Significant People: Alan Ayckbourn - A Brief History

This article was first published in the book Towards Ayckbournia in Germany (Wissenschaflicher Verlag Trier, 2019).

Burnt Toast: A Brief History of Alan Ayckbourn

by Simon Murgatroyd

As Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist for the past dozen years, I’m frequently asked if I can reveal something about Alan Ayckbourn that is not widely known.

‘Burnt toast’ is my usual response.

If one can - or should - associate a smell with a playwright whose achievements are little short of momentous, it is the smell of carbonised bread. As I know of no-one else who has their wholemeal lightly incinerated, this I associate most with Alan.

Which may sound facile of someone held in such high regard across the theatrical spectrum, whose achievements and awards are profuse to say the least. But it reflects the playwright I know, who chooses to stay out of the spotlight and lives an understated and quiet life on the windswept northeast coast of England in a provincial seaside resort, where he has enjoyed relative anonymity since arriving in the town for the first time in 1957.

This is my story of Alan Ayckbourn and Scarborough, how he works and how this has changed over the decades. For Scarborough, its world famous theatre-in-the-round and the home where he lives and works are as much a part of Alan’s story as he is. But first allow me to introduce myself. I am Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist and have been recording, cataloguing and disseminating information about Alan Ayckbourn since 2005 and running the playwright’s official website ( since 2001. I’m not sure how many living - or deceased - playwrights have their own dedicated Archivist, but I can’t imagine the circle is a particularly wide one.

I write this in the Eyrie, as it’s dubbed, in Alan Ayckbourn’s house situated in Scarborough’s old town. My view from the top floor is glorious and takes in the harbour and the South Bay where the winter tides crash against the sea-wall. It is a view I know Alan himself has appreciated many times as, appropriately, I sit in the stream of history. Once Alan’s tiny sitting room, later his recording studio, now an Archivist’s office which documents what has gone before.

The house itself is a testament to Alan’s history. Before Alan owned it, it was the home of Stephen Joseph, the British theatrical pioneer who re-introduced theatre-in-the-round into English theatre during the 1950s and who had a profound influence and impact on Alan’s life. There is no way to evaluate Alan Ayckbourn’s achievements without being aware of how important this father figure is to him. They met when Alan was 18 and Stephen 36 and quickly forged a bond which Alan still draws upon more than forty years after Stephen’s untimely death. It was Stephen who commissioned Alan’s first play and encouraged him to write. It was Stephen who gave Alan his first professional directing job and taught him the foundations of theatre which paved the way for Alan’s extraordinary career.

Stephen died in 1967 at the tragically young age of 46. Five years later Alan would assume responsibility for the theatre Stephen had created in Scarborough, becoming Artistic Director of Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre (now, two homes later, the Stephen Joseph Theatre or, colloquially, the SJT) and moved into the former home of his mentor. It is a house steeped in theatre history whose walls have witnessed actors, writer and directors of much note pass through.

And mid-morning, most days, the smell of burnt toast wafts up the stairs and through the house.

Here Alan has written more than sixty plays and in that, little has changed. During the 1970s and 1980s, he became famous for his writing pattern from his many interviews. A title would be plucked from his mind several months before the play’s premiere, generally as obtuse as possible given there was no accompanying play. This would be used to promote the play, which would generally go into rehearsal two to three weeks prior to the opening night. A month prior to the first performance, Alan would notoriously realise now would be a good time to write the actual play and the ensuing frenzy would see him write, frequently at night, the play in long-hand over just several days. This would then be dictated to his partner - now wife - Heather Stoney, typing with Alan correcting and editing as he spoke.

They would then duplicate and bind the scripts before - generally - delivering them to the actors the day, occasionally the night, before rehearsals began. Alan has always been a great advocate for deadlines and demonstrating how motivational they can be!

During the 1980s, that began to change. Always an early adopter, he moved onto a word-processor midway through writing
A Chorus Of Disapproval during April 1984 - we know this with such precision as the Ayckbourn Archive contains the first draft of the first act in long-hand pencil, the second act in daisy-wheel printed technological glory. Two years later, Alan would take a sabbatical from Scarborough as a company director for the National Theatre, which would also affect his writing pattern. Having to submit his new play for approval to Peter Hall, Artistic Director of the National, Alan wrote A Small Family Business a year in advance; it obviously does not do to write to the latest possible deadline for the National. Subsequently, Alan began to write his play weeks and, later, months in advance rather than at the last minute. If nothing else, it offered the SJT’s marketing department the opportunity to promote an actual play as opposed to a nebulous title.

In 2009, Alan retired as Artistic Director of the SJT and his schedule opened up considerably. Today, he generally writes during the autumn for the following summer, occasionally the spring for the following year. He takes slightly longer to write a script since his stroke in 2006, but then doesn’t have the imminent deadline of a rehearsal to curtail his writing. He was a surprisingly speedy dedicated two-finger typist but today has come full circle, once again dictating the plays but now straight to a laptop before editing it on one of his two PCs - the other being for gaming and emails.

The technology has changed but not so much the manner. Throughout his writing career, there have been tales of how Alan would shut himself away for a designated writing period (the first week of which he admits he would do anything but write) and during this, he was out-of-bounds. No visitors, no phone-calls, no disturbances. Locked away in solitude, occasionally straying out for food. No wonder during much of his career, Alan has spoken of how much he loathed the writing process due to it being a singularly lonely period. Today, he speaks more kindly of it and might - at times - even admit he enjoys writing. And whilst his study might not be quite as inviolable as it was, everyone in the house knows when ‘Alan is writing.’

It is a system which patently works. In 2019, Alan Ayckbourn celebrated both his 80th birthday and the 60th anniversary of his playwriting debut:
The Square Cat in 1959. During those six decades he has written - take a breath - 83 full-length plays; a phenomenal record and let us make no mistake, no matter your opinion of Ayckbourn as a writer, it is indisputable there are classics of 20th century British theatre in the canon. No serious theatre historian is ever going to argue that Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests (and, arguably, a substantive number of other plays) are not essential texts of the period.

Back in the Eyrie, details of all these plays are recorded for posterity in the Archive and on Alan’s website, of which I am creator and curator. What began in 2001 as a 25 page resource guide for fellow students studying Ayckbourn has evolved beyond all expectations. It currently runs to 3,500 pages dedicated to the playwright and his plays and is constantly expanding. I’m informed it is the largest single website dedicated to a living playwright in existence and, in all likelihood, only Shakespeare has larger online resources. The website inspires enquiries from around the world concerning Alan’s career and plays. If only one thing constantly surprises me with this dream job, it is the extraordinary international appeal of Alan’s work. From South America to Japan, Australia to Russia, constantly throughout North America and Europe - not least Germany, the earliest and most vocal adopter of Alan’s work outside the UK - the sheer breadth of the plays’ appeal is astonishing. But then, as the playwright has frequently noted, his themes are universal not just parochially British. Dysfunctional families and relationships are identifiable wherever we may wander in the world.

I’m also reminded of the Eyrie’s past life as a recording studio. If burnt toast hasn’t satisfactorily revealed something little known about Alan, then perhaps this is more to your taste. Alan is a playwright and director, we all know this. Many readers may also know he was a professional actor and stage manager. The more dedicated fan may be aware he was a Radio Drama Producer at the BBC for five years. But very few resources or authors have ever highlighted Alan’s passion for sound design, which he has been involved with practically as long as he has been writing. It is an interest he shared with Stephen Joseph as theatre began to embrace the cutting-edge platform of magnetic tape during the 1950s and - no doubt nurtured by his time working on radio - sound design has woven its way throughout the entirety of Alan’s sixty-odd years in theatre. One needs only look at his play
Mr Whatnot (1963) to appreciate his passion for the medium.

It is not widely known but Alan Ayckbourn has created dozens of uncredited cameos in his plays, providing the dialogue for numerous off-stage characters - even occasional animals. The foul-mouthed Arthur in the original and New York productions of
Private Fears In Public Places was Alan. Policemen, television presenters, station announcers, he has played them all. The sharp-eared amongst us spot them whilst most in the audience remain oblivious.

This interest also reflects his love of technology and gadgets - and marks the inexorable momentum of technological progress. When I moved into the Eyrie, I was competing for space with mini-disc recorders and an ancient revox machine, digital samplers and keyboards, tape-reels piled alongside LPs, floppy discs and video cassettes. Alan still records sound-plots for all his productions to this day, but arguably a bit of the technological romance - and effort - has gone. Where once an entire room was dedicated to creating soundscapes, today Alan doesn’t even have to move from his writing desk achieving everything on a Mac and an iPad. This is a side of Alan rarely recognised, which also reflects his formative years in regional rep theatres working in stage management.

Once past the writing - and recording - phase, the most essential element comes into play: the actors. In recent years, the audition process has altered both because of circumstance - Alan’s stroke and stepping down as Artistic Director of the SJT - and technology - the rise of audition videos - leading to Scarborough becoming more prominent in the process. Whereas Alan once would have decamped to London for several days (and still does when necessary) with his casting director Sarah Hughes, now prospective actors are often vetted via video and invited up to Scarborough to audition.

Alan’s auditions have always been slightly unusual as they are frequently acted with the author - perhaps the one remaining nod back to his early acting career. Many actors have spoken of memorable auditions opposite Alan - one fondly recalls how when auditioning for
A Brief History of Women (2017), practically the entire play was read with Alan delivering the 20 other male and female roles!

Auditions, of course, lead to rehearsals and here is where Alan Ayckbourn has always spoken of being most happy, in the rehearsal room with a company of actors. Generally speaking, each year a new company will feature a ratio of 80% actors he has worked with previously with 20% being new to Alan and, frequently, Scarborough. By not surrounding himself purely with people he knows, he feels this prevents himself becoming too comfortable with the rehearsal process.

It has always been a misnomer that Alan Ayckbourn is primarily a writer - for the majority of his professional career, he has considered himself a director first and playwright second and he has directed far more productions than he has written plays. Both he and those he works with talk about the rehearsal experience as the time when Alan is at his most content.

"The rehearsal is the best time, It’s invigorating. My happiest moments are spent with groups of actors that I trust and enjoy the company of, working on a script of mine that I’m excited about and watching it breathe and live and come to life. It’s like the best of all worlds."

Rehearsals today take place in Alan’s own rehearsal room in a former school attached to his house - prior to his stroke they took place within the SJT (or the equivalent rehearsal spaces in its precursors), but now four weeks of rehearsals take place at his ‘house’ before shifting to the theatre for technical week.

The location of rehearsals may have changed but the process remains largely the same as it ever did - rehearsal periods may have been shorter and Alan more mobile, but essentially little else has changed. The process begins with an open reading of the play at the SJT to which all staff are invited to hear and become familiar with the play. The first couple of days are spent blocking as Alan likes to get the play on its feet as quickly as possible. He doesn’t impose a deadline for actors to learn their lines but encourages the company to be off the book (script) as quickly as possible.

Rehearsals are informal and light, gently supervised by Alan who has likened himself to a sheepdog guiding the actors to where they need to be! He considers one of the most important notes he has ever been given was from Stephen Joseph when he enquired about what a director actually did with Stephen responding “a director's job is to form an atmosphere in which the actors feel free to create.” Easy enough in theory, not so easy in practise.

As a result, Alan is known as a director who does not confront or patronise actors but who guides, most frequently by directorial anecdote. Alan’s notes often take the form of an anecdote drawn from his own career and experiences, inevitably amusing and practically always containing what he is looking for in a character for those alert enough to notice. Alan is not one to spend a week digging into the characters exploring motivations, he prefers actors to discover the characters through the play; there, he firmly believes, resides all the information an actor needs to find the character for themselves.

Come technical week and Alan is back at the SJT, where he was Artistic Director for 37 years and began both his professional writing and directing careers. His technical rehearsals are infamous for efficiency and speed - they do not drag on for days. He works primarily with people he trusts and is familiar with - for lighting, the vast majority of his plays lit by the late Mick Hughes or Jason Taylor, designs generally by an old friend Roger Glossop, Michael Holt or, latterly, Kevin Jenkins. Alan attracts a fierce loyalty from those who have worked with him and the overwhelming fondness of which he is spoken has always struck me as a rarity in theatre. He inspires loyalty and passion and shows confidence and belief in those he chooses to work with; I am in no way alone in saying Alan spotted potential in myself I was unaware of and he both nurtured and encouraged my work in and love of theatre. I know there are many other people in theatre today who share that experience.

Alan has frequently commented his saddest moments are, ironically, when the play arrives on stage and the audiences flock in. For from that moment, the play is no longer his but the actors and, ultimately, the audience. His involvement quickly recedes and he speaks of an emptiness immediately following a show opening with no rehearsals to attend and not yet being at a place where he can begin writing again. Throughout the production period he will stay in contact with the company but after an intense period of rehearsal - generally three months during the summer at Scarborough - it’s time to move on.

In the past - when Artistic Director of the SJT - there would be other productions to direct or the day-to-day running of the theatre. Now, increasingly, once the season ends and the short in-the-round tours are done by the end of October, Alan will return to writing - be it a new play or pulling the rug out from under himself to write something such as his epic prose work
The Divide.

The normal routine of the day resumes and with it, come mid-morning, once more the smell of burnt toast drifting up the stairwells from the kitchen right up to the Eyrie.

It may be just breakfast to Alan and, for anyone else, a silly thing to notice, but it is a comfort and reminder to me. For every day that I sit in my Eyrie surrounded by history as I write and archive, I am reminded how lucky I am to be working with not only such a significant figure in British theatre but the most inspirational man I have ever met.

And he’s downstairs. Enjoying his burnt toast.

Simon Murgatroyd MA is Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist and the creator and curator of the playwright’s official website. He has worked for Alan since 2005 and has written extensively about the playwright including the book Unseen Ayckbourn.

Article by and copyright of Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.