Arrivals & Departures: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

This page contains two interviews about Arrivals & Departures with Alan Ayckbourn conducted by Simon Murgatroyd in March 2013 and February 2014.

Simon Murgatroyd: What can you tell us about your new play, Arrivals & Departures?
Alan Ayckbourn:
Arrivals & Departures is a memory play, in short. It’s got a cast of 30 speaking parts shared between 11 actors plus two children; but while it’s a big play in scale, it’s not a big play in terms of the characters. It centres around a single central relationship and is essentially all about two people, Barry and Ez. Against this background, there’s also a side plot running which is to do with an ambush to catch a terrorist, so it’s a play on several levels. Hopefully it will not confuse but amuse!

You describe it as a memory play, what does that mean?
Two strangers meet and the audience learn, basically, about their back stories through their memories. So at the end of the play, the characters themselves know precious little more about each other than they did when they started out. It was interesting for me to write as, normally, as the characters get to know each other so do the audience; but here only the audience gets to know the back-stories and only they realise how close these characters could be, but for the fact they’re strangers.

Was there anything which particularly inspired you to write the play?
Not really. It sort of evolved from this idea of telling a story through memories. Form always fascinates me. Arrivals & Departures has an interesting structure and having written so many plays, many of which have straight narratives, I think that nowadays one of the interests for me is to surprise and intrigue the audience through the way you tell the story, just as much as the story itself.
There aren’t that many new stories to tell, if indeed any, it’s only in the way they are narrated that the story becomes new. I think my audience has got used now to saying, ‘how’s this going to start?’ It’s also not just a matter of looking for new ways to tell a story, but keeping me fresh as well.
I’m still interested in trying to find new ways of surprising people. Hopefully they’ll be surprised by
Arrivals & Departures. Which is different for me again. It’s along the lines of Private Fears In Public Places. It’s one of those all-linked up plays which has always fascinated me: the role people play in other people’s lives.
In
Arrivals & Departures, you see people and the characters tend to take them at face value, but we the audience get to know them better - and see there’s more to these people than meets the eye. When we as an audience are empowered by knowledge the characters on stage aren’t getting, it’s a fascinating feeling and it’s a reverse of people coming on stage and knowing things we don’t, as audiences tend to get grumpy then!

How do you write a story told primarily through memories?
Cinema has always been a prime influence on me, much more so than stage-work and the grammar of cinema is something immediately adaptable to the sort of theatre I work in, which is normally free of big set changes. I’m free to use cinematic techniques, such as the flashbacks in Arrivals & Departures. There’s a whole series of memories for Ez and Barry, which in their minds probably seem far longer than they actually are. How often do we get a flash of memory and you’ve apparently been back in time for about 20 minutes but only a second has passed in real time? You can’t have 20 minute scenes on stage and then say to the audience, only a second has passed in real time. So you have to try and condense the information in these memory scenes. It’s an exercise in precise information playwriting; writing a scene of less than a page which gives you 4 or 5 pages of information, which is also challenging as brevity is no guarantee of interest - brevity mercifully just doesn’t take very long!

The play also has an unusual setting.
One of the most notable things about Arrivals & Departures is there isn’t a single domestic scene in the play. They’re all set on railway stations or bus stations - all to do with transportation. Even the flashbacks always happen in airports, multi-storey car-parks and so on; anywhere except a domestic sitting room. This is, I think, not unrelated to the title of the play, which also refers to other arrivals and departures in life, such as births & deaths.

What can you tell us about the main characters Ez and Barry?
Ez is a young female soldier who’s lost her faith in human nature. Barry is a traffic warden from Harrogate. He’s a fascinating character and not a million miles away from Douglas Beechey in my play Man Of The Moment, who also has had a troubled subtext of a life. Everything has fallen in on Barry, but he’s the sort of person who keeps the smile in place because his philosophy is, if you smile every day, you spread a little bit of happiness and you make the world a slightly happier place. But the consequence of that is you also don’t let anyone in. So there is a fortress about him and the smile excludes anyone taking him more than at skin-deep level. We get the privilege of moving in quite close and seeing beneath the smile.

Arrivals & Departures is playing in repertory with Time Of My Life, are there any similarities between the plays?
Both plays are to do with time, which is interesting. But the way time is used in Arrivals & Departures is nowhere near as complicated as how time is used in Time Of My Life. I’m still looking at the old prompt script of Time Of My Life to see how we originally did it!

In February 2014, Alan Ayckbourn touched upon Arrivals & Departures in a further interview with Simon Murgatroyd. Here he discusses the motivation behind the play and the audience's response to it.

Alan Ayckbourn: It’s interesting that there are times you just need to keep challenging yourself. Arrivals & Departures was a bit cheeky really. You write a play and you wind an audience up to the climax - and then you start the play again! Not only that, but you carry on with the same dialogue - quite a lot of the time - but hopefully the audience keeps seeing things through different filters. You get to know one of the characters back stories completely and then with mounting horror, you begin to realise what the other character's backstory is. And then you wait to see them all concluded and that is another flip in the story. Arrivals & Departures does some narrative somersaults.
I’m always conscious - and I keep saying it these days - that the greatest complement people can pay you is they didn’t see that coming. The worst thing they can say is we saw all that, we guessed that. In
Arrivals & Departures, unless you’ve seen it before or someone’s given you the spoiler, then I don’t think you could see what was coming.

The trouble with modern society is the attention span - people have so many things on their minds. They’re not stupid, they’re just overloaded I think and have communications coming out of their ears! With a play like
Arrivals & Departures, they have to switch on and follow quite a complicated narrative. And it really is hard work and you notice that.
There’s a vague abstraction I fear for the future generations - when you spend an evening with children sitting at a table, their eyes go down into their laps and you know there is something down there which is giving them information or they're having a conversation - nothing to do with what we’re talking about at the table. I think people are being forced to multi-task beyond their natural multi-tasking abilities.

I think I'm exploring new ways in which to tell stories and when you do that, its just inevitable you begin to challenge people. In fact I’m trying to think of a new way to tell the story I've got. I’m looking for a way to tell it. There are so many ways to tell stories, but the way that makes the specific story interesting and surprising is the only way to tell it.

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