Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview by Robin Stringer was published in the Daily Telegraph on 22 August 1986. It was written just prior to Alan Ayckbourn takin g a two-year sabbatical from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, to work at the National Theatre.

Ayckbourn's Reluctant Farewell To Scarborough

Ayckbourn supposedly began a two-year sabbatical in February from his job as director of productions at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, launch-pad for 29 of his 32 players into a rapturously receptive world.

But after 16 years in the job he is having difficulty staying away. Hardly had he left Scarborough before he was back directing a revival of his
Time and Time Again, which opened in May, and he has already promised to write a new play for the theatre next summer.

In between he will have transferred his
A Chorus of Disapproval from the National Theatre to the West End; directed his latest play, Woman in Mind, first seen at Scarborough last year, also for the West End; and as a director of a company at the National Theatre for a year starting in September, staged three more plays, including his own new A Small Family Business.

"My work levels are very high. I get a bit agitated if I am not doing something," he explains, adding that he will probably also do a platform show at the National with music by Paul Todd and "something for Peter Gill in the studio." "Some directors lie down for a year-and-a-half after they have directed a play absolutely exhausted. But I work on the principle that if you keep moving fast enough, they can never all quite get you."

Ayckbourn's rotund middle-age, blessed last month with a first grand-child, suggests a rather more sedentary lifestyle. His comfortable figure contrasts dramatically with the rangy 17-year-old Londoner who left Haileybury to serve Sir Donald Wolfit his gin and Guinness as a wide-eyed assistant stage manager.

Though he subsequently did eight years as an
actor, he found his mentor and his Scarborough base through the late Stephen Joseph, who was as passionate a believer in new plays as in theatre-in-the-round. From their Scarborough origins, Ayckbourn's richly-comic dissections of the South-Eastern English middle-classes that often expose tragic personal inadequacies, failings and voids have proved to have universal appeal. He is now translated into 24 languages.

He is a phenomenal playwright of great insight, prolific, a master craftsman of the theatre and successful both commercially and artistically, a combination the British find hard to credit. The clear-visioned Ayckbourn, feet still firmly on the ground, despite his wealth, purposely called himself director of productions rather than artistic director "because I know the British hate the word artistic."

His present break with Scarborough, if temporary, is a major departure in several senses, not least because it involves him in writing for a company other than Scarborough's.

"There was a feeling," he says, "that I needed Scarborough as much as Scarborough needed me. Neither is true. Both can survive without the other."

Conscious of the danger of falling into routine after 14 years [as Artistic Director], Ayckbourn felt he needed to go away to find a new surge of adrenalin. He wanted a rest from the administrative chores.

"It's nice to be in someone else's theatre where they empty the ashtrays" - and from the relentless challenge of planning next season. "I have survived at Scarborough by constantly surprising everybody a bit, but in the end you do things for the sake of surprising yourself, like cancelling first nights or something."

The National, with which he is not unfamiliar, will present new challenges. He will be attempting "to conquer the wastes of the Olivier" with his own play, which quite uncharacteristically he has written a year in advance, and will direct the farce
Tons of Money in the Lyttelton and Arthur Miller's tragedy A View From the Bridge, in the Cottesloe.

He has even had to submit his play for approval to Sir Peter Hall, the first he has submitted to anyone except himself as director of productions at Scarborough. Sir Peter duly accepted it in accordance with previous Scarborough practices. Knowing how eagerly actors and directors will "improve" a script, Ayckbourn has always taken protective action.

"You can get very badly treated as a dramatist unless you take firm control of your affairs as I have done and direct your own plays. If you don't fight for the commas, you find your sentences are gone."

At the National he will be in familiar company. Probably half his 20-strong troupe have previously worked with him in Scarborough and among the rest are such well-known Ayckbourn actors as Michael Gambon.

His departure from Scarborough has meant quite a traumatic assessment of the way in which the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, to give it its full title, is run. A joint artistic director, Robin Herford, had to be appointed and paid a proper salary, which came as a shock as Ayckbourn had been waiving his £80 a week. As he says: "Not every director is doing well with royalties from Finland".

Ayckbourn loves Scarborough. He has a home there as well as in London. But he has reservations. "Scarborough has that delicious but slightly depressing attitude that because it's in Scarborough, it cannot be very good. I got fed up with screaming, 'You've got a really first-rate theatre and you are going to lose it. People will not put money in if you don't want it'."

But the theatre has survived and this autumn will celebrate its 10th anniversary in its present auditorium and its 500,000th customer. Though it suffered from lack of school parties during the teachers' strike, having programmed the season to provide for them, the deficit is manageable. "What we lose at Scarborough, you lose on paper handkerchiefs at some theatres'," says Ayckbourn.

Though he does not like making promises for more than a year ahead, Ayckbourn does not envisage an end to his Scarborough connection.

"For preference, I would love to be associated with Scarborough because I think it is a very special place. It has grown up with me. It still carries the touch of Stephen Joseph who started it, and it still has the amazing capacity for putting on new plays because people expect new plays".

Website Notes:
[1] Although Alan may have preferred and occasionally used the title Director Of Productions, he was actually appointed to the role of Artistic Director at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1972.

Copyright: Daily Telegraph. 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.