Alan Ayckbourn: Stage Manager

It's not generally well-known that the majority of Alan Ayckbourn's formative experiences in the theatre were back-stage. However, between 1956 and 1958, Alan was largely employed as an Acting Stage Manager - a stage manager with occasional acting roles.

It should be noted that, at this time, Stage Management was an all-encompassing term not just associated with the tasks we would typically associate with stage management today. Regional theatres - such as the
Library Theatre in Scarborough - could not afford lighting or sound designers and many of these tasks fell within the remit of stage-management.

As a result, Alan gained a wide variety of experiences encompassing all aspects of running productions. Although we tend to view Alan through the prism of playwright and director, his roles as actor, stage manager, sound and light operator as well as numerous other jobs, has informed his work as playwright, director and Artistic Director throughout his long career in theatre.

His mentor and most significant influence,
Stephen Joseph, firmly believed that everyone in theatre should have experience of and awareness of everyone else's roles within the company to appreciate what was required to successfully run and operate a company. Alan definitely took this to heart!

Stage Management

Alan left school at 16 and was immediately employed by Sir Donald Wolfit's company for a production of The Strong Are Lonely at Edinburgh Festival. Although primarily hired to play a background soldier, Alan was actually employed as an Assistant Stage Manager and did various duties for the company and Wolfit

From there, Alan joined the
Connaught Theatre in Worthing as a volunteer a student Assistant Stage Manager.

"So, in the late 1950s, with little knowledge and almost direct from school, I arrived at the Connaught as an acting [assistant] stage manager. It was there that I learnt so many aspects of theatre. In just one season I worked behind stage, sorted out props and finally 'trod the boards'."

"I took a salary cut from £3 a week to nothing [working at the Connaught Theatre]. I went as a student assistant stage manager, and my mother sold her caravan, I remember, to pay for me. I was there for about six months. Weekly rep at Worthing had Dan Massey, Michael Bryant, Roland Curtain, Ian Holm, Elizabeth Spriggs - an extraordinary collection of young actors - not to mention Peter Byrne and people like that who were there at that time. There was a welter of experienced names there that I could learn off.
"I learned all departments there. I worked for some weeks in the scenic department, didn't see the stage at all. I did a little bit of acting, two or three tiny parts. I got to be a lime operator, and I worked in the scene dock; I worked all around. I didn't do electrics but I learned a lot more about stage management, and I was, by the time the money ran out and the season finished, fairly proficient."

Following that experience, Alan got a job as an Acting Stage Manager at
Leatherhead Theatre Club, where he found more employment as an actor and stage manager, but also had the opportunity to learn about sound and lighting. It was there that he met Rodney Wood, a stage manager and director who would introduce Alan to the Studio Theatre Club.

“Hazel Vincent took me under her wing bringing me to the Leatherhead Theatre Club and - along with a welter of ASM-ing work - gave me a swathe of acting opportunities in the whirlwind of weekly rep. With her general manager, Michael Marriott, she gave me continuous employment for several important formative months of my fledgling career."

Having seen the Studio Theatre Club perform in-the-round in London in April 1957, Alan leapt at the opportunity to join the company at its home at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, when Rodney Wood offered him the chance to join him on the stage management team.

This was to be the turning point of Alan's life and his first contact with the company which he would become associated with for the rest of his life. Alan was initially employed as an Acting Stage Manager and had two small roles in the 1957 summer season.

The majority of his work was behind-the-scenes though as stage manager, lighting and sound operator as well as, essentially, doing whatever the small company needed to keep the venue and show running. The following year he was credited as Stage Manager alongside John Smith.

It was during this period that Alan discovered a shared passion with Stephen Joseph for the nascent sound technology which was emerging at the time. Even though Alan left stage management behind in 1959, when he became an actor - and playwright - for the company, this was something he continued to have an interest in and develop.

Sound Design / Editing

It is not a well-known fact but Alan Ayckbourn has been responsible for the sound-design for the majority of the world premieres of his plays as well as many other productions he has directed during his long career in theatre.

This aspect of his role developed from a passion for technology shared with the founder of Scarborough's Library Theatre, Stephen Joseph. Together they would work on the new reel-to-reel technology creating the sound plots for productions and experimenting with new technology. Alan's love of this can be seen directly in his 1964 play,
Mr Whatnot, which - for the time - had a mind-boggling sound plot which Alan created and recorded himself. The play features approximately 300 different sound effects, 117 operate cues and - on average - a sound effect every 22 seconds. In the age of digital technology, this may not sound particularly impressive, but in 1964 using a primitive revox tape machine, this would have been a phenomenal challenge.

These skills were undoubtedly honed when, in 1965, Alan joined the
BBC as a Radio Drama Producer and was responsible for directing and producing a considerable number of radio productions over the next five years. Alan had direct experience of cutting and editing the tapes to create the final recording and felt he became a quite proficient technician.

Alan became
Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in 1972 and would continue to create the sound-plots for his plays and many of the productions he directed through the '70s and '80s. On the top floor of his house, he created a recording studio which he was still actively using until the early 2000s. From the mid 2000s, Alan stepped back from sound-editing but has, in recent years, become more actively involved once more in the creation of the sound plots for his productions.

Whilst Alan continues to create the initial sound plot for many of his productions, what once took a recording studio and a room full of equipment has now largely been replaced by his Mac and iPad. In recent years, his initial sound plot has then been passed onto a sound technician who has been responsible for the final mix.

In 2020, Alan found himself calling on all these skills when he created audio plays of
Anno Domino and Haunting Julia; directing, performing and editing both plays.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder,