Don Bauder 5:38 p.m., May 20
At last count, Sir Alan Ayckbourn had written 75 plays. That's an average of almost two a year since he switched from actor to writer in the late 1950s. So how does one of the world's most prolific playwrights pen Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, and The Life of Riley (currently at the Old Globe) with such speed and clarity? The first answer: publish or perish. To keep his company, the Scarborough Library Theatre, alive, he has had to. He often announced a new play for an upcoming season before writing a word. The second answer: he plans as much as he possibly can, and then gets out of the way. He takes notes, makes diagrams, envisions arcs and structures ("much too rough," he says, "for anyone to reconstruct the play if he'd been run over by a bus"). He improvises bits of dialogue, usually out loud. He listens, refuses to analyze, dreams. As the deadline nears, he becomes "vague and abstracted," writes Christine Ayckbourn, his first wife. "He would pour salt over the cornflakes." Then, with the egg-timer ticking louder, he sits at his desk and dashes out a rough draft in long hand. "The writing often flows," says Christine, "from pencil to pad with very few crossings out or alteration, percolator bubbling on the stove...until dawn, when he would collapse into bed for a long, deep sleep." Ayckbourn wrote the first draft of Taking Steps in three days. When people hear about this process, they assume that plays write themselves. "They do not," Ayckbourn warns his students: "the writer has to be in charge of the material." The characters are in his head, he adds, not in their own. For some playwrights, they might magically show up and write their own lines, but not for Ayckbourn, who stresses craft over mysticism. He has two other advantages: he's internalized composing so completely it's a part of who he is; and he knows that play-writing means play re-writing. Once he has "the whole story on paper," he fine tunes relentlessly.