Interview: Daily Telegraph (25 March 1988)

This interview saw two of the UK's most popular living dramatists coming together just as Alan Ayckbourn was ending his two year sabbatical at the National Theatre to return to his home theatre of the Stephen Joseph In The Round, Scarborough.

Alan Bennett Interviews Alan Ayckbourn: Enter Ayckbourn

by Alan Bennett

A would-be actor named Alan Ayckbourn first arrived 31 years ago in a Yorkshire seaside town on a summer day with a return rail ticket clutched firmly in his fist.

Next month the writer, whose plays are more frequently performed than those of William Shakespeare, returns to his beloved Scarborough, from which he has just had a two-year sabbatical, to direct an exciting 1988 season of plays at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round.

Ayckbourn is emerging from "monastic seclusion" after writing another play. He is ready to take in great gulps of Scarborough air. He says: "I am excited… even more excited than I was all those years ago. My first glimpse of Scarborough was as an 18-year-old stage manager whose ambition was to act.

"I had little interest in writing and none at all in directing. That summer season was a 12-week job as a space filler until something better came along - a stepping-stone to bigger and brighter lights.

"After all, a season of unknown plays, by unknown writers performed by totally unknown, underpaid actors, all financed by a man who had to sell his motor-cycle to pay our salaries, hardly seemed all that promising.

''Even our venue, a room on the first floor of the public library - with its embossed wallpaper, polished parquet flooring and a single 15-amp plug, hardly seemed the ambience in which great drama could be made.

"Even today, while some recall theatre from the whiff of greasepaint, for me it has always been the smell of floor-wax, damp umbrellas and old library books.

"Audiences, naturally, were small and suspicious. Three and sixpence after all was a lot to pay for a theatre with no curtain and a disinclination to abide by tradition and play the National Anthem before every performance. We never performed to no-one but we were, at one sad matinee, reduced to an audience of two.

"Thirty years later, over 30 plays, one hundred productions, one change of theatre, heaven knows how many working colleagues, actors, technicians, stage managers later, one marriage, two children and one grandchild later, it all seems bewilderingly unplanned."

Ayckbourn was born in London in 1939. He left school at 17 on a Friday and went into the theatre the following Monday. He has been working in it ever since, variously as stage-manager, sound technician, lighting technician, scene painter, prop maker,
actor, writer and director.

He was a founder member of the original Vic Theatre Company in Stoke-on-Trent and has been
artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round at Scarborough since 1970 [2], the theatre named after his mentor who first encouraged him to write.

Of his 34 plays, 31
[3] have received their productions at this theatre and more than 20 have subsequently been produced either in the West End or at the National Theatre. They have been translated into 24 languages and have been performed on virtually every continent, on stage and television, receiving a host of national and international awards.

It was
Stephen Joseph, son of Hermione Gingold and Michael Joseph, the publisher, who first brought theatre in the round to the public library in Scarborough in 1955. It was a daring experiment. Having just returned from the United States and fired by what he had seen, Stephen proposed to stage a season of plays by unknown authors "in the round".

In those days, this strange and unlikely theatre was regarded along with its director with deep suspicion by the theatrical establishment. Proscenium theatre reigned supreme. The theatre in general expressed a bias towards a star system rather than Scarborough's small, permanent company.

Writers were creatures to be kept far away from theatres and certainly not encouraged to work with and live inside it as actors, stage-managers and box-office personnel. As a result of this new policy, one stage manager and aspiring actor, Alan Ayckbourn, wrote and his first play was produced.

In the early years, only summer seasons were possible at the library so to continue theatre in the round, Stephen had to take the company on tour.

In the autumn of 1955, he began a series of monthly Sunday night performances at the Mahatma Gandhi Hostel in London. Touring began in earnest the year after and by 1960 had become so extensive that it was possible for the company to work for nearly a full year. Today, the theatre in Scarborough still maintains what Stephen began.

In October, 1976, the company moved from the
library to new premises overlooking Valley Bridge. The Theatre in the Round has confirmed its innovative and extraordinary career with a series of Ayckbourn world premieres which defied theatrical convention.

Ayckbourn recalls his late teens. He says: "At 17, I decided to jack in schooling. A teacher at the school
[4] got me a job with Sir Donald Wolfit's company at the Edinburgh Festival - and I was off into a mad world.
"Imagine a gawky lad being involved with this incredible eccentric, Wolfit. One of my jobs was to fetch his gin and bottles of Guinness.

"I was acting in a play at Scarborough
[5]. It was bloody awful and I told the producer so. He said: 'If you can do a better job, get on with it.' Angrily I replied: 'Right, you're on.' I wrote a play about a pop star with me in the lead and it was put on." [6]

He had observed at close quarters his mother's literary prowess. "She was the uncrowned queen of the women's magazine market. I became used to seeing the family breadwinner working at a typewriter. Finally she bought me a small typewriter to keep me quiet. I banged out derivative high-action adventures.

"When Stephen Joseph thought of forming a company, London seemed hopeless economically and more by luck than judgment he heard about a building in this town on the east coast called Scarborough.
"I was one of the accidental pieces of dross that drifted in and was naturally encouraged by a man who believed everyone should write (although I wanted to act) and so the theatre grew.

"He had that ability which one tries to retain in Scarborough which is the ability to bring out talents people didn't know they had. Nearly everything I have done in London has been bench-tested in Scarborough. I am lucky to get such a cross-section of people coming up off the beaches. When the play gets to London, I already know it is going to work."

Scarborough has a love of Ayckbourn and cannot wait to welcome him back.

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn joined Stephen Joseph's Studio Theatre company based at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1957 aged 18.
[2] Alan Ayckbourn was appointed as Artistic Director of the Library Theatre - later the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round - in 1972, not 1970.
[3] Of the 34 plays written at the time, four actually did not receive their premiere in Scarborough:
Christmas V Mastermind (1962), Mr Whatnot (1963), Jeeves (1975) and A Small Family Business (1987).
[4] The teacher was the French master, Edgar Matthews, who was passionate about theatre. He is regarded by Alan as one of the most influential people in his life.
[5] This took place during the winter season at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1958. Unhappy with his role in David Campton’s
Ring Of Roses, Alan complained and the writing gauntlet was thrown down by Stephen Joseph.
[6] This play was
The Square Cat, Alan Ayckbourn's first play which premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 30 July 1959.

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.