Alan Ayckbourn on My Wonderful Day
by William Steinberger
Alan Ayckbourn is one of the most prolific playwrights at work today. His output, however, extends far beyond the seventy-three plays he has authored. He is also a frequent essayist and interviewee on the subject of his work.
Ayckbourn has spoken at length about how he sees My Wonderful Day unfolding from Winnie’s perspective. The play was originally titled “Winnie’s Wonderful Day.” The change in title reflects Winnie’s role as first person viewer. The play is a children’s view of the adult world. “Adults drift away and you hear them talking in a corner,” he told the Yorkshire Post, “but you stay with [Winnie].” Interestingly, Ayckbourn’s official website notes that “prior to My Wonderful Day, children are generally heard but not seen in Alan’s plays.” As we learn about the adults that inhabit My Wonderful Day, “Winnie just observes, writes and makes us wonder: who are the children?”
Ayckbourn also sees Winnie in some ways as the most commonsensical and mature character in the play. “Her mother is a dreamer…and she says they’ll go back to the land of sunshine and you think, ‘C’mon mum get real.’” To The Press, he described, “By the age of eight or nine, you’re beginning to sort your parents out.” He further observed, “I wanted the child, Winnie, to be quite young. Young enough that the adults would misread her."
The play is very personal to Ayckbourn. He describes himself as a child who “sat in the corners of rooms, offices or on occasion hairdressers” observing his mother’s interactions. Like Winnie on her wonderful day, Ayckbourn writes that “during the most formative years of my early childhood I was what they termed an ‘only’ who spent a lot of the time in the company of adults.” The young Ayckbourn also grew up in a single-parent household as his father left his mother shortly following Alan’s birth. As he wrote in the program of his world premiere production of the play, “Watching my own grandchildren today as they observe, absorb and imitate the behaviour of adults around them, their elders and so called betters, I am transported back half a century. For of course since time began, children crouched on the floors of caves, ears and eyes little recorders and video cameras.”
Prior to the US Premiere of My Wonderful Day, Ayckbourn described to Time Out New York how the play takes his work into new directions. “My Wonderful Day is actually a direct descendant of one we did here [in New York] called Private Fears in Public Places, which is when I started to explore the space between words. What you learn is that you’ve been overwriting for most of your life. If you are determined to write for actors, leave them something to do! I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Harold Pinter started to write shorter plays later in his life. And Beckett. So this is pretty sparse, this script.”
To the Cambridge Agenda he noted that, “it explores space and silence. It’s allowed to freefall, really, and this is something I’m developing very much these days. I want to explore – I know it sounds a bit of a cliché – the silence between the words.” Actress Ayesha Antoine, who played Winnie in the world premiere, said that “Alan’s best note to me was, ‘Hold your nerve during the silences. Don’t rush it; don’t do too much; don’t feel like you have to over-explain anything in terms of your reactions. Trust yourself that any little thing you do we are interested in.’”
Always, though, Ayckbourn’s analysis of My Wonderful Day returns the centrality of Winnie’s eyes and the impact adults’ actions have on children. The play, he says, is “a children’s viewpoint of the adult world. My theory being that children from a very early age listen and record what they hear and play back what they hear later in life. She’s [Winnie] probably the most grown up in the whole play. It’s adult dreams and disappointments as seen through a child’s eyes… I wanted the audience to imagine that they were a child in a house of adults, not very child-friendly adults.”
Photo (c) Tony Bartholomew.