Debut of a Director

Today marks the 60th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn’s debut as a professional director on 29 June 1961 at the Library Theatre, Scarborough.

It would become one of the two predominant strands of Alan Ayckbourn’s career in theatre alongside playwriting and he has frequently said he considers himself a director first and a playwright second.

To mark the anniversary, this article celebratres Alan’s first production as a director from which he would go on to direct more than 350 productions from Scarborough to London to New York and beyond.

Debut of a Director by Simon Murgatroyd

In 1961, Alan Ayckbourn took another significant step in his thatrical career which would have a profound impact on his work.

Having joined the Library Theatre, Scarborough, as an assistant stage manager and actor in 1955, Alan made his playwriting in 1959 and two years later, would add directing to his string of achievements.

The company’s founder and Artistic Director Stephen Joseph encouraged Alan to take the step into writing and directing, with Alan himself acknowledging that Stephen saw his long-term talents lay somewhere other than acting.

“Stephen Joseph gradually encouraged me to direct in order to put a spoke in the wheels of my acting career, but that is a poisoned chalice for an actor; if they get the taste for directing, they slowly tire of acting because directing is global and you have a view of the entire production.”

Hazel Burt in Alan Ayckbourn’s directorial debut, Gaslight (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Alan’s first production was Patrick Hamilton’s classic Victorian thriller Gaslight , which opened at the Library Theatre on 29 June 1961. As Alan’s programme note shows, the playwright was already plunging into the deep end with an attempt to prove that a very traditionally proscenium arch play could work effectively in-the-round.

“Certainly, at first sight, a Victorian thriller did not seem ideal ‘round’ material…. It took only one or two rehearsals any isle this illusion.”

That he attempted such a challenging play at the outset is instructive as it demonstrates how comfortable Alan Ayckbourn was working in the round. By 1961, Alan had been acting in-the-round for five years and it is considered he was one of the most experienced in-the-round actors in the UK at that time, having performed in around 25 different productions.

The production was well received by both audiences and critics. Most notably, the play was reviewed by the influential The Stage & Television Today news- paper which wrote “the production, by Alan Ayckbourn, is polished, building with authority from its quiet opening to the chilling of spines as the tension mounts towards hysteria.”

That this was a promising start to a directorial career is obvious, but few would have realised this was to launch a career that – as of writing – has seen Alan Ayckbourn direct more than 350 productions in the UK, USA and Europe.

This move into directing would also have a huge effect on Alan Ayckbourn’s professional career as, although primarily thought of as a writer, he considers himself first and foremost a director; Alan, spends far more time in the rehearsals room than in front of a keyboard.

“I have traditionally considered myself as a director who writes rather than a writer who directs, because directing took up so much of my time.”

That Alan’s talents and contributions to the company were beginning to be recognised can be seen from another interesting item from the archive published in the Yorkshire Post on 10 June 1961.

Written by theatre critic Desmond Pratt, it looks at the impact of theatre-in-the-round since Stephen Joseph opened the Library Theatre in Scarborough in 1955.

Somewhat contradictorily, whilst extolling the virtues of in-the-round and its future, the author also sees it merely as a platform for more traditional and commercial theatre ventures. Within the article Alan Ayckbourn’s place and rise within the company is mentioned with a brief appraisal of his progress.

“Alan Ayckbourn, for instance, is only 22, but he started work in the theatre on leaving school and joined Studio Theatre four years ago as an assistant stage manager with a happy knowledge of lighting and sound effects. He has developed into a most sensitive actor, has become a playwright whose works have been staged by Mr Joseph and is now to produce for the first time.”

I’m not sure Alan even would know what a ‘happy knowledge’ of something is! But this is followed by advice as to where Alan Ayckbourn should be heading with his career.

“It will be a loss to theatre-in-the-round but Mr Ayckbourn, for instance, is ready for the commercial theatre and should progress to the proscenium arch. The extra rewards will be both his and this of the larger audiences to which he can appeal.”

Thank goodness he avoided Mr Pratt’s advice and chose not to progress into proscenium arch, abandoning the theatre which would prove to be so pivotal in his life and work!

What all this shows though is that all the pieces were now in place for Alan: a playwright and director, who was beginning to attract attention.

Abandoning his acting career in 1964, Alan would soon concentrate on the two careers for which he is now world-renowned for and which would subsequently have had a huge impact on both a local level at the Library Theatre, later the Stephen Joseph theatre, and on a national level when he began directing extraordinaily successful productions in the West End and at the National Theatre.

You can find out more about Alan Ayckbourn’s directing career at his official website here as well as in the video A Life in Theatre: The Director on the official Ayckbourn YouTube channel.

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

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