Alan Ayckbourn: ActorAlan Ayckbourn never set out to be a director and playwright. As a young man, he had his eye on journalism before a fortuitous encounter while at school at Haileybury with one of the masters, Edgar Matthews. He inspired Alan's first real interest in theatre and encouraged him as an actor, casting him in a European tour of Romeo & Juliet and a North American tour of Macbeth. At the age of 17, Alan left Haileybury and with two contacts from Matthews in hand, he began to look for work in the theatre.
He began his first job immediately after leaving Haileybury, joining the renowned actor-manager Donald Wolfit's company in a production of The Strong Are Lonely at the Edinburgh Festival. The production needed someone who could play a sentry and stand at attention for upwards of an hour and Edgar Matthews had promised this was not a problem as Alan had been part of the Cadet Force at Haileybury. Alan was employed as an assistant stage manager with a cameo acting appearance as a sentry and spent three weeks with the company at the festival before returning home.
At which point, the second contact Edgar Matthews had given Alan came into play. Melville Gilham at the Connaught Theatre, Worthing, employed Alan for six months as a voluntary Assistant Stage Manager. Alan was able to work in and experience a variety of different departments in the theatre, which included some valuable acting experience with a couple of small roles. It was common at the time for ASMs to get small walk-on parts in plays and they were frequently utilised as under-studies.
After six months, Alan's funds ran out and with a good grounding in theatre, he looked for professional employment. This came at the Leatherhead Theatre Club where Alan was employed by Hazel Vincent Wallace as an actor and stage manager. Whilst working there he met Rodney Wood, another stage manager, who took him to London to see Studio Theatre Ltd performing in-the-round at the Mahatma Gandhi Hall. It was a fortuitous turn of events which would have huge repercussions for Alan as Wood had been asked to join the company in Scarborough for the summer and he asked Alan to join him as an Acting Stage Manager with the promise of more acting roles.
Impressed by what he had seen, Alan agreed to join Studio Theatre Ltd at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, for its 1957 summer season. There he met Stephen Joseph, the man who would become a mentor and the most influential figure in the young man's career. Alan stage-managed for the summer season as well as acting in two plays, before taking a job at the Oxford Playhouse for the winter months having been offered work there by Milos Volanakis. Alan spent most of the winter performing and Volanakis hoped he would stay with the company for its summer season. However, Stephen Joseph had contacted Alan asking him to return to Scarborough for the 1958 summer season. Alan decided to return to coastal resort, where he stayed until 1962.
Between 1958 and 1962, Alan was employed primarily as an actor and became increasingly prominent within the company. This coincided with Stephen Joseph commissioning Alan to write his first play in 1959 (after Alan had complained about the quality of the roles he was playing) and his first steps into directing in 1961. His playwriting and directing would increasingly begin to dominate his theatrical career.
However, it cannot be over-emphasised that Alan's initial forays into writing were largely as a showcase for his own acting abilities.His first professionally commissioned play, The Square Cat, featured a lead role which required singing, dancing and guitar-playing (none of which Alan could do well) as well as a character with two entirely different personas.
In 1962, Studio Theatre Ltd left Scarborough for a new home at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent. This was the country's first permanent theatre-in-the-round venue (Scarborough had been home to the country's first theatre-in-the-round company as the Library Theatre was a seasonal venture). Alan stayed with the company as an actor, director and writer at the Victoria until 1964 when he left the theatre to concentrate on his playwriting career as a consequence of his play Mr Whatnot being optioned for a West End production. Having given up acting and left the Victoria Theatre, Mr Whatnot promptly proceeded to be a disastrous flop leading Alan to join the BBC as a radio drama producer in 1965.
Alan's final professional acting role was Jerry in William Gibson's Two For The Seesaw. Having left the Victoria Theatre in early 1964 and just prior to working for the BBC, Alan - and his future wife Heather Stoney - were contacted by Spotlight in a search of actors familiar with William Gibson’s play. A production was being staged at the Civic Theatre, Rotherham, and there had been problems with the original two actors. Heather and Alan were both employed having previously performed the play at the Victoria Theatre in 1963. Alan's experience with this week-long production was quite negative, largely due to the inexperience of the stage manager - who happened to be Bill Kenwright, the same man who would go on to become one of the UK's most successful theatre producers. To all intents and purposes, this was the end of Alan Ayckbourn's acting career and at the time he finished, he was probably one of the most experienced in-the-round actors in the UK and had performed in more than 70 different professional plays in nine years.
There was one further unexpected role though in 1969, when an unfortunate accident during the world premiere run of his play How The Other Half Loves led Alan to take to the stage once more....
"Jeremy [Franklin] went to Kirkbymoorside for the day and tripped on the pavement. Bob Peck wasn't available to take over [the role of Frank] as he was on the beach, so I did it, and it was my very last time on the stage. I did it for five nights and Jeremy was quite reluctant to come back as I was quite into it. I had to take the script on stage on the first night and I was so enjoying it and was so confident by the last scene that I found the last couple of pages had fallen out of the book. There was I, ready for the triumphant finale with my wife... I looked at her [Elizabeth Sladen], she looked at me, and so I began to ad-lib and she began to try to ad-lib, so it was an actor's nightmare. She was thinking, 'Not only is he the director and writer, now he's ad-libbing and I have to ad-lib with him.' I knew we had to finish it! Afterwards we then tried to write the lines down and from the improvised ending came what is now the proper ending... though Robert Morley may have added another."
To find out more about Alan Ayckbourn's personal thoughts on his acting career, click here.
An at-a-glance guide to Alan Ayckbourn acting career and timeline can be found here.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
The Actor section of www.alanayckbourn.net is indebted to The Michael T Mooney Archive for material relating to Alan Ayckbourn's acting career at the Oxford Playhouse and the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent.