Alan Ayckbourn: DirectorTo most people Alan Ayckbourn is best known as one of the country’s most successful living playwrights.
Ask Alan what he thinks though and his answer might surprise.
"I always consider myself as a director who writes rather than a writer who directs, because directing takes up so much of my time.”
Alan’s career as a director is often over-looked, yet professional directing career spans more than five decades and in excess of 300 productions from Scarborough to New York.
That he considers himself a director first is understandable considering Alan’s formative directing experiences came when he was barely recognised for his writing, having had only three plays professionally produced and being better known as an actor.
In 1961, the founder of Scarborough’s Library Theatre and Alan’s most significant mentor suggested he might consider directing.
“Stephen Joseph gradually encouraged me to direct in order to put a spoke in the wheels of my acting career, but that is a poisoned chalice for an actor; if they get the taste for directing, they slowly tire of acting because directing is global and you have a view of the entire production.”
Alan’s first play was the classic Victorian chiller Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton, which was well received with The Stage praising the ‘polished’ production. This led to more opportunities, guided by Stephen Joseph who offered Alan advice on directing as he had done previously with writing.
“He talked about directing with great knowledge and authority. Stephen really was a Renaissance man and he taught me in short sentences what writing was about, what directing was about and then left me to discover it for myself.”
As directing and writing became ever more pervasive, Alan’s interest in acting declined and in 1964, he left the profession - although it may well have been a case of jumping before being pushed!
“I became more and more objective about what was happening as a director and a less objective actor. I was a waste of space as an actor by the end of it!”
Alan soon showed a natural interest in directing his own plays; which was frequently discouraged at the time.
“I didn’t begin with the idea of directing my own plays; in fact at the time, people said writers should not direct their own plays. It wasn’t done, although there were notable exceptions including Noel Coward. And then I was slowly allowed to direct my plays in Scarborough, but never in London.”
This was a career-defining step. His first directorial experience with his own work was co-directing the world premiere of Christmas V Mastermind with Peter Cheeseman at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent. There is no record of how involved Alan was with directing this production, although for many years it was credited solely to Peter Cheeseman. More significant were two further productions at the Victoria Theatre starting with a revival of his 1961 play Standing Room Only; this marked the first time Alan had solely directed a production of one of his own plays. Later that year, he would solely direct the world premiere of one of his plays for the first time when Mr Whatnot made its debut at the venue.
It would be four years before Alan directed one of his own plays again (in the interim, Stephen Joseph directed the world premiere of Meet My Father at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, which would later be retitled Relatively Speaking and go on to considerable success). In 1967, several months prior to Stephen Joseph's death, he directed the world premiere of The Sparrow. Subsequently he has directed the world premieres of every play he has written since 1967 and all but two of these plays have received their world premieres in Scarborough; the exceptions being the West End musical Jeeves and A Small Family Business which he wrote specifically for the National Theatre.
In 1972, Alan became Artistic Director of the Library Theatre and directing became his predominant career – that season included his first production of a Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya (he also directed Chekhov’s The Seagull in 1979 and directed his own adaptation of Uncle Vanya - Dear Uncle - 2011). While Alan has always been seen as a prolific writer, this was as nothing compared to his directing; between 1979 and 2009, it was not unusual for him to direct between five and ten productions a year.
Despite this, his directing career was not particularly recognised outside Scarborough. Wider recognition would only come when he began to direct in London, initially at the invitation of Peter Hall to co-direct the London premiere of Bedroom Farce at the National Theatre in 1977.
Between 1977 and 2002, Alan would direct the majority of the London premieres of his plays with more than 35 directing credits in the West End and at the National Theatre. Substantial recognition had to wait until 1987 though, when Alan was on a two year sabbatical from Scarborough as a company director at the National Theatre. One of his stated intentions there was “to establish a reputation as a director."
His production of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge achieved this and received extraordinary reviews. The critic Michael Billington succinctly summed up the mood: “It remains one of the great productions of our time” and Sheridan Morley wrote: "It is hard to believe that there ever has been, or perhaps ever will be, a better production of Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge"; Morley also famously spoke to Miller, who had nothing but praise for Alan.
"It's author, Arthur Miller, once told me this was the best one [production of A View From The Bridge] he had ever seen."
A View From The Bridge garnered Alan his first Olivier nomination for directing and what had been known in Scarborough for many years was finally acknowledged in London, here was not only a world class playwright, but also a world class director.
Since then Alan has frequently been asked to direct for some of the most respected companies in this country and abroad, although he has regularly declined due to his commitment to the Stephen Joseph Theatre; although he has notably directed one of his own plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company. This relationship with the Stephen Joseph Theatre led to a significant recognition of Alan in 2005 when he took his production of Private Fears In Public Places to New York. Reviews tended towards the superlative and highlights included Time magazine naming it its first choice play of 2005, praising “Ayckbourn’s delicate, understated direction.”
In 2002, Alan stepped down from directing plays by authors other than himself to both reduce his workload and to concentrate on his own plays. Between 1961 and 2002, he directed more than 90 plays by authors other than himself ranging from Chekhov to Ibsen, Shakespeare to Shaw as well as directing the world premieres of numerous plays by new writers nurtured by the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
More than fifty years on, Alan’s passion for directing is undiminished and even now he averages four - five productions a year. To his mind, at least, there is now virtually no way to separate the director from the writer and it is something which is crucial and dear to him.
“Two things I live for. One is being in a rehearsal room. The other is writing a new play.”
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.