Alan Ayckbourn’s earliest experiences with professional theatre were as an actor and stage manager and Alan’s initial theatrical ambition was to tread the boards. Fate intervened though, but not before Alan had a substantive and interesting career as a professional actor, which he has always felt made a significant contribution to his playwriting and directing careers.
“It’s not uncommon for playwrights to start out as actors. From Shakespeare onwards. It’s very important, a sort of apprenticeship, really. Nothing like doing it for actually learning the craft. A bit like learning an instrument before embarking on composition.”
As a young man, Alan 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 with two contacts from Matthews in hand and 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.
“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….“
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.
“So, in the late 1950s, with little knowledge and almost direct from school, I arrived at the Connaught as an acting stage manager. It was there that I learnt so many aspects of theatre. In just one season I worked behind stage, sorted out props and finally ‘trod the boards’.”
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 and where, he feels, he got an exceptional grounding in all aspects of working in theatre as well as more acting opportunities.
“Hazel Vincent took me under her wing bringing me to the Leatherhead Theatre Club and – along with a welter of ASM-ing work – gave me a swathe of acting opportunities in the whirlwind of weekly rep. With her general manager, Michael Marriott, she gave me continuous employment for several important formative months of my fledgling career.”
Whilst working at Leatherhead 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 person 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.
“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 1957], 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.”
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.
“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”
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, if at all!) 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.
“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….”
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 not a happy one, largely due to the inexperience of the stage manager – who happened to be Bill Kenwright, the same man who would go on to find a great deal more success as a theatre producer!
To all intents and purposes, this was the end of Alan Ayckbourn’s acting career and by 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.
Although Alan would never have any yearning to return to the boards, he has always felt it was an invaluable experience giving him first-hand experience of acting and performing in-the-round, which undoubtedly fed into his playwriting over the ensuing decades.
Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.