Significant People: Alan Ayckbourn - The Director

This article was first published in 2021 in the SJT Circular Newsletter.

Alan Ayckbourn - The Director

by Simon Murgatroyd

This summer (2021) marks the 60th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn’s professional directorial debut at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1961.

It is now a given that there are two strands to Alan Ayckbourn’s professional life - playwriting and directing - and he has frequently noted that during much of his career he considered himself a director first and a playwright second, as so much of his time was spent directing.

Yet, most of us still consider Alan Ayckbourn first and foremost a playwright and don’t really stop to consider how important his directing career is.

Nor the impact it has had on this company.

On the 60th anniversary, I thought I might delve into the facts and figures and dazzle you with statistics with just how significant Alan Ayckbourn has been, not just as a playwright and Artistic Director, but also as the pre-eminent director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre over the decades.

Alan joined Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre in 1957 as an actor and began playwriting in 1959; subsequently - as of 2021 - he has written 85 plays of which 81 have premiered at the SJT in its various incarnations. There’s also been the premieres of a substantial number of other works such as revues and children’s shows.

Alan considers his directing career began almost simultaneously with his playwriting - in reality, there’s a couple of years gap. But on 29 June 1961, Alan made his debut as a director with Patrick Hamilton’s famed Victorian thriller

It was well received by audiences and critics and vindicated Stephen Joseph’s decision to encourage Alan to direct and to move away from acting. Stephen, Alan has said, knew that a taste for directing would put paid to his acting career and, of course, it did.

That he embraced this new direction is clear from the fact that between June 1961 and August 1962 when he left Scarborough to help found the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, Alan still managed to direct six productions - as well as act in 13 productions.

When Alan returned to Scarborough as Director of Productions between 1969 and 1970, his directing career kicked into top gear and by the time he became Artistic Director during 1972, he would be a phenomenal directorial force at the SJT over the years to come.

Consider this, during the 21 years the company was based at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, there were 154 productions. Of these, Alan directed 39 despite the fact he was only actively directing during nine of those years.

In 1976, Alan oversaw the company’s move to its second home at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round (colloquially called Westwood) and at this point, it really becomes clear just how Alan’s contribution as a director matters to the company.

Over the next 20 years, he would direct 110 productions at Westwood, that’s a (rounded-up) average of six productions a year! In context, there were 240 productions at Westwood between 1976 and 1996, so Alan directed 46% of all productions.

That’s in addition to running the company, writing new plays, directing his work in London as well as taking a two year sabbatical from Scarborough to work at the National Theatre! And we mustn’t forget that a number of these productions were among the most ambitious that had ever been attempted by the company: flooding the auditorium for
Way Upstream, building a swimming pool for Man of the Moment, directing Intimate Exchanges’ many permutations over the course of a year, the two-part The Revengers’ Comedies and so on and so forth.

It’s a pretty remarkable couple of decades by anyone’s standards.

It also, to put it bluntly, saved the company a huge amount of money during those years. Although it’s not generally well known, Alan never drew his wage as Artistic Director between 1972 and 2009 and - as seen - he took on the brunt of directing duties for the company. By doing this, he was undoubtedly helping the company survive through its more difficult periods by both not being paid and not having to hire directors.

In 1996, the company moved to its present home, the SJT, where Alan was Artistic Director until 2009. We’ve been here for 25 years now and even though Alan substantially reduced his workload following his stroke in 2006, he has still directed 84 plays at the SJT which equates to a third of productions staged in this building to the present day!

Since 1961, Alan has directed 232 productions with this company. As of this month, the company since 1955 has staged 644 productions...

That means Alan has directed in excess of a third of all plays since Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre opened in 1955. It’s an extraordinary figure, probably unmatched by any other director at a single venue in a regional theatre in the UK. To say that Alan has been dedicated to the SJT over the decades is something of an understatement.

And it’s not just been his own work. Alan has directed more than 80 productions in Scarborough by authors as diverse as Chekhov and Ibsen, Arthur Miller and William Shakespeare, Ben Travers and Harold Pinter as well as prolifically tackling new writers such as Tim Firth and Stephen Mallatratt.

Indeed, much of the wide diversity of plays produced by the company over the decades by established writers was a result of Alan’s desire to direct specific plays and playwrights.

But how does he compare to other directors with the company? Well, that in itself is revealing. The most prolific director after Alan was Stephen Joseph himself who, between 1955 and 1965, directed 38 productions; pretty remarkable but still less than Alan himself directed at the Library Theatre.

Stephen is followed by Robin Herford (32 plays) and Malcolm Hebden (30 plays), who - alongside Connal Orton - are responsible for directing the bulk of non-Ayckbourn directed productions during the Westwood years.

So not only are we marking 60 years of Alan Ayckbourn directing, but six decades of a constant and important directorial presence at the SJT whose influence - even with all these statistics - is beyond measure.

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