Alan Ayckbourn: Actor

This page features quotes by Alan Ayckbourn regarding his acting career. Quotes specific to actual plays he appeared in can be found on the relevant play page.

"I have never made any decisions, they have always been made for me. I started out as an actor, and I was incredibly lucky, never out of work. Not that I was that good, but somehow I never wrote a letter or did an audition in my life, it just went from the end of one season to the beginning of another, bonk, bonk, bonk. Entirely due to circumstances and possibly because I never did take any action. I could look back on my life and say I planned it that way, but I didn't plan to be an actor, nor a director, nor a writer."
(Plays And Players, September 1972)

"My first ambition was to be a journalist, but after having divorced my father (he was a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra), my mother eventually and wisely married her local bank manager, and I got a bank scholarship to Haileybury. There I suddenly became interested in acting and the theatre, and at 17 I decided to pack in my schooling. A teacher at the school got me a job at £3 a week with Sir Donald Wolfit's company at the Edinburgh Festival and I was off into a mad world. Imagine a gawky lad being involved with this incredible eccentric, Wolfit. One of my jobs was to fetch his gin and bottles of Guinness.... I was acting in a play in the theatre at Scarborough. It was a bloody awful play and I told the producer so. 'If you can do better get on with it,' he said. Angrily. I replied: 'Right, you're on.' I wrote a play, about a pop star with me in the lead and it was put on. But for a time writing was only a means of providing myself with parts. Then I began to realise that other actors were better than me. I assessed my abilities as an actor in time and moved into full-time writing and directing."
(Sunday Express, 14 September 1975)

"In 1956, he [Sir Donald Wolfit] was looking for someone cheap at £3 a week. I played a sentry [his first professional stage role]. He employed me because I'd been in the cadet force and could be guaranteed not to faint on parade."
(In Britain, May 1980)

"At that stage, I thought I was going to be an actor. Writing was just a means of propagating myself - coming up with dishy parts for myself to star in. Then it was time to get out - I was spoiling the plays."
(Over 21, 1977)

"I never, in all my years of acting, was ever unemployed. Once I started at Worthing, I didn't stop: Worthing, Leatherhead, Scarborough, Oxford, Scarborough...."
('Conversations With Ayckbourn', 1981)

"My mother wrote for a living as a professional writer and she gave me a small typewriter to keep me quiet while she wrote herself! Originally I wanted to write short stories for magazines like she did. Then when I was in my teens I wanted to be a journalist because that looked like a glamorous sort of job. When I discovered it wasn't, my other overwhelming ambition won the day and I joined the theatre to become an actor. And then, at the age of seventeen, I started writing plays."
(Personal correspondence, 1986)

"As a result of my acting experience you will never find a 'what say you, m'Lord' bit part in my plays. There are no postmen or butlers. I try to give everyone in the cast a real part. When I was acting and simply standing on stage like a piece of scenery I would start asking myself what I was doing there and wondering whether to walk off."
(Scarborough Evening News, 13 August 1971)

"As time passed, my acting wasn't getting any better. I was in a play directed by Stephen [Joseph] and I'd been complaining about the quality of the script. So Stephen challenged me to write a better one - on condition that I took the main role myself. He was a wise man. It's one thing to write a play and throw it to a bunch of actors to die in, but quite another to appear in it oneself"
(Elmbridge Magazine, January 2010)

"In those days [the 1950s], as an ASM you had the chance to go on stage - often in a very small walk-on part - spear carriers, butlers, that sort of thing. Because I was reasonably able as an actor, I had a reasonable career, which then moved into directing and writing."
(Bath Magazine, January 2010)

"I'd been promised a small part, well, quite a big part really, in
An Inspector Calls in the summer [at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1959], so it was a good start to the job. I was acting in it and stage managing it so actually it was quite hard work. But that was my first introduction to 'in-the-round."
(Taking Steps programme, 2010)

"Rather than being [cast as] Frankenstein, I was always his friend who got bumped off halfway through. In the end I complained to Stephen [Joseph] who said if I wanted better parts I should write them myself and asked for a play for the following summer, with the condition I would also be in it." *
(The Guardian, 28 March 2014)

* It's worth noting Frankenstein was not actually the play Alan complained about as that particular production opened the week before Alan's first play The Square Cat.

An Interview with Alan Ayckbourn
In 2011, Alan Yentob interviewed Alan Ayckbourn for the BBC arts programme Imagine. Here the website presents extracts from the interview relating to Alan Ayckbourn's early acting experience at Haileybury and working with Donald Wolfit.

Alan Yentob: And was it Shakespeare that launched your acting career?
Alan Ayckbourn:
There have been in my life some remarkable individuals, in this case, a schoolmaster [at Haileybury] called Edgar Matthews. And his passion was taking out tours from school of Shakespeare and I quickly became aware of these. As soon as I became eligible by age, I went off to Holland with a tour of Romeo & Juliet, where I played Peter the servant and that gave me a real taste for the stage. The following year was destined to be the swan song - Edgar was going to retire - and he really wanted to take the big one; this was to go to the USA and Canada with a tour of The Scottish Play [Macbeth]. I auditioned for the lead and didn’t get that, but I got Macduff, which was quite a nice one and we all set off on the Queen Mary and we all came back on the Queen Elizabeth and in between we got drunk as lords. All of us in a greyhound bus, going all the way up the East coast of America into Canada! Ottawa, Toronto and then all the way down again into Pittsburgh and all the way back again into New York and back on the boat.

Yentob: And were you a hit – drunk or otherwise—on stage?
Well, I managed to break the leading man’s finger and I think that may have been due to a misjudgement on the sword fight. But being schoolboys, there was no holds-barred fights. Edgar said “You better swing that way, and he that way” but the sparks were flying off these shields! It was rudimentary Shakespeare. It had all the joys of professional touring actor in that you got the fun and none of the responsibilities.

Yentob: You decided not to go to university, despite the fact that obviously you had the ability to go if you wanted to, but you didn’t want to I take it, you wanted to be an actor?
I wanted to be part of the theatre, I wanted to be an actor. I mean acting is always what lures a lot of people in, unless they’re, dedicated and born stage managers, but at that point that seemed the most attractive… the only job.

Yentob: Were you any good?
Not bad. I lacked an awful lot of technique, but what I lacked in technique, I made up an awful lot in sincerity and because I knew better than to show my lack of technique, I kept very still on stage. I got a lot of reviews: “His lizard-like stillness” and of course, as one knows later on, if you stop waving your arms around and you just sit still, just eyes flick round, you can pull focus that way, just as well

Yentob: Let me ask you about Donald Wolfit, that must have been extraordinary to come across Sir Donald.
I mean he was the first professional actor I met up close and I thought they were all like him! Of course he was a complete left-over from another era. Meeting Wolfit, I was in direct touch with [Henry] Irving and [Herbert Beerbohm] Tree and all the way back. Here was the last of the great actor-managers; everything he said was law and he seemed to me nine feet tall; a big, big face with pores the size of pot holes, full of old five-and-nine make-up, which he’d never quite removed. So he’d stick his finger in your face, very close to you and he’d say: “What are you doing?”, “Just bringing in…”, “Well walk properly.”

Yentob: So were you acting and you were ASMing [assistant stage manager] at the time were you?
Yes, and it was most important at the Edinburgh festival because he took a revival of The Strong Are Lonely which later became, I think, the film The Mission, which was a wonderful part for him. And I played a walk-on sentry. I realised that afterwards Edgar Matthews knew Donald very well and he wrote to Wolfit to get me into the business; I’ve still got the [Wolfit reply] letter - which says: “I will take the boy for three pounds a week.... You say he is in the cadet force, which is good news because I need this man to stand to attention right the way through my long second act.” And the last guy had made the terrible mistake of falling asleep and dropping his rifle and his three-corners hat falling off. So I got the job on account of I could stand to attention.

Yentob: Did he think you were good?
He was a very generous man; he said “You really want to do this?” and I said “Yes” and a mate of mine, a boy I’ve never heard of since, also said “Yes” and Wolfit said “I’ll audition you both." This was incredible, he gave up a whole afternoon when he was playing a huge role with matinees and God knows what else, and he sat in the stalls all by his own and the two of us came out and did our godawful audition speeches. And I did my bits, I probably gleaned a few comedy bits because that was probably my strength, and he said: “You’re full of tricks boy. I like tricks, but not when you use them quite so often. So good, good.” And then this other idiot came up and did all the major roles, Othello and King Lear and all the other ones Wolfit had made himself famous on, and I thought: “This is not a good idea to audition the man’s favourite roles for him.” They started this terrible row and Wolfit said: “I don’t think you got him right there.” And the boy said: “Yes I have.” And I thought: “Oh dear. That’s minus marks for you boy!” So, anyway it was encouraging. I’d auditioned for the great man.

Aspiring Actor (by Alan Ayckbourn)
It was the stuff of every young, aspiring actor's dream.
In the late fifties, at the age of 17 or 18 I was at Worthing as an (unpaid) assistant stage manager working in all departments but with my hopes always set on small part stage appearances which occasionally cropped up. I knew that, given the right break, my innate star quality would immediately be recognised. Worthing in those days was a weekly rep. The schedule was a punishing one - younger actors today, if you describe it to them, look at you in blank astonishment or shake their heads sadly at the tricks old people's memories can play.
I was working in the scenic workshop when it happened. The current show had opened on the Monday, the next production was already underway when one of the cast had "done a runner". The pressure had finally got to him and he had vanished overnight. I was summoned to the manager's office and offered the part. Could I learn it and be ready to go on that night? Of course, I replied, youthfully unhesitating. Yes, sir! Six long months in show-business and a break at last!
In the event, I got through that Tuesday performance in a shallow trance. My voice, whenever I chanced to remember to speak, appeared to be coming from a deep well. Most of my lines, I seem to recall, were spoken by the leading man, Peter Byrne, who adroitly managed to hold long seamless conversations with himself. I was aware, throughout the show, of continuous, off-putting heavy breathing which I later identified as my own.
At the end of the performance the manager came to me, smiling, shook me by the hand, thanked me and told me that the good news was that a real actor would be arriving for the Wednesday matinee the following day.
I returned to the scene dock, chastened by the harshness of theatrical reality. It was seven years before the message finally sunk in and I finally gave up acting for ever.

These quotes and articles are copyright of Alan Ayckbourn and should not be reproduced without permission.