Alan Ayckbourn & The Stephen Joseph TheatreAlan Ayckbourn is one of the world’s most popular and prolific professional playwrights. He has been associated with the Stephen Joseph Theatre since 1957 and was the company's Artistic Director between 1972 and 2009.
Alan Ayckbourn was born in Hampstead, London, on 12 April, 1939. His mother was Irene Maud Worley - better known as the novelist Mary James - and his father Horace Ayckbourn, lead violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Educated at Haileybury, Alan left school at the age of 17 to pursue a career in the theatre immediately employed as an acting stage manager for Sir Donald Wolf's company at the Edinburgh Festival for three weeks. He went on to work at theatres in Worthing, Leatherhead and Oxford, before being employed in 1957 as a stage manager and actor at the Library Theatre, Scarborough.
The Library Theatre's founder, Stephen Joseph, was both a revelation and a huge inspiration to the young man. Stephen became the single most influential mentor figure in Alan Ayckbourn's life and encouraged him to both write and direct; Alan’s first professional writing commission came about inadvertently when he complained about a role he was playing; Stephen threw down the gauntlet saying that if Alan wanted better roles, he should write one himself. The result was The Square Cat and the beginning of an extraordinary professional writing career.
Alan continued to act and write for the Library Theatre until 1962 when he was involved in the formation of the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, with Stephen Joseph and Peter Cheeseman. This was the country’s first permanent professional theatre-in-the-round venue and Alan premiered two plays there, Christmas V Mastermind and Mr Whatnot. The latter was his first play to transfer to London, the critical mauling of which led him to find work at the BBC in Leeds as a radio drama producer between 1965 and 1970.
Alan continued writing, though, and produced Meet My Father for the Library Theatre in 1965. This would be a turning point in his life. In 1967, the play - retitled Relatively Speaking - opened in the West End and was a phenomenal hit. In quick succession, plays such as How The Other Half Loves, Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests, established Alan Ayckbourn as one of the country’s most popular and successful playwrights. As of 2016, he has written 79 full length plays, more than half of which have transferred to either the West End or the National Theatre. At one point in 1975, he held the record for having the most professional productions being performed simultaneously in the West End (The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular and Absent Friends). His work has been translated into more than 35 languages and his plays are regularly performed throughout the world.
Stephen Joseph died in 1967 and Alan, alongside Ken Boden, Alfred Bradley and Rodney Wood, worked together to keep the Library Theatre alive. Although Alan was closely involved with the theatre during this period as a writer, Director and - in 1969 and 1970 - Director of Productions, he would not formally be appointed Artistic Director until 1972. He would hold the position until he retired from the role on 31 March 2009.
Between 1986 and 1988, Alan tool a two year sabbatical from the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round - although he remained Artistic Director with Robin Herford appointed co-Artistic Director and responsible for the day-to-day running of the theatre - and became a company director at the National Theatre; a period where he was recognised for his talents as a director as well as playwright.
Alan’s directing career was encouraged by Stephen Joseph and began in 1961 with a production of Gaslight at the Library Theatre. In 1963, he directed the world premiere of one of his own plays for the first time (Mr Whatnot) and since 1967 he has directed the world premieres of all his plays; since 1977, he has also directed all the West End premieres of his plays bar one. Alan has directed more than 300 productions since 1961 and is considered one of the world’s pre-eminent directors of in-the-round staging.
He is hugely committed to theatre-in-the-round, for which he has written the majority of his plays. It is always worth remembering that when he stages a play in London or they are performed in the proscenium arch, it is a step away from the author’s original intention. It has frequently been stated that the definitive production of an Alan Ayckbourn play is the premiere production in-the-round in Scarborough, where he has premiered all but four of his plays. Although he has avoided film, he is very proud of his association with the late French film director Alain Resnais, who directed three acclaimed and award-winning film adaptations of his work.
Alan Ayckbourn has received more than 35 awards and honours including two Oliviers, a Tony, two Molieres and Lifetime Achievement Awards from both the Variety Club of Great Britain and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. He was the 1992 Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University and is also the recipient of a Montblanc de la Culture Award for Europe for ‘establishing a thriving theatrical tradition in Scarborough and for his dedication and commitment to it’. In 2009, he was inducted into American Theater’s Hall of Fame and received the prestigious Society's Special Award at the Laurence Olivier Awards. The holder of a number of honorary degrees, he was appointed a CBE in 1987 and in 1997 was knighted for 'services to the theatre'.
In 2010, he received the prestigious Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. His plays have been regularly staged in America and more than 10 have been produced on Broadway with many Off-Broadway productions too. In 1975 he held the record for having the most plays simultaneously running on Broadway (The Norman Conquests and Absurd Person Singular). However, he would probably consider his greatest success in the States came in 2005, when he took his Scarborough company to the 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off Broadway festival to present Private Fears In Public Places. The month-long run was an unprecedented success receiving great acclaim from audiences and critics alike. The New York Times proclaimed it “altogether wonderful” and the cast “flawless”. He has subsequently frequently toured to the festival to acclaim and success.
In February 2006, Alan suffered a stroke leading to the announcement in June 2007 that he would step down as the Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. He would officially step down in 2009 but continues to be premiere his new work and direct revivals of his plays at the venue.
You can find out more about Alan Ayckbourn's life and work at the website www.alanayckbourn.net.
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