Alan Ayckbourn: Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University

In 1992, Alan Ayckbourn was appointed the annually appointed position of Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University.

Alan Ayckbourn Discussing Oxford University

Oxford Today magazine (1992)
Royal Society of Literature talk (2017)

Professor Of Contemporary Theatre

Perhaps one of the most unusual directions Alan Ayckbourn's career has taken was in 1992 when he accepted the annually appointed position of the Cameron Macintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University.

Within Paul Allen's biography of Alan Ayckbourn, he notes the offer came as a huge surprise to the playwright: "He [Alan] was so flattered to be asked, he says, that he agreed to do it before he thought about it."

The position was created with a £1.75m endowment by Cameron Macintosh and had previously been held by the composer Stephen Sondheim and the actor Ian McKellen. Running from January to December 1992, Alan was appointed a Fellow of St Catherine's College. The position was originally seen as controversial as despite being created to revitalise interest in drama at the university, it was apparently regarded by some academics as not a subject suitable for serious study at Oxford

For the role, he created a pair of structured courses on playwright and directing. He gave seminars and tutored with his first lecture,
Comedy Is A Serious Business, given at St Catherine's on 24 January 1992. During the course of the year, he also brought his students to Scarborough to experience life at a working theatre and theatre-in-the-round.

At the end of the year, he directed a production of one of the student's plays, which had been developed and written over the course of the year. The play,
Selling Out, by Daniel Chambers was presented at The Firehouse, Oxford, with Alan directing several professional actors. Although Chambers himself did not pursue a career in writing, the play was revived the following year at the Stephen Joseph's Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre.

Much of Alan's experiences and preparation for the role later contributed to his two televised masterclasses broadcast on television's
The South Bank Show as well as his acclaimed book on playwriting and directing, The Crafty Art Of Playmaking.

Alan Ayckbourn on St Catherine's College

In 2012, to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of St Catherine's as a college, a book was produced 'St Catherine's, Oxford: A Pen Portrait' in which Alan Ayckbourn talks about his experiences at the college.

'"I was a bit awed really, since it was my first trip into university life. So initially I met up with an elite group of student theatre folk and asked them what they wanted of me: 'how to get a job' was their basic answer. So I decided to set up workshops for potential writers and directors. I put an ad in Isis asking for budding dramatists who would be happy to have one-to-one tutorials. I got an astonishing response that included a senior don in his 70s, a number of working wives and young students. For one day every two months we'd sit in the Professor's house in Beaumont Street and have tutorials.

"I hope the writing process was liberating for all concerned. Some people thought that, as a dramatist, you just sat down and followed your instinct. I think Harold Pinter is partly to blame. He was once quoted as saying that he just writes the stage-direction, 'a room', and then sees who comes into it. But what may have worked for a genius like Harold doesn't automatically work for the rest of us. I told the students it was important to have a plan and to know where you are going on the journey: otherwise you tend to dry up on page 12. I also tried to instil the importance of time and place. Unless you're Shakespeare, you create problems for yourself if you jump 16 years between Acts One and Two. It also helps, when you're starting out, to observe the old Aristotelian unity of place. Anyway out of this came a play which we did for three nights at the Old Fire Station and later on in Scarborough."

But, for Ayckbourn himself, the business of codifying his thoughts on writing had a hugely beneficial effect: out of it came further lectures, a South Bank Show and a book on dramaturgy. The directing workshops were similarly productive. Ayckbourn picked eight suitable candidates and got them to work on selected scenes with professional actors of the calibre of Russell Dixon and Stephanie Turner.

"I chose experienced actors because it's like driving a Ferrari as opposed to a second-hand car: you know it's going to be that much easier. I hope the whole writing-directing process benefited the students. It certainly helped me."

Everyone, in short, has reason to be grateful for the Cameron Mackintosh Professorship. It's brought a rich succession of top theatre practitioners to the College: not only that but they've been accompanied by star guests of the calibre of Cate Blanchett and Harriet Walter. In a larger sense, the Professorship has also done an immense amount for the cause of University Drama and, ultimately, the British theatre.

Alan Ayckbourn also described the social side of his Professorship:

'What I personally discovered, was that the post involved an endless round of feasts. The nearest I'd ever got to university life before was reading
Porterhouse Blue and I found it all incredibly like that. I also met some delightfully eccentric figures. One week I brought the chairman of my board, a straightforward Yorkshireman, to the College and I remember his faint surprise when Michael Gearin-Tosh bade him farewell with a kiss. One night I also sat next to a wonderful character who said the only flaw in the College design was that the heating pipes went through the wine cellar. But, all in all, it was a great time that led to a lasting friendship with the then Master, Brian Smith, and his wife."

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