How We Met: 44. Roger Glossop and Alan Ayckbourn

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The Independent Culture
Alan Ayckbourn, 53, is director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, and has written 44 plays, the most successful of which include 'Absurd Person Singular' and 'The Norman Conquests'. He has two grown-up sons, and lives in Scarborough with his PA, Heather Stoney. Theatre designer Roger Glossop, 45, is the founder and director of a new theatre opening next month at the Old Laundry Visitor Centre in Bowness by Lake Windermere, which he aims to make a second home for Ayckbourn's work. He lives with his wife, Charlotte, and their two young children.

ALAN AYCKBOURN: My first memory of Roger is about six years ago when he brought me this tiny model for a production of Woman in Mind at the Vaudeville Theatre. He worked in quarter-inch scale - everyone else works in half-inch - and since he's the designer with the shakiest hands I've ever met, especially when he's nervous, which he often is, the whole damn lot fell over.

I'm fairly forceful about what I want, and some designers come at me head-on and we just row. But Roger is endlessly flexible. It's a very untypical relationship because he always describes himself as semi-retired, even though he seems to work harder than most. But he's also a big family man and I rather like that.

The trouble with many designers is that very few actually give you 100 per cent of their time. They always say, 'Er, well, I won't be able to manage the whole technical because I'm actually doing an opera in Kent - but my deputy will be here.' Roger will give you everything he's got.

We prepare as little as possible for rehearsal, and I always know that in his mind everything is moveable. He makes decisions hair-raisingly late in the day - I love it. We both take our work very seriously, but it's not a matter of life and death. If something goes wrong we'll just go out for a meal, get drunk and have a laugh.

At a crucial moment in the final run-through when we were doing Invisible Friends, we had a comic accident. An actress twanged the braces of the actor she was playing opposite as she passed by. They sprang up and cut her eye open. We thought she'd gone blind] Anyhow, it was serious enough for us to have to postpone, and we could have gone barmy with the frustration. Instead, Roger and I made sure she was OK, bought her a bunch of flowers and then pissed off for a riotous evening. It's nice, that sort of attitude that we share. But Roger does believe that the most important thing is the play, the actors and the audience. Some theatre designers seem to think that there are these rather irritating beings called actors who get in the way of their design, just as there are directors who would be much happier if the actors were worked by motors so that they could get the thing going much more smoothly.

Roger's never told me something I want is impossible: whatever the brief, he comes up with a solution. I've never had a huge disaster with him - not like the time at the Lyttelton when a tank of 20 tons of water burst and flooded the entire theatre. With 'Tis Pity She's A Whore at the National, we had a

revolve, the whole set moving very

slowly the entire time. One of the characters took poison, collapsed and died. But the actress missed her cue to get off the stage, so she walked straight down to the audience instead.

Roger doesn't get stroppy but he gets worried, a very personal worry, an unselfish worry which never comes out. Occasionally he'll go away, unable to watch something and even getting quite ill. But he'll be apparently quite breezy about it. His input is extraordinary because it's very low-key. Like the best of sportsmen who don't appear to be doing much a lot of the time, it all looks very easy.

ROGER GLOSSOP: I first met Alan with slight trepidation six years ago through the London producer Michael Codron. Producers are a bit like clergymen bringing people together in marriage. Some of the relationships fall apart immediately but some of them last and this one has lasted. I'd never clapped eyes on him and it's always a bit nerve-racking working with new directors - some treat you like a servant. But Alan lets you feel free, though in fact the plays are so tightly written that they demand a great deal of precision. Anyhow, I was introduced to this terribly shy man. Early on, he wouldn't even look you in the eye.

Most reasonably well-known playwrights have had three or four West End successes - not 20-odd like Alan. I expected to find him on a bit of a pedestal, but it's never been like that. I think it's partly because he runs this theatre in Scarborough so that his feet are firmly on the ground. With some directors you sometimes think, 'What the hell have I got myself into?' Many of them are slightly mad. Their own project is of terrific importance, even though it's not important to anybody a yard away from the theatre.

Sometimes I wonder about what particular institution some of them would be in if they weren't in the theatre. Alan wouldn't be in one - he realises the importance of his work but also the importance of other people.

When we were doing The Revengers' Comedies at the Strand with Griff Rhys Jones and Joanna Lumley (the play lasted four-and-a-half hours, took two days to see and was absolutely vast with 43 scenes), the whole thing was just going horribly wrong in dress rehearsals. The travelators I'd designed to move the scenery weren't working, and the actors were walking into them and knocking them over. We started cancelling previews and people were getting very uptight. For a month, my shoulders were getting higher and higher. It was the closest we've ever come to disaster, but Alan never turned on me or anyone, he was as cool as a cucumber. I've worked with other people who are almost destructive in those circumstances. Alan does try to do the impossible, though. He just loves it, he can't help himself, he just can't stop writing.

I don't know that he likes it that much. I think it's quite painful for him, but he locks himself away for stretches, and perhaps 10 days later he comes back with another play and they are all, visually, terrific. But you have to fight your imagination as to whether it can be done or not. We did a show called Body Language where two women end up having their heads cut off in the blades of a helicopter and this animal surgeon sews them back - on the wrong bodies. The brilliance of the writing is such that the audience thought it was credible.

In Henceforward, this musician remodels his domestic robot to look like a young girl and puts all the voice patterns in it. I remember thinking to myself: 'No one's ever going to believe this. Why do I get involved in these things? It's never going to work.' The first preview was full of pensioners, but right from the start they were into it, going wild, understanding everything. It was probably the greatest revelation I've ever had in the theatre.

Alan sometimes looks a little glumly at me but we've never had cross words. Occasionally, if a motor is failing in rehearsals, he might say, 'It will work, won't it?' and we'll move heaven and hell to make it work.

You could say that it's a failing that Alan works so hard and expects everybody else to keep up with him. But the others can be quite lazy, so it's actually not a bad thing. I've learnt to trust what he's doing and I think he trusts me - even though I'm from my own artistic school, the School of Desperatism. I leave things to the last minute, but he doesn't mind that because it means he can keep things fluid. That's the only way I can work - through fear. It's never done me any good, though. I get quite ill from it. -

(Photograph omitted)

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