Alan Ayckbourn: Artistic Director

Alan Ayckbourn was the Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, between 1972 and 2009. In depth details about the Stephen Joseph Theatre and its history can also be found in the Ayckbourn & The SJT section of the website.

An article commissioned to mark the 50th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn being appointed Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1972 can also be found here.

Artistically Directed by Simon Murgatrroyd
Earlier in 2022, the Stephen Joseph Theatre celebrated the 50th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn’s play Absurd Person Singular. But that’s not the only 50th anniversary of note this year.

For on 12 November 1972, Alan Ayckbourn was appointed the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre - which would have an extraordinary bearing on both him and this company in the decades to follow.

Alan came to Scarborough and joined the Library Theatre in 1957 as an acting stage manager. He made his writing and directing debuts here in 1959 and 1961 respectively, before leaving to become a founding member of the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1962. In 1965, he joined the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer for five years.

Stephen Joseph - founder of the Library Theatre and Alan’s most significant mentor - died in 1967, leaving the company without direction or a leader. For several years, a director of Productions would be appointed annually to run the 13 week summer seasons.

Alan held this role in 1969, 1970 and 1972 - still working at the BBC during the first two of those years - but all this was soon to change.

The 1972 summer season was remarkably successful, but the Scarborough Theatre Trust board knew changes were necessary as the company was essentially stuck in a rut. Restricted to summer seasons since 1962, there was little continuity from one year to the next with no plans to expand.

One of the few constants was Alan, who had continued to premier and direct his own plays since Stephen’s death and whose royalties from the West End productions of his plays were proving to be an invaluable prop for the company.

The board knew Alan wanted to move back full-time into theatre and had already cast his line out to see if anyone was biting. In 1970, he unsuccessfully applied to be the Artistic Director of the recently opened Leeds Playhouse.

This was an issue as, quite patently, the board could not afford to lose Alan. His plays were as close to a guaranteed success as was possible each summer, he generated enormous publicity for the theatre and town and the West End royalties were substantive. Hesitate and they might lose Alan to another theatre.

So in November 1972, it was unanimously agreed to appoint Alan as Artistic Director. A role he would hold for 37 years - making him one of the longest serving Artistic Directors in modern UK theatre history.

Now there’s an interesting question of what would have happened if Alan had not been asked to take on the role or had been asked too late. It’s hard to imagine any scenario where the Library Theatre would have survived.

Within three years, the company was being given its marching orders from Scarborough Library - without Alan fighting ferociously to ensure its survival, would it have found a new home?

If Alan had been offered a job elsewhere - say the Leeds Playhouse - would he still have premiered plays in Scarborough and would the West End royalties have continued to come in? Presumably not. Presumably the financial benefits would have gone to his new base.

The more you question it, the more difficult it is to imagine any scenario where the Library Theatre survives, let alone thrives, without Alan at the helm. As was noted at the time, there was hardly a surfeit of comparable talent rushing to take on the role.

Fortunately, Alan grasped the opportunity with immediate benefits. Firstly, he turned down his annual wage and reinvested it back into the company; Alan did not draw a wage at any point whilst Artistic Director.

The ever-increasing royalties from the West End also continued to pour in - at a rate negotiated by the playwright’s agent which saw Scarborough receive more than was traditional for the original producing house.

And Alan quietly subsidised the theatre with new equipment as well as covering other costs. It’s never been explicitly stated nor has Alan ever drawn attention to it, but his financial investment in the theatre during almost four decades is hugely significant.

The theatre also benefited by association. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Alan was at a peak of popularity with television documentaries, newspaper and magazine features - generally all with a backdrop of Scarborough and the theatre. It was invaluable free publicity.

And alongside all this was an extraordinary work ethic. Alan’s biographer, Paul Allen, once noted Alan’s life is dominated by theatre and there’s not much to write about outside of his theatre life. His work with the company was all encompassing.

In 1974, Alan transformed the Library Theatre into a year round company which also toured. He oversaw the move of the company to a new, larger home in 1976 which resulted in a massive expansion of the theatre’s programme bringing lunchtime and late night shows alongside the main house plays - most of which he directed.

And he didn’t stop there. Between 1976 and 1986, Alan directed between five and ten productions a year in Scarborough. He wrote between three and five works a year and worked as an uncredited sound designer on many of the productions. He ran the theatre as there was no Executive Director - just a theatre manager - and this is in addition to taking his plays into London.

It’s a very different world to today, where it’s almost unimaginable an Artistic Director would be so heavily involved in every aspect of running a theatre all year round.

During this period, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round gained an international reputation, not just as Alan Ayckbourn’s home theatre but for its new writing programme, which went into overdrive under Alan as he continued Stephen Joseph’s legacy of championing new writing. He directed new work and encouraged new writers and directors. He put the theatre firmly on the cultural map.

So much so, that when the Holbeck Hall hotel went down the cliffs in 1993, our current press officer Jeannie - in the same role at the theatre then - and I - a novice journalist at the Scarborough Evening News - recall the most frequently asked question from journalists and news organisations around the world was, what does Alan Ayckbourn think about it?

The playwright and this theatre had become completely synonymous with the town.

And it wasn’t a one way street, let’s be honest. Alan himself is quick to acknowledge that when he was appointed Artistic Director, he was given the keys to the toy box.

He wrote - pretty much - what he wanted and set the company challenges which it’s hard to believe any other venue would even have considered, let alone produced.

Flood the theatre for a play set on a boat.
Sure, why not? Give an entire year over to one play with 16 different endings. No problem. A 60th anniversary show running to five hours over two performances with dinner in-between. Sounds like a good idea. A summer season of ten premieres by ten authors with ten actors. Slightly mad, but what the hell. Two plays running simultaneously with one cast in two auditoria. Is that even a challenge?

The freedom the SJT gave him, allowed Alan to push himself in directions few other writers and directors could imagine or hope for. Along the way he created extraordinary theatre with unforgettable works for a very literate Scarborough audience.

And that was another extraordinary achievement. Alan has no time for people who patronise regional theatre or think parochially. He believes this audience was as - if not more - sophisticated than London audiences. And he programmed with that belief.

Throughout his tenure, there’s a great diversity of work, not just new pieces by new writers, but also classics, lesser known works, even a penchant for American writers.

Alan creates and nurtures an extremely theatre-literate audience, which is prepared to take risks, be it experiencing new writing or little known shows.

He doesn’t presume there’s a generic Scarborough play or a stereotypical Scarborough theatre-goer. He challenges his audiences. Not least with his own work, which runs the gamut from what we would consider typically Ayckbournian to musicals, thrillers to epics, the very darkest of works to the lightest.

All this combines into an extraordinary achievement. Which we can quantify to a point.

> Alan is Artistic Director for 37 years - that’s more than all the other SJT Artistic Directors from 1955 to 2022 put together.
> During this period, he directs more than 180 different productions for Scarborough - not including tours; more than all the other Artistic Directors combined.
> He commissions and produces more new writing at the SJT than all the other Artistic Directors combined.
> He writes 59 produced plays, numerous musical reviews, half a dozen plays for pre-schoolers and other works.
> He oversees the company’s move into two new homes and ensures its survival.

It’s an extraordinary record.

And in 2009, he retired and walked away from it without looking back.

That’s also noteworthy. Alan made a clean break only to return to write and direct for the company, choosing not to interfere or to become involved only when asked.

It’s extraordinarily gracious and unusual. There are numerous stories of people with long term ties to a cultural organisation or institution where there has been acrimony or argument at the end of the tenure - chosen or otherwise.

It is in no way hyperbolic to say that 50 years ago, when Alan was made Artistic Director, it was a decision that had huge repercussions for both him and the company.

Without Alan, the company probably wouldn’t have survived and certainly wouldn’t have become internationally renowned as a theatre of excellence and new writing.

Without this theatre, it’s improbable Alan would have had such an extraordinary career as a writer and director.

Perhaps, ultimately, Alan’s legacy specifically to Scarborough will be recognised for his work as Artistic Director and how he made a small, regional theatre into something so significant on so many levels.

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