, he will write a "bridge" play that takes him to the next one. "Those are plays I need to write to get to a next stage in my writing."
Over the years, Ayckbourn has become famous for his inventive use of settings and for the surprising perspectives in his plays. "I have always delighted in new ways of telling stories," he says, "and some of them have really been quite fun." For example, in 1969's How the Other Half Loves , he experimented with superimposing two different living rooms upon one another. Ten years later, he collapsed three floors of a crumbling old house onto a single level in the farce Taking Steps. And in the more recent House and Garden, produced stateside by the Manhatttan Theater Club, two plays unfold simultaneously in two separate theaters with a shared cast. "For me, it is most exciting when theater is doing something palpable that can only be done live," says Ayckbourn. "Two television sets side by side will not create that."