Over the many years of running the website – and working as Alan’s Archivist – I’ve been constantly struck by how few people are aware of the significance of The SJT to Alan Ayckbourn and his theatrical career.
Which is a huge shame because – and I state this as fact – you can’t fully understand Alan Ayckbourn’s career as a writer and director, if you don’t appreciate how significant and vital the SJT has been in shaping and developing Alan’s career. To try and separate Alan from The SJT is, essentially, to be given a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.
Which is why this new section is now an essential part of the website offering background and context to the venues, people and plays which Alan Ayckbourn has been associated with for more than 60 years. It is now impossible to untwine the connections between the two.
The SJT – then The Library Theatre was opened in 1955 by the British theatre pioneer Stephen Joseph, who would become the single most important influence and mentor in Alan Ayckbourn’s life. In 1957, Alan joined what was the UK’s first professional theatre-in-the-round company as an acting assistant stage manager (a ASM with limited acting duties) and met Stephen Joseph, who inspired and influenced him. It began a practically unbroken association with the theatre which continues to this day; even when Alan was away from the theatre at the BBC or the National Theatre, he was still working with it or for it.
Stephen Joseph encouraged the people he worked with to learn about all aspects of the theatre and Alan went from ASM to stage manager, learnt about lighting and sound – did you know he still designs the majority of the sound-plots for his own productions to this day? – and became a full-time actor. In 1959, encouraged by Stephen, he wrote his first full-length play, The Square Cat, which Stephen directed and premiered at The Library Theatre. The success of which launched a hugely successful career. As of 2019, Alan has written 83 plays and 79 of them have premiered at The SJT. Even more significant, they are directed by the playwright and presented as he intends them: generally in-the-round with an ensemble company. He has always felt that the West End productions – with a few exceptions – are generally poor reflections of the original production hindered by end-stage and with ‘stars’ pushed onto them.
Although credit where credit is due, the plays which lunched Alan into the public eye – Relatively Speaking, How The Other Half Loves, Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests – all premiered at The Library Theatre, Scarborough. You can’t actually explore the history of some of the most significant British plays of the 20th century without turning your attention to The SJT and Scarborough.
In 1961, Stephen encouraged Alan to take up directing at The Library Theatre, a significant step as Alan has since considered himself first and foremost a director rather than playwright: he has spent far more time directing than writing and has directed more than 250 productions at The SJT. The two major strands of his career, director and writer, are the result of being at The SJT and under the guidance of Stephen Joseph.
Stephen died in 1967 and five years later, Alan took on his legacy. He became Artistic Director of The Library Theatre, a role he would keep for 37 years until 2009. Perhaps one of the most under explored aspects of Alan’s career is how much this enabled both the playwright and the director. As Artistic Director, Alan was ensured his plays would be staged. It gave him the freedom to take huge risks with his writing. If Alan was just an independent playwright submitting the idea of a trilogy (The Norman Conquests), a play in water (Way Upstream), a play with 16 possible endings (Intimate Exchanges), two plays running simultaneously in two auditoria with a single cast (House & Garden) – or any of his other extraordinary ideas – it’s very likely his career would have had far more rejections and been considerably different to the one we know today!
Alan ran The SJT for 37 years – as well as writing and directing plays in Scarborough, London, the West End and America – and was responsible for moving the company from The Library Theatre into the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round (1976) and the Stephen Joseph Theatre (1996). The SJT is intertwined in every aspect of his life – he even first met both his wives at The Library Theatre! When his biography – Grinning At The Edge by Paul Allen – was first published in 2001, he even noted that if you took the theatre – specifically The SJT out of his life – then there was very little left to write about! He has dedicated his life to the theatre of which he was made Director Emeritus in 2018 and still considers his greatest achievement being the conversion of Scarborough’s former Odeon cinema into the company’s first permanent home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, in 1996.
So that’s why – in a nutshell – there are 1,500 pages looking at the history, key events, people, productions, venues, writers and many other things on Alan Ayckbourn’s website. Between 1957 and 2009, Alan Ayckbourn is involved in some way in probably 95% of all productions at the theatre – be it writer, director, actor, commissioner, advisor – you can’t really understand either The SJT or Alan Ayckbourn without looking at each.
So if you’re interested in Alan Ayckbourn, you should visit the recently completed The SJT section of the website and have a wander through its many pages. I’m pretty sure you’ll find something of interest – and if not, there’s still the 3,000+ pages dedicated to Alan and his plays on the rest of the website!