Communicating Doors: An Interview With Alan Ayckbourn

In this interview held in the Ayckbourn Archive, Alan talks about the inspiration for Communicating Doors and his thoughts about the play and its themes.

Interviewer: In Paul Allen's biography, Grinning At The Edge, he mentions that you had a stay at the Savoy Hotel which might have been the origins of the play. Can you expand? How did the idea and the plot come about?
Alan Ayckbourn:
I've stayed in a lot of hotels (mostly in the course of touring plays around) and in most cases there's this mysterious communicating door, locked from both sides, which leads God knows where. The rational side of me supposes that it's used when my room is opened up to combine it with the one next door to become a suite. But there's a side of me that much prefers the other explanation that, actually, beyond that door lies another universe, another time continuum. I wanted to write about how, in many cases, our futures, our destinies rest in our own hands. It isn't always about upbringing or genetics; it can be but sometimes that's the easy get-out. In Poopay's case, the opportunity is given to her too rewrite her life, thanks largely to the help of Ruella who takes her in hand. But most of us don't get that chance to time flip. We have to do it all in real time. My life has been a good deal about meeting the right people at the right time. People who've helped and encouraged me, schoolmasters, agents, Stephen Joseph himself. One could say I have been extremely fortunate and yes, I agree, I have. But I also had the wit, thank God, to listen to them and to heed their advice.

There's an alternative Ayckbourn canon that explores science-fiction, futuristic themes and notions of time travel. How important is this strand of work to you? What is it about the notion of moving through time that intrigues you..?
I read a lot of science fiction when I was younger, Bradbury, Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Aldiss etc. Sci-fi is, amongst other things, a wonderful way to tell allegorical stories. It also creates 'a level playing field', that is to say the author is able to create a world in which all the laws are altered or reaffirmed or even inverted, so that in a sense we are all strangers. Very useful, I find, especially when writing for younger audiences. I cannot hope, at 60 plus, to write authentically about their world with its particular jargon and rituals. These were established, of course, largely to exclude people of my generation. Just as we tried to exclude our own parents and grandparents. It is necessary to create a third neutral world in order to tell my story. A lot of us do it from Alien to Grimm to Harry Potter. The details are changed but mostly the stories are eternal. The narrative tool offered by the use of Time is a fascinating element (under-used in my experience) for a dramatist to explore. It was largely the plays of Priestley that drew my attention to this. It's just another way to tell the story. To sharpen the narrative. To keep people interested.

Women versus Men? Our three women are quite virtuous - Ruella is quite heroic - the men by contrast (Reece is only redeemed thanks to Ruella changing fate) are either villains or self-centred and ridiculous...
Yes, it is quite pro-women this play, I have to say. But in a sense, it's a take on the old dark house movie where hapless, some would say foolhardy, women are eternally rushing around the house in their night clothes failing to turn on the lights or to draw the curtains - even though they know full well that there's something out there THAT MEANS THEM HARM.... It's the level of the play which is, if you like, the traditional side. Though I hope it works on several levels. The friendship that develops between Ruella and Poopay fascinated me. How Ruella had so much to offer Poopay but there were just a few elements that Poopay could in turn offer her. The Head meets the Heart and by the end they are both better people, I hope. Ruella at the start is a very intolerant, impatient woman. Through Poopay she discovers a side of herself she didn't know she had, her compassionate side.

You set out to write a 'comic-thriller', which way is preferable: comedy or thriller?
I hope that both elements should balance out. In Communicating Doors the comedy grows out of the tension created by the thriller element. It's vitally important that we feel the women to be in real danger. So, lean towards the thriller and hopefully the comedy will take care of itself. The key to such pieces of theatre is that it has to MATTER to the protagonists. We have to care for them and worry about their fate.

What is it about theatre that matters to you and keeps you so inventive and committed?
I'm a natural story teller. I love telling tales. And the elements available in theatre are infinitely variable. Not just the technical side - though that's fun! - but the endless ways of re-telling and re-structuring. Time and Place and choice of starting point and finishing point. What you reveal when and what you withhold. And it's live. Which means every time the story is retold, new people are listening and so the telling is never quite the same.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.