Interview: Over 21 (July 1977)

This article by Alan Ayckbourn recalls his first professional acting job with Sir Donald Wolfit.

My First Job

by Alan Ayckbourn

I left school on a Friday and landed a job the following Monday - £3 a week as an ASM with Sir Donald Wolfit in Edinburgh. The main reason he employed me was that I'd been in the School Cadet Corps and could endure long periods on my feet without fainting. Part of the job, you see, entailed playing a silent Spanish soldier and the last guy had kept keeling over. So I'd stand on-stage for an hour watching the great man in action while he simultaneously addressed the audience and flung obscene comments about them upstage. The nicest thing I ever heard him say was 'slow-witted fools'; the rest is unprintable.

That was my brutal initiation into the theatre. And absolutely marvellous it was too. No matter if I was only earning £3 a week. I was like someone in love. If I'd had any doubts about making the theatre my career, being in Edinburgh at festival time with a man like Wolfit would have totally dispelled them. One minute there'd been this strict school timetable; the next I was out in the big wide world. I don't think I ate for days because no one told me to take a lunch break.

Most of the time, though, I spent polishing the furniture. He gave me lots of good advice like, 'Drink the Guinness before the show and the gin afterwards'. All sheer magic to me, the closest thing to working with Irving.

"I must say though that I thought all theatre must be like that. When I went from there to Worthing and Leatherhead and Oxford and, finally, Scarborough, I really got quite a shock to discover that some people in it were normal after all. But as a first job, it really fired and inspired me. At that stage, I thought I was going to be an
actor. Writing was just a means of propagating myself - coming up with dishy parts for myself to star in. Then it was time to get out - I was spoiling the plays."

Website Notes:
[1] David Irving and Donald Wolfit were two of the great Actor-Managers in British theatre.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. 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.