It’s 60 years since Alan Ayckbourn joined the Stephen Joseph Theatre. To mark the occasion he’s hosting two gala evenings. Chris Bond met him.
When Alan Ayckbourn first came to Scarborough in the summer of 1957 as an enthusiastic teenager, he had little idea what he was letting himself in for or, indeed, where Scarborough was.
“I arrived wanting to act but I was completely untrained. I’d worked in one or two reps carving out a sort of minor career as an actor, so this seemed like a nice opportunity,” he says, leaning back in his armchair.
He’d been enticed north from his home in London to work as an assistant stage manager with the pioneering Stephen Joseph, who had established the country’s first theatre-in-the-round company in Scarborough on the first floor of the public library two years earlier.
It was, he says, an exhilarating experience. “Stephen Joseph was an exciting man. He was a sort of revolutionary, he introduced new forms of theatre and he had a passion for new work. So the idea that existed then of the dramatist being this remote soul living on the Faroe Islands and positing in a new script was not for him.
“His idea was the theatre of Shakespeare. The writer was just another member of the team, it didn’t matter who they were. We even had a box office manager who was once writing plays, we were all writing.”
It was in this spirit of pragmatism and innovation that Ayckbourn began his career as a dramatist. “The magic finger pointed at me and he said ‘what are you going to write?’
“I’d already written plays that weren’t going anywhere but he was the first person to offer me the chance to write a play with a semi-guarantee that it would be produced the following year, which was enormously helpful. There’s nothing like knowing your play’s going to go on to bring beads of sweat out on you.”
He could scarcely have imagined, though, that 60 years and 81 plays later he would still be living in the seaside town having established himself as one of Britain’s greatest playwrights.
To mark the occasion he is hosting a retrospective of his work – A Brief History of Plays – in two special events at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, where he was artistic director for 37 years. On September 10, he will cover his time from 1957 to 1987; and on September 17, he’ll cover the last 30 years. Both events will feature extracts from a selection of his plays performed by some of the actors he has worked with both recently and over the years.
This has meant revisiting his ever growing back catalogue. Ayckbourn is no stranger to his plays being revised, especially classics such as The Norman Conquests, A Chorus of Disapproval and How the Other Half Loves, but he isn’t one to bask in the glow of past successes. “Revivals are strange things, one likes to have the plays redone but they have to be done really well,” he says.
“I’m not a director who happily leaps into doing things several times. I’m much more excited about the new work than the old stuff,” he says. “I’ve got a clear memory of all the plays, though I do keep writing them so there’s more of them to add to the pot,” he says, with a chuckle.
For all his success, Ayckbourn’s career as a playwright had a stuttering start. He was working as a BBC radio producer and director in Leeds when Stephen Joseph died in 1967.
It was his mentor’s untimely death that prompted Ayckbourn to return to Scarborough and five years later he took on the role of artistic director at the theatre.
He picked up the torch Joseph had lit and turned Scarborough into an unlikely mecca for theatre aficionados, with the royalties from the success of his plays, most of which premiered there, enabling the theatre to prosper.
However, he says his decision to remain in Scarborough wasn’t entirely altruistic. “I was on a good wicket, as they say, because my plays were being done. I looked around at some of my fellow writers and they weren’t necessarily getting the same high score rate as I was. So being in charge of the place meant I got them automatically accepted... and rejected on some occasions,” he says, chuckling again.
“It allowed me to take a risk and do silly plays, which was in the spirit of Stephen, with 16 endings in two auditoriums at once. So I had absolute freedom and I look back and think I was a very lucky guy and very sensible to stay here.”
During that time he’s forged a close bond with his adopted home. “Yorkshire audiences can be brutally honest. They’ll say if they think something’s not good enough and I like the challenge of them. They sit there, they’ve paid their money and metaphorically they fold their arms and say ‘ok, come on, prove it’.
“So every show I’ve had to re-prove it which is a good thing. They certainly aren’t sycophantic, though having said that they are loyal and they’ve done the journey with me.”
Ayckbourn stepped down as the theatre’s artistic director in 2009 but is still writing and produces a new play for the theatre each year. But following a stroke 11 years ago there was a time when he feared his writing days were over. “I did reckon at one stage after the stroke that this might be it. I’d written enough stuff and I knew I could fall back on the back catalogue so I had a directing career if nothing else. But then a little tiny idea came and that was exciting, and a relief.”
He’s now 78 and though he’s clearly unsteady on his feet, which must be hugely frustrating for someone known for their energy and verve, his mind has lost none of it sharpness. “The ideas keep chasing me, thankfully,” he says. “I’m singularly fortunate in that I’ve already written the play for next year and I’m just worryingly slightly about 2019, assuming I last that long and my brain doesn’t blow up,” he says.
Ayckbourn still lives in Scarborough with his wife and family and talks of the town with affection. “I’ve brought my two sons up here – there are worst places to bring your boys up than by the seaside,” he says.
“I think of myself as an honorary Yorkshireman by now. There’s a sort of magnet that’s drawn me here. I have southern friends who wonder what on earth I’m still doing here and then they arrive and they look at the view and go, ‘oh, I see.’
“It’s a special place and there’s a great deal more going on here than you’d ever know. There’s a huge art scene, there’s potters and painters... It seems like there’s more art galleries than there are artists. When we first came the drama scene was a bit old fashioned and now it’s flourishing.”
A large part of this is down to Ayckbourn and his presence here, not that it’s something he himself would broadcast. “It’s the way a theatre should be. It’s community based in the best sense that people belong to it and feel part of it without forcing jolly liberal culture down people’s necks... This theatre has earned its place in the community, at least I like to think it has.”
Tickets for the events cost £75 (to include programme, a glass of Prosecco and post-show reception); £35; or for both evenings, £140 or £65. To book, call the box office on 01723 370 541 or visit the website at sjt.uk.co.uk.