Alan Ayckbourn’s Theatre-in-the-Round (pt.2)

Alan Ayckbourn’s Theatre-in-the-Round Memories is a reminiscence by the playwright Alan Ayckbourn, originally published in 2009, recalling his association with theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough

It accompanies the Changing Spaces articles as well as Alan Ayckbourn’s memories of his experiences at the second home of his Scarborough company, previously published on the blog.

The first part of the article (click here) looked at Alan’s memories of Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre between 1957 and 1975. The second part covers the years 1976 to 2009 until the point Alan retired as Artistic Director as well as covering the transition of the playwright and the company to two new homes.

Theatre-in-theRound Memories (part 2) by Alan Ayckbourn

1976: I remember on the very last night of Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, going for another of my nocturnal walks. This time to the Spa where I stand under the arches and let the waves threaten my shoes. Depressed again, not to say a trifle apprehensive at the big move ahead of us to Theatre in the Round at Westwood.

Alan Ayckbourn on his final day as Artistic Director of the company on 31 March 2009 (© Tony Bartholomew)

I clearly remember the first night there, too. Wet paint everywhere front of house. Since the stage lighting board isn’t yet connected, I have to light the show off a trailing thirteen amp lead, each lamp individually, one at a time. The result is that nobody has the remotest idea what the final picture will be.

Cussedly, I decide to re-open it with a previous failure, Mr Whatnot. Which goes fine if a bit dark in places.

I learn later that we’ve opened ‘illegally’ since after several months we still haven’t signed a lease with the owners, North Yorkshire County Council.

Soon afterwards we are offered a one year lease, later extended to three as they weren’t sure we were ‘that established’. Presumably implying that we might suddenly up sticks and do a runner! After 21 years? Come on, fellers, give us a break, will you!

We continue for the next twenty years with two or three leases making long term planning a trifle hesitant and giving everyone a slight sense of impermanency.

1978: The decade is also memorable for me flying solo as director in the West End with Ten Times Table.

1979: The decade finishes on a high with Sisterly Feelings and, later that year, Taking Steps. The first night of the latter is the first time I have ever seen a man literally fall off his seat with laughter. He lies on the auditorium steps, kicking his feet.

At the end of the first Act of Taking Steps, breaking with tradition, I go backstage to see the cast. I leave the auditorium as the house lights come up for the interval and make my way to the dressing rooms. I find the cast sitting in the tiny green room in stunned silence. The applause is still rattling through the tannoy speaker on the wall. Finally it dies out. There is a pause. Then one of them says, ‘It’s a bit frightening this really, isn’t it?’

The 1980s: The Westwood Years!

Undaunted by the setback of Jeeves, I embark on a series of musicals with composer Paul Todd, starting with Suburban Strains, then Making Tracks and a whole load of shorter musical lunchtime shows – 10 in all. We write over 100 songs together over the period.

1981: I flood the theatre, not for the first time admittedly but never quite on this scale, with Way Upstream (later, largely technically I might add, to all but sink the National Theatre.) Tabloid fame at last!

1982: I also write a play with sixteen endings (Intimate Exchanges) which at the time we start isn’t more than half written. Over that year, like a TV Soap writer, I just keep ahead of the actors Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram.

I remember we had to open first A Cricket Match and were into rehearsals for Events on A Hotel Terrace when Robin pulls up short with a panic attack declaring he can’t go on. Help! There’s another six and a half plays to go! We take a tea break. And on we go.

1984: It is the first time a cast in its entirety transfers to London with Intimate Exchanges. Though we had been sneaking Scarborough ‘regulars’ into both the West End and the National Theatre.

1988: I start developing my own writing for children, (the Eighties was the decade for overturned resolutions), first with Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays, then Invisible Friends. I begin to enjoy writing for children towards the end of the decade and decide to write children’s plays for adults as well, occasionally …

1991: … starting with Wildest Dreams which mystifies many adults (though not the children who see it oddly enough!)

1992: I continue the theme with a new musical partner, John Pattison, and Dreams from A Summer House.

This is the decade when we make our third and, so far as I’m concerned, final move to our third ‘home’, the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

I recall daily trips up from Westwood to view the progress of the building conversion, donning reinforced boots and hard hat. One day I come across a man building a breeze block wall across the entrance to The Round auditorium. Just as well I looked in when I did.

I remember how we hastily ‘redesign’ the auditorium when, due to an initial mis-measurement, there is insufficient room for a conventional back row – a sizeable percentage of the seating. Hence the high stool and bar arrangement solution.

1996: In the best tradition, we open the Stephen Joseph Theatre with another former disaster, Jeeves, re-titled By Jeeves. Around the actual opening nights, I remember very little. Interview after interview after interview.

There is a lot of local controversy and quite a little local hostility surround the opening, I recall. Possibly because I was reported as saying that in my opinion the town is on a downward slope and would soon be full of just pubs and shoe shops. My biggest regret really. After 40 years of carefully trying to establish an ‘everyone welcome’ policy, many people are still busily excluding themselves on the (spurious) grounds of ‘elitism.’ What bollocks!

1999: At the end of the decade, as a 60th birthday present to myself, House & Garden. Well, we have two theatre spaces, why not use both of them? – preferably both at once.

I never dreamt House & Garden would ever be done again anywhere. Then Trevor Nunn who is currently in charge of the National Theatre comes to see it on the very last double Saturday performances. I think he probably enjoys the shows well enough – but my abiding memory is of him at the fete in the bar afterwards desperately trying to win a Mars Bar from the human fruit machine. ‘Let him win,’ I keep whispering to the staff, ‘let the bugger win.’ He runs off to his chauffeur-driven car afterwards clutching his winnings as pleased as a kid.

Settling in to the new space, I am terrified that we are going to lose the feel we had at Westwood. But no looking back now. The old school had become hopelessly cramped over those past few years as we expanded and flexed our muscles – anyway, the authorities, as they were 20 years earlier, were expressing a growing desire to see us out of the place.

2001: From this decade, I recall in particular the startled faces of the Damsels in Distress company – booked originally for two plays, GamePlan and FlatSpin when I break it to them that I am contemplating a third, RolePlay, and how about it, are they up for a third?

2002: Of how the Damsels in Distress company – our company – “the magnificent seven” as one critic described them then transferred to the West End. And my own fury when after a week the plug is pulled on the entire notion of the trilogy – the realisation that this had been the intention at the start – hence the total lack of advance booking. How can you have advance sales, if the tickets are never on sale in the first place? I resolve never again to premier a new play commercially in London.

2005: The compensation for this is an unexpected off-Broadway triumph for the company with Private Fears in Public Places .

Then that’s theatre for you. When you’re up you’re up…

2006: The panic following my stroke, not only by the loss of movement but the terror that the play ideas after 50 years would no longer keep arriving. After all, the one thing you can’t allow for is the arrival of new idea. That is – you have to use the word – inspiration. The God given bit. After that it’s simply technique based on experience, a bit of instinct and sheer slog.

The joy of realising, a month or so later, that the ideas are creeping back into my head after the terrible lonely silence during those early hospital days.

2009: And so right through to my seventieth which, as my wife remarked, is gratifyingly the year of the standing ovation. First at the SJT’s last night of Awaking Beauty – a Christmas show and a musical – my God, what’s come over me?

That night also marks my finally standing down as Artistic Director of the company – 50% regret, 50% relief.

Other ovations at the press night of Matthew Warchus’s triumphant revival of The Norman Conquests at the Old Vic, then at The Olivier Awards to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award and finally at a Gala Performance held at the Theatre Royal, Northampton.

More memories, please ….

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

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