Comic Potential: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

In 1998 and 2000, Simon Murgatroyd interviewed Alan Ayckbourn about Comic Potential. Here are extracts from the interviews.

Simon Murgatroyd: Comic Potential is your new play, can you explain what it’s about?
Alan Ayckbourn:
Comic Potential is a return to the nebulous world of the future, but it's not as dark as Communicating Doors or Henceforward…. It's about the nature of being a human being and the nature of Comedy.

So it offers an insight into your thoughts on comedy?
It's interesting that humour in a sense, at least to me, is a chink in the human brain. The great Comic ideas are often quite incongruous things. I began to muse if a computer did that, it would be designated as faulty. If a Computer came up with a joke, it would be seen as a fault. So is it humour that makes us human?

Hence the near-future setting….
I'm a bit of a science-fiction freak, but I have to be a little careful of that as the audience comes out with a rash when you mention sci-fi! I love using it as a metaphorical medium for the present. The best sci-fi writers write about what we might become and what we are today. It also gives me the chance to write about big things for me.

The other important thing to mention is the play is part of your 10 x 10 repertory season: 10 actors performing in 10 plays.
Comic Potential comes out of the whole concept of 10 by 10. Ten was a completely random number, but that seemed to me the amount of plays we could do in a season. It seemed to me that 10 actors were as much as we could afford and there should be a point within the season when all 10 actors were working on the same project. Otherwise some would not work together at all. It would not really be a company then. I thought I'd write the 10-hander and from there the actors would go their separate ways and do all the other plays.

Jacie in Comic Potential continues your trend, first started in Henceforward… of having androids as central characters. To quote the movie Blade Runner, your robots seem 'more human than human' and are often the most sympathetic, even human, characters in these plays.
Well, yes. Certainly my robots are quite vulnerable; they're like children. Although Nan in
Henceforward… is sort of scary. She seems quite a frightening animal, but she's not dangerous, she's just protective. She's just frightens Zoe╠ł a bit. I think the idea is she's funny rather than frightening. A bit of Psycho there. But that's fun.
I guess they are sympathetic characters. It' sort of inevitable, I mean all these humans have other agendas, whereas the robots have none. Jacie's journey is from child to woman. I said once in rehearsal for
Comic Potential, that's it's a sly short history of women from the 1900s to 2000. It's sort of like the journey they've made or the average woman has made. For Jacie, it's all a bit accelerated. One minute, here she is a sort of puppet, then she's being expected to make her own decisions to very finally saying: "Nobody's programming me, I don't know what I'm doing." Like a child she's both wanting to grow up while not knowing how to. She has the phenomenal brain of a robot and I put the reading scene in to say, if she can learn to read in 10 minutes, think of what else she's going to do. The warning that some people seem to get is very clearly is they won't stop there.
I was also saying there is a downside to the fact we are very used to have been the ruling species for living memory, being top dog. What happens when you face the platform and there's a truly civilised being there? We are no longer top dog; we're second dog. How will we adjust? Will we attack them furiously and they'll wipe us out, as they'll be that much more superior. Or will we agree to learn from them. We are going to eventually have sentient machines, which we will have great trouble separating from us. They will be able to reason, argue and not forget and in many instances they will be a superior being.
Comic Potential I raised the two areas where I think we surpass machines. Our ability to fall in love, which is something completely human - it doesn't happen to dogs and cats! It's something we've never been able to explain. Alongside that comes humour and both, I would contend, are illogical processes. They're flaws. The only reason Jacie can do these things is she's faulty and it may be what is built into us is a built-in flaw. Also with the loving robot comes the hating robot and perhaps this will happen despite whatever safeguards we build into them. It's going to be a very interesting century! There's a third element too. It is to do with humour and love and is creativity. This may well be something Jacie will discover from feeling the first highs of love and thus discovering early humour and being alarmed by her reactions. She will be creating rather than making.

Comic Potential Interview (held in the Ayckbourn Archive)
In the world of
Comic Potential, script-writing as a dying art is mentioned frequently, is this a fear you have as a writer?
Not only script writing. Acting as well. But that’s TV. Theatre will continue because, along with opera and ballet, it is the one dramatic medium which remains live. The electronic newcomers, Radio, TV, Video, Computer Generated Images, etc. all strive for this liveness by giving their audiences the sensation of choice. But even in video games where options appear to be infinite, someone months before has already previously anticipated any decision its audience will make. Only in theatre with its real time and its live audience and live actors does anything even remotely unique occur. And even then that’s not always perceptible from night to night!

How important is a focus on originality during the writing process? (Or are there other things to be more concerned with?)
I found at a depressingly early age as a writer that there is nothing original in drama. The minute you feel you have created something entirely new there is always some critic or member of the audience ready to step forward and point out that so-and-so wrote that exact story years before. There are no original ideas just as there are no original jokes. BUT there are still endless ways to retell stories however familiar. In your own unique way.

As Artificial intelligence becomes more achievable, are the arts also becoming possible to program, or are they strictly formed from human consciousness?
See my earlier answer. Basic Theatre, two planks and a passion sort of theatre, shorn of the technical trimmings, is still essentially a shared expression, an affirmation of your common humanity.

Do you like all of the characters in this script? How much do they vary from production to production?
I have to like my characters - or, should I say, I have to enjoy writing them. Even the villains. Any actor will tell you it’s fun to play a juicy villain. It’s the same for writers. It’s very hard in life to love seemingly perfect people. You can admire or respect them or even like them. But until they choose to show you their flaws you can never truly love them. All my characters have their faults. I love them all. I wouldn’t choose to live with them though.

In your travels to the U.S., have you found that audiences vary between here and Great Britain?
Not really. People are much the same the world over, I’ve found. The US and Britain are in some ways the hardest because we both apparently speak the same language! But the devil is often in the interpretational detail.

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