Artistic Director: Advice 50 Years On

Fifty years ago, Alan Ayckbourn was appointed the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in Scarborough. He would go on to hold the role for 37 years across three venues.

Although he had been appointed to run the venue on a seasonal basis in 1969 and 1970, it was only 12 November 1972 that he was actually appointed and full-time Artistic Director and it would have a profound impact on both him and the company.

Alan Ayckbourn in 1972 when he was appointed Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough (© Haydonning Ltd)

He would guide the company through three homes including its present home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre. During his 37 years – one of the longest tenures of any British Artistic Director – he would direct and commission more plays than all the company’s other Artistic Directors combined since 1955.

During the period from 1972 to 2009, he established an international reputation for the coastal theatre based upon its championing of new writing and new writers. He also emphasised Scarborough was the best place to see his works – the world premieres, performed in-the-round, directed by himself with his hand-picked actors.

To mark the anniversary, I’ve found a document in archive in which Alan Ayckbourn offers advice on thoughts on the role of Artistic Director. They offer an insight into the experiences of nearly four decades and the hugely successful role he played which is often forgotten next to his more pronounced roles as playwright and director.

Further information about Alan’s role as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre can be found on his official website here.

Tips for Artistic Directors by Alan Ayckbourn

○ Be ready to think ahead. Up to eighteen months or even two years ahead, usually. To fulfil the role of artistic director successfully requires constant forward planning. It can feel as the years go by, like a never-ceasing treadmill. But it needs to be forward-looking, especially when dealing with new writing. Most writers require these days at least a year’s planning time.

○ If you’re planning to direct as well oversee the artistic policy, you will find on occasions you will be trying to do two jobs at once. Try to do as much preparation as possible for your own productions, in order to keep your other eye on the day to day business of running the building. Most of the team, however good an Executive Director you have in place, will be looking to you for leadership. A theatre is unlike other businesses primarily concerned with art.

○ To this end, too, keep the art at the centre. There will be constant seemingly more important day-to-day matters to be dealt with and will take up valuable time and energy. Always give the art, whenever possible, your priority.

○ Artistically, keep the actors in the centre of the art. In these straightened times, they will be at the heart of all your decisions depending on who and how many you have available. When commissioning new plays, especially, give the writer at the start a clear indication of the resources they will have available (i.e. 3m, 3f, 1 set.) Most authors, I find, prefer a clear brief rather than something vague and open ended. Similarly, it is advisable not to choose a classic, unless you feel you have the resources at your disposal to do it justice. (Never set our to produce King Lear, without a King already in your grasp!)

○ Ensure everyone in the team has that same priority. The larger the organisation the easier it is for some branches to lose touch with why they’re actually there, the business of putting on plays and pursuing the promotion and propagation of theatre in the community.

○ Thus, keep everyone abreast of the art by encouraging them to read the plays, attend read-throughs, rehearsals, run-throughs, dress-runs and of course performances. Make sure they meet the actors and the creative team.

○ In order to juggle both jobs it’s important to delegate. For your team to develop it is important that you show trust in their judgement. But it’s a fine balance between judicious delegation and neglecting things by being constantly in absentia! But giving people their head can often allow them to grow stronger. But first pick a team you trust and feel are on your wavelength.

○ However small the organisation there is always a tendency for false rumours to start and proliferate. People are by nature empire builders based on the notion of “knowledge is power”. But reluctance to circulate this knowledge is dangerous. Be an advocate of open government where possible.

○ To ensure this, be available to everyone at least on a regular, preferably daily basis. Get them used to seeing you about the place, so that a visit from you to their workspace doesn’t seem a special event, or that they you’re checking up on them for some specific reason. People also tend to be slightly paranoid!

○ Contradicting this slightly, try to avoid too many formal general meetings but, where possible, meet in smaller groups to discuss matters requiring shorter agendas. Certainly, avoid too many full-scale company meetings as people will often feel they need to have said something (often nothing to do with them and trivial) and waste everyone’s time.

○ There are always individuals in a team that will merit encouragement to experience other fields, stage managers who want to try lighting design, box office personnel anxious to try their hand at marketing, for instance. These might be rare individuals, but never be afraid to think outside the box and indeed encourage others to do the same.

○ Stephen Joseph once said that every theatre should be prepared to self- destruct every seven years. Drastic advice but not, I feel, he intended to be taken too literally. Nonetheless be ready if you feel routine is setting in and a certain complacency is in the air, to jettison or entirely alter certain fixed policies that have been in place for several years. Question why “we always do it this way”. A balance needs to be struck, but good theatre always thrives best on certain uncertainty; fear of the unexpected is a great stimulant for the creative juices. Again, there needs to be a balance, but better the scarily unknown than the dully predictable.

○ Always encourage those in the Front of House team, especially the box office, ushers and bar staff to maintain a constancy of open welcoming friendliness towards the patrons. They are, after all, the first and often the last point of contact with the general public who can, as we know, be occasionally downright impossible to deal with. The Front of House staff’s job is alternately rewarding and thankless but, as I have often said to them, they can at least maintain a level whereas we producing the work are continually from play to play taking blind leaps into the dark. We have hopes but we can never guarantee. None of us, as I once remarked to a critic, ever set out on day one to give you a bad evening. But we’ve all done it! But good art is a process of constant re-invention. No sooner have we built a successful seaworthy vessel than we scuttle it and start again from scratch. People, in the main, will occasionally forgive you a poor production, but they will rarely forgive rudeness from a bar person!

○ These are rules I have learnt over the years and came to live by, but they are by no means sacrosanct or inviolate. When it comes down to it, follow your instincts. Theatre is, after all, about understanding people both inside and out.

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

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