Friday, November 5, 2010

All Things Ayckbourn: Second most performed playwright in...

An occasional editorial by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd about all things Ayckbourn.

One of the most frequently posed questions to is (right after "How do I get hold of Season's Greetings on DVD?): Is Alan Ayckbourn really the second most performed playwright in the UK?
I've no idea.
And despite what you may have read, no matter what the quality of the publication, neither does anyone else. No-one can say with any degree of certainty where in the theatrical pop charts Shakespeare, Alan Ayckbourn, Alan Bennett, John Godber or any other playwright stands.
We can take an educated guess (Shakespeare as number 1...), but that's about it as no-one has done any definitive research into this for years and even that dated research (which is what is probably being quoted) is somewhat flawed given it was only about a specific facet of British theatre.
So where does this oft-repeated but rarely substantiated fact come from? And, no, it doesn't come from Alan Ayckbourn's official website! As far as I've been able to discover, this fatuous quote originates in some statistics published in 1990 - but for the context to these, we need to go back a few years earlier.
In 1983, the Arts Council of Great Britain (as it was known), published for the first time statistics about regional theatres in the UK subsidised by the Arts Council (keep that in mind...). Compiled over a two year period, it reported on the most performed play (Cider With Rosie apparently), audience figures and, amongst other facts, the most popular playwrights.
Between 1981 and 1983, more people went to see an Ayckbourn play than a Shakespeare play - although there were slightly more productions of Shakespeare than Ayckbourn. This was promptly reported in the media that Alan Ayckbourn was the UK's most popular playwright and it would often be repeated without context.
For it's important before we get to 1990 to put these figures into a context. They are pertinent only to regional theatres subsidised by the Arts Council. They do not include regional commerical theatres, West End theatres or amateur productions. It's an interesting but somewhat limited view of British Theatre during a very specific period between 1981 and 1983.
These reports from the Arts Council continued to be published, again restricted to the same criteria, fairly regularly with Alan and Shakespeare battling it out for the top spot and swapping places fairly regularly.
In 1990, the Arts Council published its Cultural Trends report which included the statistic that Alan Ayckbourn was the second most popular playwright after Shakespeare. In context, this was limited to the previous 12 months and was again limited to regional subsidised theatre.
The Arts Council eventually stopped publishing such specific figures about plays and playwrights and I'm unaware of any major media story on the popularity of Alan Ayckbourn (or any other playwright), validated by actual facts and statistics, since the mid 1990s. The Arts Council statistics from 1990 appear to have been the last to have been widely reported.
So when I rhetorically ask myself where did the fact Alan is the second most performed playwright come from, my answer is: probably an Arts Council report in 1990 that has been regurgitated and repeated ad nauseum without anyone questioning where the statistic came from or, more importantly, whether its accurate or can be substantiated.
Let's emphasise, there is no doubt Alan Ayckbourn is an extremely popular playwright - had the reports included amateur, commerical tours and West End productions during the '80s and '90s, I have absolutely no doubt he would have had the highest attendance of any playwright in the country during those decades. But no-one can specifically say how popular he was then or now.
Today, Alan's plays are still a staple of subsidised theatres in the UK as well as amateur companies. Generally there's at least one major tour of an Ayckbourn play going on at any one time in the UK and after a short lull, the West End has gone back to producing at least one Ayckbourn production a year. I've no doubt that were someone able to pull all the statistics together, Alan would still be in the top three performed playwrights in the UK.
But if you see anyone definitely state he (or any other playwright) is the first, second, third or twenty-third most performed playwright in the UK, take it with a pinch of salt or, better still, write and ask where they got the statistic from. It'd be fascinating to know (and if they say Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website, you know they're fibbing...).
Saying all that though, if someone were to ask me who the most performed playwright in the UK was. Well, I'd take a shot. I may be Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, but I wouldn't bet against Mr Shakespeare. He's got pretty good form....

If you're interested in seeing the original Arts Council press release from 1983 about Alan Ayckbourn being the most performed playwright in the UK, you can find it at Alan Ayckbourn's website here.