Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This article by Alan Ayckbourn was published in the Scarborough Evening News on 25 November 1974. In context, at this time Alan had been Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough - founded in 1955 by Stephen Joseph - since 1972. Initially conceived as a seasonal theatre, the company had been expanding its work and in 1974 applied for a 40 week license for 1975; this was turned down by a County Council sub-committee which happened to be led by Coun. Erkki Lahteela - a key figure in an attempt to re-open Scarborough's Opera House Theatre. Faced with the prospect of his company being denied an extended license, Alan wrote this article for the Scarborough Evening News in which he threatened to leave the town where the majority of his work had premiered.

Ayckbourn Says He Will Quit If Library Theatre Is Refused Longer Season

If the North Yorkshire County Council's Libraries Committee has its way there will be no short-term hope of a repertory company based in Scarborough and the Library Theatre's artistic director, playwright Alan Ayckbourn, will be compelled to leave the town.

On Friday the committee rejected the recommendation of a sub-committee for a 40-week season for the
Library Theatre from May until the following January. The recommendation it will make to the County Policy and Resources Committee In February is that the application should be turned down.

In a last-ditch attempt to resolve the situation, Mr. Ayckbourn has broken his silence over the Opera House debate. He has put forward a scheme to buy the Opera House and to build a permanent viable theatre on the site. Alan Ayckbourn, recently described by the Guardian as being "loyal to Yorkshire, though born in London", has bought a house in Scarborough. His success regularly provides the town with new and popular entertainment and with many thousands of pounds worth of publicity. In a statement to the Evening News Mr. Ayckbourn said:

"As artistic director of the Scarborough Library Theatre in the Round, I do feel bound to comment upon the recent decision by the North Yorkshire County Libraries Committee to reject our application for the use of two of the rooms on the first floor of the Scarborough Public Library. It has been planned, had permission been granted, to extend our season beyond the normal mid-September closing date and to play six performances, four days a week, until the end of January 1976.

"I believe that, as a result of the decision, there will be several repercussions. First, Scarborough has been denied, unless other premises can be found for us, any chance of having its own permanent repertory company based in the town. Secondly, and again this depends on whether the company can find some alternative way of enlarging its activities, It will mean, regretfully, my own departure from Scarborough.

"To elaborate upon the first point. Nobody can have been unaware of the so-called dispute between the Opera House Preservation Society and the Scarborough Theatre Trust. I say so-called because, to date, there has been little or no comment made by the Scarborough Theatre Trust itself concerning the Issue. I would like to make It clear that the comments which I am making here are purely personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the trust Itself.

"It Is with great reluctance that I feel I have to comment on the projected Opera House scheme at all. Speaking as one who relies for his living upon keeping theatres open, it would never be my wish to close one unless I felt, as in the case of the Opera House, that the building itself was so archaic in size, so uneconomical to run, and so lacking in any worthwhile features as a theatre.

"Of course It would be lovely to restore It as a museum to Scarborough's grander theatrical days. No doubt, if enough waste paper Is collected and enough whist drives held, the total needed to restore it could be reached. Yet, so far, no-one seems to have made any reference as to how much it Is going to cost to run this theatre, supposing that the society do, as they state, intend to run It as a permanent repertory company.

"On the contrary, I've even heard mention optimistic talk of profits being made and of there being no need for subsidies either at Government or local level. Were they to achieve this, it would make the Opera House virtually the only straight theatre in Europe to have done so.

"Taking a theatre of equivalent size, the Theatre Royal, York. In 1971-2, according to official Arts Council figures, York received £39,000 from the Arts Council itself and £11,000 from the local authority In revenue grants. At today's figures, I would suggest that the Opera House, when it opened, if it opened, would be asking in the region of £76,000 per annum. For myself, it Is not a sum I would care to try to raise In today's financial climate.

"It should be apparent from this that the much-advertised and oft-extended Invitation to join forces with them holds little attraction for the Library Theatre. Rather, by way of a change, I would like to reverse the Invitation and ask them to join us. We, after all, have been proven to work, have a considerable national reputation, and are already, within the limits of our grant, economically afloat. I would happily accept all the funds so far raised by the Opera House, purchase and demolish their outmoded playhouse, and build in Its place a sensibly scaled theatre that Scarborough could enjoy and afford to run. Certainly, this is the only way It will ever be seen to operate In legitimate theatre terms.

"Instead, we are faced with the sad fact that the North Yorkshire County Libraries Committee, by a majority vole, the most vociferous of whom was apparently the chairman of the Opera House Preservation Society [Coun. Erkki Lahteela], has decided to deny us the use of the Library next winter. This despite our assurances that no organisation with existing claims on the rooms would be inconvenienced; that to aid this we would transfer the theatre to the smaller and commercially and artistically less-viable Lecture Room rather than the Concert Room; that we would clear the small lecture room entirely once a week in order to make room for other activities; that we would guarantee never to announce our programmes more than four weeks In advance In case the rooms were needed for sudden, unexpected meetings; and that we would further plan our season to suit all Scarborough amateur dramatic societies who wish to make use of the theatre facilities.

"It was reported that at Friday's meeting of the Libraries Committee County Councillor Lahteela said he felt that If the Library Theatre wanted Increased use of the premises it should apply for other bookings, like other parties.

As chairman of an organisation with a declared aim of starting a professional theatre of its own, the councillor must surely be aware that professional theatre revenue giants are prepared at least a year in advance, and that it is difficult to run a professional theatre company who might be allowed to book a room on alternate Tuesdays.

"Councillor Lahteela also referred to us as what is in effect a private company. I suppose it depends on the use of the word 'private'. We are at present subsidised by the Arts Council to the tune of some £12,000 to £16,000 per annum of Government money, besides small local grants as well. Perhaps the councillor considers that the Opera House, which would be spending considerably more public money, would be necessarily more public.

"Turning to the second and more personal point, I have, perhaps wrongly, never cared to sell either the company or myself as vigorously as I should. The Library Theatre company's recent record in increased audience attendance, in percentage presentation of new plays, and In sheer volume of national reputation in relation to Its size and scale of operation Is unequalled anywhere In Britain. Without being over-modest, my own contribution has helped this. I am, I am glad to say, commercially one of the most successful playwrights In England.
[1] Moreover, there is scarcely a country In the world, save a few dogged Iron Curtain stalwarts, which has not, at one time or another, had a theatre with a programme with 'Scarborough' written on It.

"What we were attempting to do when we applied for extended use of the Library was not, as some would have you believe, to force all the smaller societies of Scarborough out of the Library, but rather to add to what was already there. We were attempting to become a part of Scarborough life and a little more than a three-month sideshow for visitors. It is something I would dearly love to establish after so many years associated with the town, and before finally quitting I shall assist In a search for alternative semi-permanent accommodation.

"But If we are to operate next year as we originally planned, we have only weeks, and not months, to find and convert somewhere. Revenue grants, as I have said, are made up long In advance.

"People often ask me what Is there In it for you - presumably meaning the company and myself. The answer Is that, financially, frankly nothing. I know that altruism is extraordinarily unfashionable these days, but what we really hope to get out of it is the chance to continue and develop our work In Scarborough amongst Scarborough people, both of whom we happen to like. It would be nice to hear that, in spite of the views of Councillor Lahteela and the North Yorkshire County Libraries Committee, Scarborough likes us enough to want us to stay."

Website Notes:
[1] At the time Alan Ayckbourn was, inarguably, one of the most famous living playwrights in the country. He had four plays currently running simultaneously in the West End, his work was performed in repertory companies throughout the country. He had also in 1974 alone been the subject of a major BBC documentary, appeared on BBC Radio's
Desert Island Discs and had major features in The Guardian, The Times, the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail and Cosmopolitan magazine.

Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.