60 Years of Directing

Earlier this year, Alan Ayckbourn celebrated the 60th anniversary of his directing debut in 1961.

For today’s blog, his Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, has an article marking this impressive feat of directorial longevity.

60 Years of Directing by Simon Murgatroyd

For many people, Alan Ayckbourn is best known as one of the country’s most successful living playwrights.

Ask Alan what he has traditionally replied throughout his long career and his answer might surprise.

“I always consider myself as a director who writes rather than a writer who directs, because directing takes up so much of my time.”

Alan’s career as a director is often over-looked, yet 2021 marks the 60th anniversary of a professional directing career spanning in excess of 375 productions from Scarborough to New York.

Alan Ayckbourn directing Paul Kemp in the 2004 world premiere of Private Fears in Public Places (© Tony Bartholomew – www.bartpics.co.uk)

That he has traditionally considered himself a director first is understandable considering Alan’s formative directing experiences came when he was barely recognised for his writing, having had only three plays professionally produced and being better known at that point as an actor.

In 1961, the founder of Scarborough’s Library Theatre and Alan’s most significant mentor suggested he might consider directing.

“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.”

Alan’s first play was the classic Victorian chiller Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton, which was well received with The Stage praising the ‘polished’ production. This led to more opportunities, guided by Stephen Joseph who offered Alan advice on directing as he had done previously with writing.

“He talked about directing with great knowledge and authority. Stephen really was a Renaissance man and he taught me in short sentences what writing was about, what directing was about and then left me to discover it for myself.”

As for what those two sentences were, they are advice which Alan has clung onto his entire life and also given as advice himself to other budding directors.

“Stephen Joseph gave me some good advice; it was my first play and I said ‘Tell me about directing. What do I do?’, and he told me that a director’s job is to form an atmosphere in which the actors feel free to create.”

As directing and writing became ever more pervasive, Alan’s interest in acting declined and in 1964, he left the profession – although it may well have been a case of jumping before being pushed!

“I became more and more objective about what was happening as a director and a less objective actor. I was a waste of space as an actor by the end of it!”

Alan soon showed a natural interest in directing his own plays; which was frequently discouraged at the time.

“I didn’t begin with the idea of directing my own plays; in fact at the time, people said writers should not direct their own plays. It wasn’t done, although there were notable exceptions including Noël Coward. And then I was slowly allowed to direct my plays in Scarborough, but never in London.”

This was a career-defining step. Initially directing several of his plays at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke- on-Trent, Alan then directed the world premiere of The Sparrow in Scarborough in 1967 – two years after Stephen Joseph’s death.

Subsequently he has directed the world premieres of all but two of his plays in the town; the exceptions being A Small Family Business which he wrote specifically for the National Theatre in 1987 and the forthcoming production of a new play, All Lies, at The Old Laundry Theatre, Bowness-on-Windermere, this coming Spring (2022).

In 1972, Alan became Artistic Director of the Library Theatre and directing became his predominant career – that season included his first production of a Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya (he also directed Chekhov’s The Seagull in 1979 and his own adaptation of Vanya called Dear Uncle in 2012). While Alan has always been seen as a prolific writer, this was as nothing compared to his directing; between 1972 and 2009, it was not unusual for him to direct between five and ten productions a year.

Despite this, his directing career was not particularly recognised outside Scarborough. Wider recognition would only come when he began to direct in London, initially at the invitation of Peter Hall to co-direct the London premiere of Bedroom Farce at the National Theatre in 1977.

Between 1977 and 2002, Alan would direct the majority of the London premieres of his plays with more than 35 directng credits in the West End and at the National Theatre. Substantial recognition had to wait until 1987 though, when Alan was on a two year sabbatical from Scarborough as a company director at the National Theatre. One of his stated intentions there was “to establish a reputation as a director.”

His production of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge achieved this and received extraordinary reviews. The critic Michael Billington succinctly summed up the mood: “It remains one of the great productions of our time” and Sheridan Morley wrote: “It is hard to believe that there ever has been, or perhaps ever will be, a better production of Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge“; Morley also famously spoke to Miller who told him: “This was the best production he had ever seen.”

A View From The Bridge garnered Alan his first Olivier nomination for directing as well as the Plays & Players Award for Best Director and what had been known in Scarborough for many years was finally acknowledged in London, here was not only a world class playwright, but also a world class director.

Since then Alan has frequently been asked to direct for some of the most respected companies in this country and abroad, although he has regularly declined due to his commitment to the Stephen Joseph Theatre. This relationship led to a significant recognition of Alan in 2005 when he took his production of Private Fears In Public Places to New York. Reviews tended towards the superlative and highlights included Time magazine naming its first choice play of 2005, praising “Ayckbourn’s delicate, understated direction.”

Sixty years on, Alan’s passion for directing is undiminished and even now – at the age of 82 – he averages two productions a year – and would no doubt do more if given the opportunity!

To his mind, at least, there is virtually no way to separate the director from the writer and it is something which is crucial and dear to him.

“Two things I live for. One is being in a rehearsal room. The other is writing a new play.”

by Simon Murgatroyd

You can find out more about Alan Ayckbourn’s debut as a director in 1961 by clicking here and the Ayckbourn YouTube Channel has a video looking at Alan Ayckbourn’s career as a director by clicking here.

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

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