Theatre Myths - Alan Ayckbourn Leaves The SJT

This section of the website features articles by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd concerning historical myths about the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

The Myth: When Alan Ayckbourn took a two year sabbatical from the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round between 1986 and 1988, he had no intention of returning to the theatre.

True or False: False. He came back in 1988 after all!

The Explanation: This story should be labelled as journalistic invention - or reinterpretation of actual facts. It originated in November 1986 when Michael Coveney reported in the Financial Times that: "There have been differences of opinion with Alan Ayckbourn's home town of Scarborough and he is sinking anchor at the National Theatre and running his own company." This was then interpreted as Alan Ayckbourn would not return to Scarborough after his two year sabbatical had ended and he would remain in London.

However, the original article by Michael Coveney conflated two entirely un-related issues and made a connection - and a story - where there was none.

Alan announced in June 1985 that he was to take a two-year sabbatical from Scarborough to work as a company director at the National Theatre. He had been offered this role in 1984 by the NT's Artistic Director Peter Hall and, after much discussion, Alan agreed to go to the National Theatre as he felt Peter Hall was offering him a very tempting and unique opportunity. He also hoped it would show the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round was not dependent on him and could survive in its own two feet. Although he remained Artistic Director during the sabbatical, the day-to-day running was given to Robin Herford, who was appointed co-Artistic Director.

So the "sinking anchor at the National Theatre" was a 16 month old story re-packaged to tie in with some more recent news. The "differences of opinion" related to the news in September 1986 that Scarborough Town Council had recommended Alan Ayckbourn be made a Freeman of the Borough; this led to some criticism from a minority of councillors that Alan was being rewarded when he had financially benefitted from running the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. Upset by the allegation, Alan wrote a published letter revealing - for the first time - he had never drawn a wage from the theatre since 1962, had personally donated more than £70,000 to the company and that 1% of all his West End royalties also went straight to the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.

Michael Coveney's article linked two events which were entirely unrelated, but which were then picked up by other publications and led to a wider perception - and the myth - Alan was not returning to Scarborough.

Now, aside from the fact the original story was inaccurate, the simple rebuttal to this is Alan Ayckbourn himself. He has always said it was nonsense and that he was always going to return to Scarborough in 1988 and that there was no truth whatsoever to the story.

It's also worth considering that Alan Ayckbourn made it very clear in published interviews prior to leaving that he would return to Scarborough in 1988, a point given extra weight as he remained Artistic Director throughout his sabbatical period and is credited as such in every Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round programme during his sabbatical.

Alan had also committed himself in early 1986 to writing and directing a new play in Scarborough,
Henceforward..., for the 1987 season. Documentation in the Ayckbourn Archive also shows he was making plans for the 1988 summer season during early 1987 whilst still at the National Theatre. Neither of which suggests he intended to walk away from Scarborough.

Possibly as a riposte to Coveney's statement, Alan made it clear in the February 1987 issue of
Plays International his full intentions: "I have every intention of returning to Scarborough in 1988 and indeed we are already beginning to think of what will be in the repertoire there then."

No substantive evidence was ever offered that Alan had remotely considered not returning to Scarborough and the story was fabricated from two entirely unrelated events. Journalistic invention - or mischief making - at its finest.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.