Alan Ayckbourn: Artistic Director

On 12 November 1972, Alan Ayckbourn was officially appointed the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough. Over the next 37 years, he would become intrinsically connected with the Scarborough theatre and the company.

On the anniversary of his appointment, the blog looks at what led to Alan taking on the role.

Becoming Artistic Director by Simon Murgatroyd

Over the decades and in various articles and publications about Alan Ayckbourn’s lifer and career, there has often been confusion as to when Alan Ayckbourn became Artistic Director of the theatre he is most associated with.

Yet, it is plainly stated in the minutes of Scarborough Theatre Trust for 12 November 1972, this was when Alan Ayckbourn was appointed full-time Artistic Director of what was then The Library Theatre – now the Stephen Joseph Theatre – in Scarborough.

Alan Ayckbourn in 1972 (© Haydonning Ltd)

But how did Alan come to be appointed to this position in the first place?

Alan joined the Library Theatre in 1957 as a stage manager with occasional acting roles. The company – the first professional theatre-in-the-round company in the UK – had been formed two years previously by British theatre pioneer, Stephen Joseph.

By 1959, Alan was employed solely as an actor by the company but had been commissioned by Stephen Joseph to write a play – which Alan did, writing a shameless starring vehicle for himself, The Square Cat. Two years later, Stephen would also offer Alan his first opportunity to direct. Both these decisions had profound implications for Alan’s theatrical career.

In 1962, Stephen Joseph founded the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent and Alan left Scarborough to join the company as a founding member. By this point, Alan had written four professional plays and directed ten productions; he was very much a protégé of Stephen Joseph who was a great influence and mentor to Alan.

In 1964, Alan left the Victoria Theatre and – following the failure of his first West End transfer, Mr Whatnot – joined the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer at the BBC for five years.

The Library Theatre was meanwhile facing difficult times. At the end of the 1965 season, Stephen Joseph closed the theatre believing it was unviable to continue running the company. This was also the year he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Professional theatre resumed at the Library Theatre in 1967, but Stephen was too ill to continue running it and would die in October of that year. As a result, Scarborough Theatre Trust began appointing a Director Of Productions on an annual basis, generally at the Annual General Meeting held each December.

The first of the Director of Productions was Rodney Wood, who took on the role for both the 1967 and 1968 summer seasons. Rodney had been a stage manager, actor and director within the company and had also brought Alan to Scarborough in 1957 from Leatherhead Theatre Club.

In 1967, Alan had his first major West End success in the West End with Relatively Speaking and it’s hard not to believe this was not a factor in Scarborough Theatre Trust’s subsequent decision. Alan Ayckbourn was asked to be the Director of Productions for the 1969 summer season, which he agreed to. It’s worth re-iterating that Alan was employed full-time by the BBC at the time and this was only an annual appointment.

The following year, the role was put to a vote again by the Trust and Alan was again offered for the role and took it on; during the summer season, he would also step down from the BBC. Whilst some sources indicate 1970 being the point Alan became Artistic Director, this is patently not the case given it was still an annual appointment and at both times he accepted the role, he was actually still working for the BBC.

In 1971, Alan was unavailable due to commitments with his first Broadway transfer and the role of Director of Productions was accepted by Caroline Smith at Alan’s suggestion. During January 1972, Alan was asked to become the Director of Productions for the 1972 summer season and accepted – at this point, Alan had no inkling the role was about to become permanent.

Following a successful season which included the world premiere of Absurd Person Singular, Scarborough Theatre Trust met on 12 November 1972. There it was proposed Alan Ayckbourn become Artistic Director of the theatre, which was again unanimously carried. This was the final time the Trust took a vote on the position and from this point the role can be considered to have become a permanent role.

Although specifically appointed Artistic Director – and just to confuse matters – Alan frequently called the position Director of Productions between 1972 and 1988. He would hold the role of Artistic Director from 1972 to 31 March 2009 when he retired two weeks prior to his 70th birthday.

Although primarily considered a playwright and director, Alan Ayckbourn considers his role as Artistic Director one of the most important and significant roles of his life. His work cemented the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s reputation as a leading UK advocate and producer of new writing and also preserved the legacy of his mentor, Stephen Joseph – after whom the theatre is now named.

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

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