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.