Directing Others

Twenty years ago this week, Tim Firth’s play The Safari Party opened at the Hampstead Theatre. You’re probably wondering what that has to do with Alan Ayckbourn?

It’s actually a significant moment in Alan’s directing career as The Safari Party is the final play Alan directed that he had not written himself.

This brought to a close an aspect of Alan’s professional life rarely discussed, that of his role directing other writers’ work. Whilst Alan’s role as a director is perceived as a vital part of his theatrical life, he is most associated with directing the world premieres and revivals of his own plays.

Yet Alan’s experience directing work by other writers is hugely substantive and – ultimately – where he finally received wider recognition for his directing skills.

A publicity image from Gaslight, Alan Ayckbourn’s first play as a director (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Alan’s professional experience as a director began at the Library Theatre in 1961 with a production of Patrick Hamilton’s classic play, Gaslight. Alan’s mentor Stephen Joseph – having already encouraged Alan to write – was keen to move Alan away from the path of actor and rightly guessed Alan’s head might well be turned by the challenges of directing.

Or as Alan once memorably put it: “Stephen Joseph gently kicked me into directing. He knew my acting career was on the rocks. And once you’ve directed you never want to go back into acting.”

Alan loved the challenge of directing – far preferring it to the rigours of acting – and began to push for more productions. In 1961 alone, he directed four full-length productions and three one act plays. This is in addition to writing his fourth full-length play, Standing Room Only, and acting in nine productions for the Library Theatre, Scarborough.

In 1962, he directed five productions – including Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker and by the time he came to direct one of his own plays for the first time in 1963 – a revival of Standing Room Only – Alan had directed 13 professional productions.

And this was a trend that continued. Whilst we naturally associate Alan Ayckbourn the director with Alan Ayckbourn the writer, for the first four decades of his professional theatrical career, Alan directed far more productions by other writers than his own work.

To break it down, during the 1960s Alan directed (all figures approximate) 24 productions – four of which were his own work; during the 1970s, he directed 54 productions – 19 of which his own and during the 1980s, he directed 73 productions of which 49 were his own work. Over the course of those three decades, less than half of the 151 productions he directed were written by him.

It’s well-known that Alan continued his mentor’s legacy by encouraging new writing when he was Artistic Director of what is now the Stephen Joseph Theatre. But, frequently, he went beyond that and was also directing new work being premiered at the Library Theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round and – to a lesser extent – at the Stephen Joseph Theatre until 1999.

Particularly once we get into the ’70s and ’80s, Alan was directing new plays by Peter Tinniswood, Brian Thompson, Stephen Mallatratt and Michael Cashman among others. He always believed that – as Stephen Joseph had done for him – new writing deserved the benefit of experienced directors and wasn’t something to be sidelined.

Poster for Alan Ayckbourn’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

But Alan also – given he was essentially programming the theatre each year – gave himself the opportunity to direct classics and works by authors which interested him. We see him directing plays by Ibsen, Chekhov and Pinter – all highly influential playwrights to Alan. There’s also an interesting strand of American playwrights – Arthur Miller, Herb Gardner, Neil Simon as well as classic British playwrights such as Coward, Travers and Priestley.

By the mid 1980s, Alan made no attempt to hide what his preferred occupation in theatres – and it wasn’t what most people associated with him. “I always consider myself as a director who writes rather than a writer who directs, because directing takes up so much of my time,” was a quote which appeared in many permutations throughout the ’80s and ’90s.

So much so that Alan’s passport apparently listed his occupation as director rather than playwright.

Interestingly, despite his – arguably – vast experience of directing, London was slow to catch on. Initially, he was kept away from directing his own plays as it was argued it wasn’t really the done thing and playwrights shouldn’t really be directing their own plays. It was only after Peter Hall took the leap and let Alan direct Bedroom Farce for the National Theatre in 1977, that producers began to realise that actually the best person to direct an Ayckbourn play was Ayckbourn himself.

Which was not news to anyone living in his adopted home-town who were used to seeing the largely far superior original productions of his plays in-the-round in Scarborough.

This disparity in acknowledging his skills as a director was one of the key reasons why Alan decided to take a sabbatical from Scarborough from 1986 to 1988 to become a Company Director at the National Theatre. As well as taking the chance to re-charge his creative batteries outside of Scarborough, Alan believed this was his big chance to prove his credentials as a director.

And he certainly did that. Whilst his own production of his play A Small Family Business drew plaudits and acclaim at the National, it was his production of Miller’s A View From The Bridge that cemented his reputation as a great director and not just a great playwright. The production in the Cottesloe received unanimously positive reviews and was a sell-out success.

Poster for the National Theatre’s production of A View From The Bridge (© National Theatre)

But, in Alan’s eyes, his greatest accolade was to come from Miller himself, who said it was the finest production of his play he had ever seen and that Alan’s leading man, Michael Gambon, was the finest Eddie he had ever witnessed. The production transferred into the West End and was a huge success and gave Alan the recognition as a director he craved.

Ironically then, when he returned to Scarborough, although he would continue to be a prolific director, the amount of work by other authors began to decline as he began to concentrate in the huge task of converting Scarborough’s former Odeon cinema into a new theatre.

Most of the productions directed by Alan from 1991 onwards are his own work with only occasional – if memorable – dives into other people’s work: Peter Robert Scott’s One Over The Eight, an extraordinary Conversations With My Father by Herb Gardner starring Judd Hirsch and a memorably production of Pinter’s Betrayal (actually his final production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round before the company moved to its present home).

On his 60th birthday in 1999, Alan announced he was going to take a step back and would only direct his own plays finishing with Robert Shearman’s Knights in Plastic Armour. It wasn’t really an easing of his workload though, he was still directing an average of five or six productions a year alongside writing several new plays annually as well as his role of Artistic Director.

His Swanson as a director of other writers ‘work actually came in 2002 when he agreed to direct the world premiere of Tim Firth’s comedy The Safari Party at the Stephen Joseph Theatre; Firth having made his early big breaks with the company with plays such as Neville’s Island.

The following year, Alan was asked to revive the production for the newly re-opened Hampstead Theatre and on 5 March 2003, The Safari Party opened and marked the final time, as of writing, that Alan worked on another author’s play.

Twenty years on, it’s easy to forget forget that half the plays Alan Ayckbourn has directed in his professional career were by other writers. In a career where he has directed more than 350 professional productions, probably 175 of them are works by other authors. This would be an extraordinary achievement for any director not least one who was also writing prolifically, directing his won work as well as running a regional theatre.

And whilst we can continue to appreciate Alan’s skills as a director today, there’s now a generation who have never had the good fortune to see just how good a director he was with other people’s plays. We mustn’t forget that though and although Alan is once again primarily recognised for his playwriting, we must never forget just how significant and varied his professional directing career was.

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

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