Friday, December 2, 2011

Neighbourhood Watch In New York: Matthew Cottle

Matthew Cottle is one of the few actors to have been directed by Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough, the West End and New York. Now appearing in the Neighbourhood Watch at the Brits Off Broadway festival, Matthew talks about his varied acting experiences with Alan Ayckbourn.


What was your first experience of an Alan Ayckbourn play?
As far as professional acting, Relatively Speaking was the first one. I’d worked in the New Victoria, Newcastle-under-Lyme, for about seven and a half months with Peter Cheeseman and they just asked me to play Greg. It’s such a masterpiece; a perfect play. When you come into the garden after that first scene and you get all those paybacks; all those plants he put in earlier and it’s just wonderful. I had such a great time doing that play. I found it challenging, but the two older actors were wonderful. It was in at the deep end but it was a good one to start with, although obviously I’d love to have had Alan directing it.

You trained at RADA, did you do any of Alan’s work there?
We didn’t do any of Alan’s work At RADA but I used to go to Windsor Theatre and see their Ayckbourn productions and absolutely adored them. Alan has genuinely always been my number one favourite playwright; I’ve always been such a huge fan.

Your big Ayckbourn break was with the West End premiere of Comic Potential.
By that stage I had a little bit of a TV profile and I read the script and thought, “this is brilliant.” I absolutely understood the part of Adam and I worked so hard and pretty much learnt the entire role for the audition. I went in to the audition and you can always tell with Alan when you’ve got it right; I left thinking this was brilliant! I then went into a rather intimidating recall with the producer Michael Codron, who on the contrary, doesn’t laugh at anything and was giving me nothing back, which sort of slightly threw me. But Alan was saying, “just relax it’ll be fine. He’s like this, he’s probably wanting to knock your fee down!” A couple of days later I learnt I’d got it and that was wonderful, going into that read-through and meeting people like Janie Dee and seeing that extraordinary performance close at hand. It was a happy job and having your name in lights in the West End in one of Alan’s plays, it was just a dream come true.

You played Adam opposite Janie Dee as Jacie, what was that like given that Janie walked away with most of the major acting awards for that role?
I think it’s like being Ernie Wise next to Eric Morecombe! Your job is to tell the story of the play but the light is, quite rightly, on the Jacie character. When you’re acting opposite a performance like that all you can do is be with her and be truthful to the story. You’ve just got to do your best, be truthful to the character and tell the story. That’s what I did!

You next worked with Alan in 2004 with his acclaimed revival of Way Upstream at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
I remember meeting Alan in the bar at Richmond Theatre and he just got chatting and told me what his plans were. When he mentioned Way Upstream, I knew it was a brilliant play and I’d got a feeling there might be a part for me. I straight away went to my agent and said I think I’d quite like to be seen for Alistair and Alan just offered it to me. It’s such a wonderful play, I thought wow, to do that in Scarborough, in the round with the set and on the boat - what an opportunity! That is still in my top three happiest jobs, I remember genuinely crying at the curtain call on the last night as it was such a wonderful, happy experience with such a fantastic, lovely cast.

In 2009, Alan’s 70th birthday was celebrated at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatres were you performed in Just Between Ourselves, Private Fears In Public Places and with Alan directing you in Man Of The Moment.
I read for Just Between Ourselves - I played Neil which I’ve done several times before, I love Neil, he’s so blissfully unhappy - and that seemed to go really well and they brought me back in to read for Laurie Sansom for Private Fears In Public Places and I was just going to be in the two plays. Then Alan was looking for someone to close Man Of The Moment and I thought I wouldn’t normally take that part, but Alan was directing it, I was in Northampton anyway and it’s just a brilliant play, so I took the part of Ashley. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much in a read-through as I have as I did for Man Of The Moment in Northampton. I sat between Kim Wall and Laura Doddington and tears were streaming down my face. It was a joy to be in that with a wonderful cast and it was a fantastic experience.

This led to the role of Tristram in Alan’s revival of Taking Steps at the Orange Tree in 2010, which was incredibly well received.
There was an extraordinary response. We used to go in, even before the reviews came out, knowing we were in something very special. I think it’s probably my favourite Ayckbourn play, just for pure laughs. I think it’s as funny a play as Alan has ever written and so clever.

Which brings us to 2011 and the chance to return to Scarborough to appear in Alan’s new plays Dear Uncle and Neighbourhood Watch.
Dear Uncle was wonderful to play and I’m so flattered to have been asked to do it. Flattered and surprised. I particularly enjoyed playing the second act. It was great to have this row scene where you kept going for it, which actually got more and more extreme as the run went on! The climax used to get me every night and I don’t think I’ve ever cried on stage before, but I don’t think there was a night in Dear Uncle where I didn’t completely go because I found it heartbreaking actually. It was beautifully written.

And you also played Martin in Neighbourhood Watch, which will transfer to New York and is your first Ayckbourn world premiere. What are your feelings on this opportunity to work with Alan?
I remember reading both plays in 2010 and I thought they were both wonderful. Two such fabulous roles. When I was a RADA, I was very clear that I wanted to do sitcoms at the BBC and the plays of Alan Ayckbourn. That’s what I’ve done. I’m living the dream!


With thanks to the Neighbourhood Watch company for all their help and support of www.alanayckbourn.net, wishing you all every success with Neighbourhood Watch in New York.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Alan Ayckbourn at Brits Off Broadway

Every day this week, the blog will be carrying exclusive features and interviews to tie in with the American premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play Neighbourhood Watch at the 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival. The series continues with a look at Alan’s association with the festival and its impact since 2005.

Tomorrow evening sees the American premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s acclaimed latest play Neighbourhood Watch as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival.5.In the past seven years, Alan’s plays have become a bi-annual fixture of the festival proving to be successes for both him and the 59E59 Theaters.
Yet prior to 2005, as discussed in yesterday’s article, Alan’s plays had had very little impact in New York and truth be told, it had been more than thirty years since his one bona fide Broadway hit.
In 1974, Absurd Person Singular opened in New York at the Music Box Theatre, directed by the London production’s director Eric Thompson, and would become one of the longest running comedies on Broadway by a British writer.
Theoretically, the floodgates should have opened with this leading to even more success, in the same way Absurd Person Singular led to success upon success in the West End.
But it didn’t. The Norman Conquests performed unexceptionally on Broadway and although there were subsequent successful Ayckbourn productions in New York such as the National Theatre’s tour of Bedroom Farce in 1979 and The Old Vic’s transfer of The Norman Conquests in 2009, most failed to have any major or lasting impact.
So there was no reason to believe that touring Alan Ayckbourn's most recent play from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough to a small off-Broadway festival in 2005 was going to make any sort of waves.
Yet when Private Fears In Public Places opened at the Brits Off Broadway festival, it was met with some of the most extraordinary reviews of the playwright’s career, including an astonishing review from the New York Times, which amongst many plaudits spotlighted the  “first-rate, frill-free acting” of Alan’s company.
Box office records at the 59E59 Theaters were broken and Alan noted, ”Seats were at a premium. The little box office wasn’t used to the lines around the block.” [1]
The company of six actors were compared to many of the Broadway heavyweights and at the end of the year the production featured in a host of top ten theatre lists including the New York Times and Times magazine. The production also garnered an Outstanding Director nomination at the Drama Desk Awards.
For Alan, it was an unexpected and extraordinary response to the play.
“It was a sort of vindication, like a life’s work unwasted. You slog away doing what you hope is good work up in the north-east but you never really know. But to be put up against that level of competition, in that sort of cauldron of critical mayhem which I have experienced over time... In New York the knives are very long indeed when they’re long. If you’ve got a failure in New York, try to get the firtst plane out.
“I wasn’t prepared for anything like the response.” [2]
The success of Private Fears In Public Places made a return visit to the Brits Off Broadway festival practically inevitable and Alan had already mentioned he was keen on returning in a couple of years time.
What wasn’t inevitable was that less than a year after returning to work from his stroke in 2006, he would transfer one of his most challenging and ambitious works across the Atlantic.
His revival of Intimate Exchanges was an epic experience for any venue; two actors playing 10 roles in a branching play with 16 possible permutations and more than 30 hours of dialogue in total.
This play was taken over to New York in its entirety. The complexity of the play posed a challenge for 59E59 Theaters and a few pleasant surprises. When interviewed about the production, the 59E59 Theaters Artistic Director Elysabeth Kleinhans noted how initially packages to see the different permutations were not offered and had to be created due to public demand.
“Who’s going to see all those plays in five weeks,” she said. “It’s ridiculous, right? I’m an optimist, but I never expected this.” [3]
Reviews again proved to be extremely favorable and it received Drama Desk nominations for Outstanding Play and for Outstanding Actor for Bill Champion. Time Magazine once again naming it as one of the top ten productions of the year.
Alan Ayckbourn’s plays were finally getting the recognition they deserved on the New York stage aided, it was regularly observed, by the quality of Alan’s acting company.
For Alan, the festival also finally meant being able to visit New York on his own terms. One of the appeals of the 59E59 Theaters to him is the small scale of the venue and the fact the festival welcomes his production with his company.
“It’s the sort of theater I recognize and am happy with,” noted Alan in 2009. “I would be far less happy a few blocks down in a big Broadway theater. As unhappy as I would be in London on the West End.” [4] 
2009 brought with it the third visit to the festival, following in the wake of the high profile transfer of The Old Vic’s acclaimed 2008 production of The Norman Conquests to the Circle In The Square theatre earlier in the year. This was arguably the most successful Broadway Ayckbourn production since Absurd Person Singular and was showered with major awards including the first Tony award for an Ayckbourn play.
In direct contrast to the large three-play scale of The Norman Conquests, Alan brought his latest, understated play to Brits Off Broadway with My Wonderful Day. This play, observed through the eyes of a mostly silent nine year old schoolgirl, was again tremendously successful, receiving excellent reviews and garnering Drama Desk nominations for Outstanding Play and Outstanding Actress for 28 year old Ayesha Antoine’s performance as nine year old Winnie.
And so, two years on, Alan Ayckbourn is again returns to Brits Off Broadway with his latest play, Neighbourhood Watch, and earlier this year he noted why the visits to New York had become significant to him.
“We take a show from Scarborough to New York with the same company and the same production and it gets fantastic reviews. When we there with My Wonderful Day in 2009, people were screaming out of their minds with praise and that is good for Scarborough and the theatre. It gives the company, not to say me, a little shot in the arm occasionally.” [5]
There is no doubt the success of Alan’s productions at the festival have been instrumental in increasing the awareness and appreciation of his plays in New York and the USA. It’s also hard not to believe too that their success was not also a key part in the decision to award Alan the prestigious Special Tony Award For Lifetime Achievement in Theatre in 2010.
So tomorrow night all eyes will be on the 59E59 Theaters to see whether Neighbourhood Watch can follow in the same successful steps as its predecessors.
Although one suspects to Alan, this is far less important than the opportunity the Brits Off Broadway offers to present his work on  the New York stage as he intends it to be seen with the spotlight thrown on the play and his actors and the quality of their work.


[1] Interview with Louise Jury, 6 January 2006, The Independent
[2] Interview with Louise Jury, 6 January 2006, The Independent
[3] Interview with Mark Blakenship, 27 May 2007, New York Times
[4] Interview with David Cote, 18 November 2009, Time Out
[5] Interview with Simon Murgatroyd, June 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

Alan Ayckbourn in New York

Every day this week, the blog will be carrying exclusive features and interviews to tie in with the American premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play Neighbourhood Watch at the 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival. The series begins with a look at Alan Ayckbourn’s plays in New York, continuing tomorrow with a look at his association with the festival.

It’s fair to say that in recent years there has been a profound alteration in the perception of Alan Ayckbourn and his plays in New York.
Until several years ago, Alan’s plays had never made a lasting impact in North America’s theatre capitol - certainly nothing like the success he has achieved in London’s West End.
And yet since 2005, there has been a re-evaluation of the playwright and his plays. The image of Alan as the master British farceur has been dispelled with critics re-appraising him with many now quick to draw comparisons with Chekhov. It is a remarkable transformation of fortunes, which is all the more interesting given the rather patchy history Alan has with New York and Broadway.
The first attempt to transfer Alan’s plays to New York dates back to 1967, the year Relatively Speaking opened to extraordinary success in London. Such success drew the attention of producers across the Atlantic and long and hard negotiations were initiated to bring the play to Broadway. The already difficult process was made even harder by an insistence that the young playwright’s play needed to be Americanised (by an American writer) for it to be a success. That this approach was doomed from the start can only be highlighted by the famed example of the line “I can’t say I’m taken with this marmalade” becoming “This marmalade is a freak-out.”
At which point, one suspects Alan’s interest in seeing the play on Broadway dipped significantly. Despite the ‘best’ intentions of the producers Relatively Speaking never made it to Broadway and its first professional New York production was only recorded in 1984!
The first Ayckbourn play to reach the Great White Way was How The Other Half Loves, although this was How The Other Half Loves seen through the lens of Robert Morley. He had played Frank Foster in the London production of the play and had dominated what was intended as an ensemble comedy. The American producers, having seen Morley in London, were thus convinced it was a star vehicle and promptly brought in Phil Silvers to revive his flagging post Sergeant Bilko career. Alan has fond stories of working with Silvers, but he was as ill-suited to the role as Morley and his abject lack of confidence in his own abilities (ironic considering his popularity and success in television) did the play few favours during its run in 1971, which ended up losing the producers $170,000.
It was followed in 1974 by easily the most successful and popular transfer of an Ayckbourn play to New York for the next 25 years. For Absurd Person Singular, the wise decision of hiring the London production’s director, Eric Thompson, was made. He assembled a strong cast and the play was a hit with the critics and audiences, running for 592 performances, making it the most successful comedy on Broadway by a British playwright since Noel’s Coward’s Blithe Spirit in 1941. That is not to say there weren’t problems as the producers were convinced the play’s acts were in the wrong order. Unable to grasp the concept of the play’s dying fall and that the funniest scene was the second, they presented Alan with statistics showing how there were more laughs (themselves divided into categories of laughter) in the second act which apparently meant it should be transposed to the final act. Alan knew there were more laughs in the second act, had intended it to be so, but the producers were still not happy and notified Alan they had the rights to alter the play as they saw fit and the acts would change. At which point, Alan’s formidable agent Margaret Ramsay made it clear that despite what they might believe the producers had absolutely no rights to alter the structure of the play. Faced with this particular agent on the warpath, there was no argument and the play was produced as intended and reaped the dividends.
The success of Absurd Person Singular led to a quick take up of The Norman Conquests in 1975 again with Eric Thompson assuming the director’s chair as he had for London. Unfortunately, the trilogy struggled to have the same impact as its predecessor and did not fare particularly well with the critics - it would almost be a quarter of a century before one of Alan’s most successful creations received its dues in New York!
If nothing else, the trilogy achieved the distinction of making Alan the first playwright to have four plays performing simultaneously on Broadway (alongside Absurd Person Singular). For one day in March 1976, 45th Street was renamed Ayckbourn Alley in honour of this achievement and the trilogy would also go on to win the Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience.
It would be 1979 before another Ayckbourn play found its way onto Broadway when the National Theatre toured Bedroom Farce to the USA. This play marked the first time Alan would direct a play in the West End and, consequently, the first play he directed in New York. The play had arrived in America on the back of phenomenal success in London and expectations were high. The reviews were generally excellent. Box office less so. No-one could quite explain it but Alan felt the play did not satisfy the expectations of what an American audience expected the National Theatre to present. It was nominated for Tonys for Best Direction and Best Play marking the first – and last – such nominations for an Ayckbourn play for 28 years.
Moving off-Broadway, in 1988 the Manhattan Theatre Club presented the first of several notable productions of Alan’s work. Woman In Mind featured Stockard Channing as Susan, well known in recent years for her role as the President’s wife in the TV series The West Wing, and both the production and the actress met with considerable acclaim. She won the Drama Desk Best Actress Award and the production remains as one of the rare occasions when an Ayckbourn play has transferred successfully to New York with an American cast; this is not to say American casts do not perform Ayckbourn well, generally though you need to look at regional theatre rather than New York for successfully produced Ayckbourn plays with American companies.
In 1991, the British director Alan Strachan – now considered one of the pre-eminent directors of Alan’s plays – premiered Taking Steps in the Circle In The Square theatre in 1991. It was a good production of the play and arguably the first time the New York production of a play was superior to the West End production. Alan Strachan undoubtedly did the play better justice than the flawed 1980 London production, aided considerably by the sensible decision to stage the play as it was intended in the round.
The following year Manhattan Theatre Club presented A Small Family Business on Broadway, one of the rare instances of any professional production of this challenging take on British society in the 1980s. This was the first time since the Manhattan Theatre Club was formed in 1970 that the organisation presented a play directly on Broadway. It was also responsible for the New York premieres (all off Broadway) of: Absent Friends in 1991 which featured a young Gillian Anderson who went straight from the play into the hit television show The X Files and international fame; Comic Potential in 2000, in which saw Janie Dee reprised her Olivier award-winning role as the android Jacie Triplethree to great acclaim; and finally House & Garden in 2002. 
2001 saw Alan himself return to Broadway to direct his and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical By Jeeves at the Helen Hayes Theatre. The play opened in the aftermath of 9/11 and nearly did not go ahead when many of the investors pulled out as a result of the uncertainty surrounding the events of that tragic day. Fortunately, alternative investment was found and the musical opened on 16 October with Martin Jarvis playing the role of Jeeves and John Scherer as Bertie Wooster. It ran until 30 December and was well-received during a difficult period for the New York theatre-scene. This production was also adapted for television and DVD with Alan stepping behind the camera as director for the first time.
Alan returned to New York in 2005 with the American premiere of Private Fears In Public Places. Invited to take part in the Brits Off Broadway festival, he brought his Scarborough company to the 59E59 Theaters in what was potentially a risky financial move for the Stephen Joseph Theatre – particularly with a play so uncharacteristic of the playwright. Advanced ticket sales were steady if unspectacular until the reviews came in. Led by Charles Isherwood’s extraordinary tribute to the play in the New York Times which heaped praise on the production and described the company as the best in New York, the reviews ensured the play became the hottest ticket in town and a sell-out. Alan’s profile rose immediately and there were even plans for him to return to New York to direct it with an American company. Although casting was competed for the play, a decision to move the production from an intimate off Broadway venue to a larger, less appropriate venue led to the production being vetoed. In all likelihood the best decision as Alan was never going to receive any better notices than those he had received during the festival.
Alan would return to the Brits Off Broadway festival in 2007 with Intimate Exchanges and 2009 with My Wonderful Day, both winning plaudits from the critics and proving to be enormous successes (of which more will be discussed tomorrow).
Several months later in 2005 and perhaps with unfortunate timing, Absurd Person Singular was revived by Manhattan Theatre Club on Broadway. The critics came in from two fronts; those that had fond memories of the original Broadway production and those who had seen Private Fears in Public Places and appreciated just how an Ayckbourn play should be directed and acted. Even the very best production would have struggled to step out of either of those shadows.
The next Ayckbourn production on Broadway proved to be far more sure-footed and became the most successful production of an Ayckbourn play since Absurd Person Singular in 1974. The Norman Conquests transferred to New York following critical and commercial success at The Old Vic theatre in London. Directed by Matthew Warchus, with unflagging support from the Old Vic’s artistic director Kevin Spacey, the play arrived at the Circle In The Square theatre on a wave of anticipation on 25 April for a limited run. By the time, it closed on 26 July it had amassed the single highest amount of awards any single production of an Ayckbourn play has ever received. Amongst these was Alan’s first Tony, awarded for Best Revival. Its success generated large amounts of media attention for both the trilogy and Alan, although as several critics pointed out, New York was rather late to the party as regional American theatres had been producing strong productions of Alan’s plays for a number of years and already knew the quality of Alan’s work. However, the combination of The Norman Conquests alongside the appreciation of Alan’s own productions with his own company at the Brits Off Broadway festival truly helped to alter perceptions of the playwright.
Which sets the stage for Alan’s return to New York on Wednesday with his latest play Neighbourhood Watch....

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The 'Ayckbourn On DVD' Question

An occasional editorial by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd about all things Ayckbourn...
Come the winter months and one of the most frequently asked questions is: where can I get a DVD of Season's Greetings?

During the rest of the year, it's: where can I get a DVD of [insert Ayckbourn play title of choice]?

It's a question dealt with on the website in the Films, TV & Radio section, but worth revisiting here.

The simple answer to the question is: unfortunately, you can't get Season's Greetings on DVD nor has it previously been released commercially. The same answer applies to practically any of the other many filmed adaptations of Alan Ayckbourn's plays.

Frustrating as it may be for fans of Alan’s plays or the TV productions themselves, very few of the films have ever been released commercially nor do there appear to be any plans to release them in the foreseeable future.

The reasons for this are not obvious, but are presumably commercial in nature. It may appear to you or I to be an obvious decision to release archive television material onto DVD, but there are always costs - be they restoration of prints, licensing costs or just the standard compensation to the creative talent involved.

And all that before any consideration of whether the product will sell enough to be commercially viable!

What is worth emphasising is that Alan Ayckbourn himself is not one of the reasons why the likes of the BBC’s Season’s Greetings, Absent Friends and Absurd Person Singular are not available. In principal, he has no objection to the release of the plays on DVD, but that counts for little given the initial decision as to whether to release the films has to be taken by the BBC (or the relevant rights holder).

So, sadly, for those of you who hoping to see the BBC’s Season’s Greetings this Christmas - or any of the other BBC adaptations (Absent Friends, Absurd Person Singular, Relatively Speaking and Way Upstream) or the ITV adaptations (Bedroom Farce, Just Between Ourselves, The Norman Conquests and Time And Time Again) - it’s going to be another frustrating year.

But if the situation should ever change and the BBC does decide to release the Ayckbourn DVDs or even just repeat them on television, we’ll be the first to let you know at www.alanayckbourn.net.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Alan Ayckbourn's Plays For Amateurs

With the forthcoming world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s 75th play Neighbourhood Watch, it’s worth noting another Ayckbourn anniversary is also fast approaching.
October will mark the 50th anniversary of the first verified amateur production of an Ayckbourn play.
On 4 October 1961, Scarborough Theatre Guild performed the one act play Love Undertaken at St Mary’s Parish House, Scarborough, beginning a relationship that would see Alan’s plays become a stalwart of amateur companies throughout the world over the following five decades.
Now it’s worth noting this was almost certainly not the first amateur production of one of Alan’s plays - there’s strong evidence of a production as early as February 1961 and unsubstantiated reports of a production in late 1960. However, Love Undertaken is significant as it is the earliest production of an Ayckbourn play which received a license for performance from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, to which historically all plays had to be submitted for approval until 1968, and to which we can pinpoint a definite date and place of production.
It’s not really surprising Alan’s ties with the amateur community go back so far, after all Scarborough’s Library Theatre was absolutely dependent on volunteers, largely drawn from the town’s amateur theatricals. Stephen Joseph may have had the vision and passion to create the country’s first in-the-round company in the unlikeliest of places, but in the formative years he did not necessarily have the finances to ensure its survival and his box office, front of house and back-stage team were populated by volunteers.
Alan Ayckbourn stepped into this environment in 1957 when he joined the company as an actor / stage manager, meeting his mentor Stephen Joseph and a company that embraced the community for not only its audience but also its existence.
Foremost among that community was Ken Boden, who would become the theatre manager and alongside his wife Margaret (who ran the box office) were both well-known figures on Scarborough’s amateur scene and members of Scarborough Theatre Guild. He, like many others in the town, embraced both this exciting new theatre and, soon after, a rising writing talent.
Alan’s first play, The Square Cat, was premiered in July 1959 and quickly followed up by Love After All in December. Given the plays’ success and popularity, one can imagine the amateur companies were queuing up to see if this exciting young writer would work with them. Obviously head of that queue were Ken, Margaret and Scarborough Theatre Guild, for whom Alan would write at least four plays.
The first play Love Undertaken was a one-act romantic comedy set in an undertaker’s office (the lead character is introduced rising from a coffin, where he has been hiding). There is no record of the success of Love Undertaken, but the following March, Scarborough Theatre Guild presented a double bill of one act plays by the author, Follow The Lover and Double Hitch. The former is a comedy about an older couple who each believe the other is having an affair with someone younger. Enter two young detectives hired separately to investigate the alleged infidelities by each spouse, who naturally fulfil the prior suspicions of the couple. Alan’s close ties with the group apparent here as he took on the role of the young detective opposite Ken and which would later lead the playwright to declare any actor should be wary of performing with children, animals and Ken Boden!
Double Hitch was also a comedy in which two honey-mooning couples find themselves double-booked into the same decrepit holiday house and their fractious attempts to resolve this. There is evidence to suggest this was the first Ayckbourn play to be performed by amateurs earlier in 1961 or possibly 1960, but unlike Love Undertaken, nothing substantive. Double Hitch would also have an extended life as it was performed at least twice more in drama festivals including the in-the-round festival which Stephen Joseph set up in 1960 in Scarborough to encourage amateur companies to try their hand at working in this space. 
The final play for amateurs (that we know of) was discovered in a loft in 2007 but was probably written as early as 1958 before being offered for performance in the early ‘60s. The Party Game is a character study set at a house party, which stands in stark contrast to anything else Alan was writing in this period. Notably, Margaret Boden, who was a frequent director for the Guild, turned the play down and it was never performed. This was eventually rectified in 2010 when the first public reading of the play was given by the participants of the Ayckbourn Weekend event in Scarborough at the Public Library, former home of the Library Theatre.
As far as is known, Alan did not write any more plays specifically for amateurs although tantalisingly there are a couple of unproduced Ayckbourn plays in archive from this period, Relative Values and Mind Over Murder, which possibly might have been intended for amateur production. By the end of the 1960s though there was no real need for Alan to write any more plays for the amateur market though. The success of Relatively Speaking and How The Other Half Loves in London led to an insatiable demand from repertory and amateur companies for Alan’s plays, the former demand also feeding the latter. The popularity of these and all that followed quickly saw Alan become one of the most performed playwrights by both professional and amateur companies in the country (which stills holds true today) and the playwright’s archive holds many letters from amateur companies sometimes practically pleading to be allowed to stage the new Ayckbourn almost as soon as the play had professionally premiered!
These long withdrawn plays began a relationship which fifty years on has grown far more than Alan Ayckbourn could ever have imagined. Five decades ago in Scarborough, it’s hard to believe that Alan Ayckbourn would ever foresee amateur companies around the world performing his plays and that his writing would have become as embraced and popular as it now is.
Simon Murgatroyd is Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist and the administrator of the playwright’s official website www.alanayckbourn.net.
This is a revised and abbreviated version of an article originally published in 2009.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

An Interview With Alan Ayckbourn

On 24 June 2011, the University Of York announced it had acquired the archive of playwright Alan Ayckbourn as part of the Borthwick Institute for Archives. Here Paul Tyack, Development Manager for the University Of York, interviews Alan Ayckbourn and his archivist Simon Murgatroyd about the archive.

Paul: How do you feel about the archive moving out of your home and into the University of York?

Alan: I think a strange mixture really. You never delve into your personal archive on a regular basis; I don’t wake up on a morning and think ‘I must go and look in the archive and see what I was doing in June 1984!’  But you just know that it’s accumulating.
It’s my past really and I have mixed feelings about my past. Sometimes I get regrets and get very nostalgic, but mostly the person I look back on is someone I don’t really know.  It was me, at that time, writing things that I’ve never really understood how I wrote. The writing process for me – and that is what the archive is mainly about – is why I wrote the play; how I wrote the play remains a complete mystery.  I think how did I write The Norman Conquests? When people ask me, I just trot out the stock answer: ‘I guess I must have started with one and then I went to another and so on’, but I have no idea really what happened except for necessity. The life of a playwright is a very pragmatic one. I write very much responding to a situation, in my case, the needs of a theatre company and the limitations and the potential that go with that. The potential being the quality of the company and the limitations being the building.  When I started at the Library Theatre in Scarborough, you couldn’t have a play running after 10 o’clock because that’s when they closed the library and this awful bloke would stand there jangling his keys during the final moments!

Paul: What messages do you think your archive will have for future generations of writers and directors?

Alan: I think in that it covers quite a long span of time - my writing career has been pretty long at 50 plus years - at the very least it can be quite an interesting historical document. What it was like to write at the end of the 1950s at a time when there was a feeling of optimism about the arts coming out of World War Two; when the Arts Council was newly formed and very bullish and definitely wanting to encourage new writing.  I was lucky to be there.  I was also caught in the whirling cross-streams of the creativity of the old guard – Rattigan, Coward, Shaw and all the way back - with coming up around me at the time Osborne and the new wave. So I got caught in those two currents.  It was very interesting although I never allied to either. I think people early on saw me as a direct descendant of Noel Coward, but then as time went on I became a direct descendant of Harold Pinter! I think I’m quite interesting historically to that extent.
Also, watching how I developed in the subsidised sector as the majority of my plays were directly written for the subsidised sector. I’m a sort of walking record of that.

Paul: Do you have any particular treasures in the archive that someone looking through it in 200 years’ time would consider an especially welcome find?

Alan: With the creation of a play in the early days – I’m thinking here of the playscripts – it’s an archivist’s dream. The scripts were all written in long hand with lots of crossings out. Now it’s all on a disc which is probably binned anyway at the end of the day and there’s no original document.

Simon: There’s a fantastic example of Alan’s transition between physically writing and working on a computer with the play A Chorus Of Disapproval.  In the archive, there’s Alan’s hand-written script of the first act in pencil on foolscap paper, but there’s no second act.  I said to Alan: ‘Why did you get rid of this?’ and he said: ‘Oh no, I got my first word processor mid-way through writing this play, so I did the second act on the word processor.’ We know the exact moment Alan went to writing on a computer, because we have the first act hand-written and then nothing after that point.

Paul: Did your writing change after it moved to the computer?

Alan: I think it could have done. The old method was me sitting on a sofa dictating from my handwritten notes to my partner Heather Stoney at the typewriter; I just elaborated on the writing occasionally, just extending it. When I got on to the computer myself, I can remember vividly plotting A Chorus Of Disapproval. There’s a long speech in that about the arts, how you’re on a hiding to nothing if you’re part of a small community in England and trying to be an artist. I spent a good day on that speech just because I was able to. This was a new toy and I was shunting paragraphs, moving words, changing syllables. That speech must have undergone two hundred changes and I thought, if I go on at this speed, I’m never going to finish the damned play! I’ve got to just get on with it and go back to the way I wrote - get it down on the page and then tinker with it.
I have this phobia, which probably goes back to my childhood, I still have to go to bed with a tidy script. Often I write until I’m knackered and then I stop and just do a tidy, which of course on a computer is so easy as it reformats and takes out the mistakes.  It’s much, much easier.  In the old days, I would trawl back through several pages of typing and possibly blot things out with Tipp-ex or at the long-hand stage, most of my scripts were covered in arrows!  Move that line back there – it isn’t what you say, but the order you say it in! 

Paul: Have you any message you’d like to give to writers in the future?

Simon: I think what I’ve learnt from Alan’s archive is that writing is a continual learning process. Alan is still learning about his craft today and the plays are still moving on. You look at all the scripts and you can see he never stops. Even someone as accomplished as Alan is continually pushing and moving in new directions. If you look at his plays by decade, they’re not the same. His latest play, Neighbourhood Watch, is nothing like a play from even ten years ago. In recent years, there’s been a brevity emerging, a sparseness in the writing that you can trace back to the beginning of this decade. I think that’s what I’ve learnt from the archive; you never stop learning and you never stop improving.

Paul: Was it always your wish your archive would become available to the public?

Alan: Well, if you mean had I a burning desire to be remembered for posterity – possibly!  But I’m usually too busy trying to think of another play to care about that, hence my high strike rate.  At the moment half my brain is tossing around working through a new play for next year which is in the back of my head.
But I’m glad the archive will be available because I was persuaded a few years ago to write my first book, The Crafty Art Of Playmaking, and I suddenly realised that because I’d been doing things instinctively and learning from the examples of other great writers and from experience, this knowledge was quite valuable and I wanted to chronicle it.  I hope the archive is an extension of that in a much less self-conscious way.  I just think that there’s so much to playwriting, it’s such an interestingly varied craft.
At the literary end of it, there’s a part of me that was rather pleased in the early days when publishers declined to publish me on the grounds I had no literary value! Thank God for that, because there’s something awful about having literary value as a playwright. You can have great literary value as a novelist, but the ideal play should be a working document for actors to work with. It’s quite interesting if you read a scene off the page, it doesn’t read quite the same as when you see it.  Because when you see it, you realise there’s perhaps a third person on stage not saying anything but who is the one making that whole scene make sense.  On the page, that silent person sitting there whilst this scene is going on around them, who unless you write in the script ‘She shrugs’ or ‘She looks at them’, you’ve no idea what they’re doing.  That is something you only pick up when you have an eye for reading the sort of drama I write, which is the drama of the unsaid.  If you read a play like My Wonderful Day, the lead character Winnie hasn’t much of a part on the page. She only says ‘Oui, madame’ and lets people rabbit away for ages, but of course she’s bang in the centre of that play.

Paul: What is it about the University of York that makes it a suitable home for the archive?

Alan: It’s my local, isn’t it? I’m very fond of York and, of course, I’ve spent so much of my life here in Yorkshire.  My affinity with York is quite strong.

Paul: Would you give any particular message to theatre and film students who are studying theatre and film at York as they start their careers?

Alan: Yes. When I went into theatre, I wanted to be an actor- I think that’s what a lot of people still want to do. But theatre is a wonderful institution and it has a big wide door through which anyone of any discipline can pass.  Be they painter, actor, writer, fundraiser! There are endless opportunities.  I think what I’ve had from it, though, is a lot of fun. There’s that old maxim, which is attributed to Clint Eastwood: ‘Take the work seriously, but never yourself.’  It’s still a wonderful maxim.  I’ve had more laughter and fun in the rehearsal room doing something inherently quite serious, but nonetheless joyful and then sharing that with other people. If you take that as a starting point, then that automatically, I believe, conveys itself on stage and to an audience. There’s a sense of real joy watching a group of performers who have pleasure in each other’s company and pleasure in performing for you, whether it be Oedipus Rex or See How They Run. It’s that sort of feeling, that joy.
Theatre is live and people say are you worried about theatre dying out?  It’ll never die out as long as people want to do it!  It’ll be there and they may troll off to make mega-bucks from movies or television series, but eventually everyone says they want to work in theatre as that’s where really the magic lies, in front of an audience.  I’ve been lucky enough to have been there for a long time.

Paul: Do you have any hopes for how the archive will be used over the years to come?

Alan: Well, hopefully in the same way my book has been used. Someone will go in there with an open mind and start to follow a thread and say this is interesting, I think now I can write.  That perhaps I might inspire someone – if he can do it, I can!

Simon: Ten years ago, we launched Alan’s website www.alanayckbourn.net and it was our first step in making archival material available. What came through, that was very surprising, was the interest from not only across the world, but from the ages. That you get nine year old children writing an email, ‘I’m interested in playwriting, any tips?’ or ‘I’ve just been cast in Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations, what advice would you give? Is there something in the archive to help?’ That to me is amazing.  And I think this acquisition will develop that to a far larger degree, now that people will have hands on access to far more material than we can ever present on the internet. You will realise how widespread the appeal of Alan’s plays is, from Australia to Eastern Europe, America to Japan, which astonishes me. It’s one of the great pleasures of my job that I’m talking to people across the world about Alan and I think a resource where those people can come and access this archive can only be an amazing opportunity and an amazing resource.

Paul: One of the parts of the funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund is to help open the Borthwick up to young people, how do you feel that your archive might have a particular appeal to a younger audience?

Alan: If you have that glimmering of an ambition to be in theatre, I think the archive will offer not only fertile ground for ideas but I hope will inspire others to write. 

Simon: I think it will provide an inspiration for the potential of writing. There are so many subjects and genres that Alan has written about.  He’s written for audiences from three year olds to older children to teenagers and on across the main body of his work. I think it’s quite inspiring coming in as a young person and finding you can write about anything; that the sky is the limit. Here’s just one person that proves that you can do absolutely anything you want in theatre. His imagination as a writer and the challenge to realise those ideas in theatre is all there in one place, in this archive. It’s a very good example of what you can do in theatre and of the amazing potential of theatre.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn 2011; please do not reproduce without permission.
Transcription by Simon Murgatroyd 2011

More news and information regarding the acquisition of the Ayckbourn Archive by the University Of York continues in the news blog tomorrow.

Anniversary news: Today (29 June 2011) marks the 50th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn's directing debut when his production of Gaslight premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1961.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Ayckbourn Archive: An Archivist's Perspective

The announcement that the University Of York has acquired Alan Ayckbourn’s personal archive for the nation really is something for Ayckbourn fans the world over to celebrate.

As Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist, I’ve been working with these papers for approaching ten years and it is – whether viewed objectively or subjectively – an extraordinary collection. The University quotes the figure that there is more than a tonne in weight of material; I can’t verify that, as lifting the entire archive is one of the few things I haven’t attempted. What I do know from my own experiences is it encompasses tens of thousands of pages of material covering a lifetime in theatre and offers an incredible glimpse into the mind and development of Alan Ayckbourn as a writer and director.

This is one of the reasons I’m delighted it has been acquired by York, which has such exciting plans for making it available to the public in the pipeline. For ten years, I’ve also been administering www.alanayckbourn.net, which from humble beginnings now encompasses more than 3,500 pages of online material, much drawn from Alan Ayckbourn’s archive. I am told it is now one of the largest single online resources dedicated to one playwright in the world. But to put this into perspective, even at a conservative estimate, there is less than a quarter of one percent of the information on the website that is held in the actual Ayckbourn Archive. The website, I hope, does a good job as an online resource about Alan, but in terms of actual quantity available, it barely scratches the surface.

Which is why the acquisition is such good news. Of course, www.alanayckbourn.net will keep expanding and will be working in conjunction with the University Of York to make even more available digitally. But at York, in the Borthwick Institute For Archives, the entire Ayckbourn Archive is now preserved and available for researchers to visit and use. Every play and their histories – from reviews and press cuttings to set sketches and behind the scenes correspondence and so much more – will be there for students and researchers to explore in person or eventually online.

Whether it’s an original manuscript for Alan’s first play The Square Cat, his handwritten early drafts of Absurd Person Singular, unpublished and unproduced plays written when a teenager or his voluminous and fascinating correspondence with his agent Margaret Ramsay and other pivotal figures in British theatre, there is a huge treasure trove of material offering new insight into the playwright’s work and life.

To give a sense of the scale, every day I worked with the archive over the past ten years, I can genuinely say I found some information that, even as Alan’s Archivist and a lifelong fan of his work, was new to me; the very day before the Archive moved to York, I discovered some previously unread notes about Way Upstream and its infamous sailing at the National Theatre.

That pleasure of discovery and working with such a unique resource will now be shared with an audience of all ages, potentially around the world. I can’t wait to share their discoveries and hear about their experiences.

Simon Murgatroyd, Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist, 2011

Tomorrow's blog will feature Alan Ayckbourn giving his thoughts on the move of his archive to the University Of York.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Ayckbourn Archive acquired for nation

University of York acquires Ayckbourn Archive for the nation

The archive of one of the country’s foremost contemporary English dramatists, Sir Alan Ayckbourn, has been acquired by the University of York and will now be made accessible for the first time.

Mike Cordner, Chris Webb, Lady Ayckbourn, Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Professor Brian Cantor, and Fiona Spiers, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund, Yorkshire and Humber. Photo by Ian Martindale

The archive – which contains thousands of items including original stage sketches, working manuscripts, plot diagrams and correspondence – will become part of the internationally important Samuel Storey Writing and Performance Collection at the University’s Borthwick Institute.

Professor Brian Cantor, the University of York’s Vice-Chancellor, announced the news at a performance of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean comedy A Mad World, My Masters! by the Out of the Blue Theatre Company in the new auditorium in the University’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television.

The £240,000 purchase has been made possible thanks to support from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the Samuel Storey Charitable Trust, the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the National Libraries.

The Ayckbourn Archive will be the focus of a major outreach programme, supported by HLF, which will see its contents made available for public use. The archive will also form a major teaching resource for undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television.  It will provide a unique research resource, because of the completeness with which it documents one of the most outstanding theatrical careers of our time.

Fiona Spiers, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Yorkshire and Humber, who attended the performance said: “This is incredibly exciting news, both for the University and the public. The Ayckbourn Archive is a fascinating collection and resource which will enable everyone to learn more about one of the greatest playwrights of our time for many years to come.”

Janet Davies, Head of V&A UK Section & Purchase Grant Fund, added: “The Borthwick Institute fully merited what will be the Purchase Grant Fund’s largest grant this year for this archive of international importance. We are very pleased to support the development of the Samuel Storey Writing and Performance Collection in this absorbing subject.”

Sir Alan’s archive maps his pre-eminence as playwright, theatre director, and (at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough) artistic director over the last five decades. By the end of this summer, he will have premiered 75 plays. His work has been translated into more than 30 languages.

With a playwriting career unrivalled in modern times, Ayckbourn is the creator of some of the greatest comedies since the Second World War – from The Norman Conquests to Woman in Mind, and Absurd Person Singular to Bedroom Farce.

The archive documents the composition and preparation of both his plays’ first productions and their subsequent runs elsewhere in the UK and abroad, as well as including many theatre reviews.  It includes working drafts, holograph manuscripts and revised typescripts, showing Sir Alan creating some of the most complex comic structures of modern times. There are notes on plots, diagrams of relationships between characters, sketches of stage settings, and positionings and movements of characters.

Correspondence with playwrights, actors, directors, producers, designers and agents, reads like a Who’s Who of theatre from the second half of the 20th century onwards. Peter Hall, Peggy Ramsay, Trevor Nunn, Michael Winner, Stephen Sondheim, John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Alan Plater and Martin Jarvis are among the familiar names which appear.

Sir Alan said: “The archive is really about the writing process. The old method was my wife, Heather, at an old typewriter with me dictating from my handwritten notes. I always like to go to bed with a tidy script and, in the old days, I would trawl back through several pages of typing and blot things out with tippex or cover my scripts with arrows.

“I realised that what I was learning from others and from experience was valuable and I wanted to chronicle it. I hope the Archive is an extension of this. I think the Archive will be a fertile ground for ideas and inspire people to write.”

The University aims to reach a wider audience through a suite of online educational tools and resources based on the archive that will support A and AS level teaching in English and Drama and Theatre Studies.

Mike Cordner, Ken Dixon Professor of Drama in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television said: “Sir Alan is a uniquely prolific, radically innovative, and supremely inventive dramatist. His work holds a special resonance for Yorkshire and it is entirely appropriate that the archive remains in the county where much of the work was produced.

“We are enormously proud that the University of York is to be the repository for this extraordinary collection, and that it will be available for use not only by the University community but the wider public.”

The Samuel Storey Writing and Performance Collection was established in 2003 through the generosity of the Samuel Storey Trust. The Ayckbourn archive is an important addition to the collection which also contains work by a range of writers including David Storey, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran and Barry Took.  It features contemporary comedy from Charles Wood's screenplay for the second Beatles film Help! via Round the Horne to Goodnight Sweetheart.

Keeper of Archives at the Borthwick, Chris Webb, said: “As part of this project, we plan to establish a new position of Educational Outreach Officer at the Borthwick to forge closer links with schools in the region. Sir Alan’s Archive is a hugely welcome and important addition to the Samuel Storey Writing and Performance Collection.”


The Alan Ayckbourn News Blog will be covering the Ayckbourn archive acquisition throughout thisweek. Watch this space for more news in the coming days.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

An appeal to respect copyright

Yesterday saw an unfortunate addition to this blog with the inclusion of a copyright notice above the day's entry.
It is not an addition I wanted, but as sole writer and researcher of this blog and www.alanayckbourn.net, I would just like to make a simple appeal.
All the new content on this blog and Alan Ayckbourn's website is original content. I do not reproduce press releases verbatim for news articles, but research and write original articles which reflect the quite specific interests of this blog.
Nor is this blog a press release service for Alan Ayckbourn. It is a news and features service for people interested in the work of Alan Ayckbourn, to which copyright laws apply to the articles as to any other publication in any media.
As a result, the material on this blog is copyrighted to myself and should not be reprinted without seeking permission first or, at the very least, acknowledging the source of the article.
This issue has been steadily growing, but yesterday saw a professional media publication reprint Monday's blog practically verbatim. This was noted by a number of visitors to the site and is obviously incredibly dispiriting that another organisation is taking credit for my work.
I receive an exceptional amount of support and positive feedback for running Alan Ayckbourn's website and this blog, for which I am always grateful. I know the majority of the visitors to the site treat the material concerned with respect and I'm only to happy to hear from students, researchers and media organisations looking to reprint material, as in most cases they show the politeness to ask and then credit the reproduction.
It would be a very real disservice to the many visitors who support this blog, if it had to be closed because of the actions of a minority of visitors who should know better.
So please, if you are about to cut and paste an article from the blog or the website without crediting it or seeking permission, please stop and think not only how you're taking credit for someone else's work but also breaking copyright law.

If you're thinking of reproducing anything from this blog or www.alanayckbourn.net, please contact me at ayckbourn@gmail.com. Generally I am more than happy to allow this as long as either myself or the website is credited.