Thursday, August 29, 2013

Four Plays. One Season.

Alan Ayckbourn's final new play of the year opens tomorrow at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, offering the chance to see four Ayckbourn plays in one season.
Chloë With Love is the second of the Farcicals alongside The Kidderminster Affair; two inter-related one act farces which can be seen separately or together.
The Farcicals mark a rare excursion both into pure farce for Alan Ayckbourn - he considers he has only written one true farce previously with Taking Steps - and one act plays; prior to this he has written only two one acts plays alongside the five one acts which comprise Confusions.
The two Farcicals can be seen individually at lunchtimes in the theatre's restaurant or together on evenings in the McCarthy auditorium.
The Farcicals will now be in repertory with the world premiere of Alan's highly acclaimed and popular new play Arrivals & Departures as well as his revival of his 1992 classic Time Of My Life at the venue until 5 October 2005.
All four plays will then also tour to the New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme as well as the Old Laundry Theatre, Bowness-on-Windemere.
The Stephen Joseph Theatre has also confirmed it will be touring all four plays in 2014, although only the first venue - the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford - has been confirmed.
Further details about Farcicals and all the Ayckbourn plays at the Stephen Joseph Theatre this summer and the tours beyond can be found at www.sjt.uk.com.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Half genius, half mad-man!

Stephen Joseph & The Library Theatre, the sister site to Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website, launched in July and is already expanding with new material.
Although the blog covered the launch of www.stephen-joseph.org.uk in July, it recently received its first major press coverage. Unfortunately the article - which offers further insight into Stephen Joseph, his work and the website - has not been published online, so is presented here in a slightly revised and expanded form.

Half genius, half mad-man!
by Simon Murgatroyd

“Half-genius, half mad-man!”
This is how the playwright Alan Ayckbourn recalls Stephen Joseph; the man he considers the most significant influence in his life and a pioneer who had a profound - if often overlooked - impact on British theatre during the 1950s and 1960s.
This impact on theatre, on practitioners such as Alan Ayckbourn and Harold Pinter and on the town of Scarborough is brought to light in a new website exploring the life and achievements of Stephen Joseph.
www.stephen-joseph.org.uk highlights a theatrical trail-blazer who introduced professional theatre-in-the-round to the UK and was a profound inspiration to many who worked with him and who followed in his footsteps.
Stephen Joseph
Copyright: Studio Theatre Ltd
Stephen Joseph was born in 1921, the son of the actress Hermione Gingold and the publisher Michael Joseph. By the early 1950s, he was determined to champion new playwriting and new theatre forms in the UK - both of which were largely ignored - as well as taking theatre to new audiences.
Having been frustrated in his attempts to promote these causes in London, he ended up in Scarborough in 1955 where, on the first floor of Scarborough’s public library, he opened the Library Theatre; home to the UK’s first professional in-the-round company and dedicated to promoting new writing a year before the launch of London’s Royal Court with a similar writing remit.
As to why he chose Scarborough of all places for the venture, in an interview with the Yorkshire Evening Post in July 1955, Stephen noted: “I don’t know, except that the town attracts a cross-section of the public during the summer and I personally like the place.”
Stephen was also a prolific writer and passionate about promoting theatre; one of the most significant sections of the website is its insight into Stephen’s thoughts by reproducing many of his articles about a variety of subjects alongside such as new theatre forms alongside other significant documents.
Stephen’s wider achievements are also explored including his influence on people as diverse as the playwright Harold Pinter, the actor Ben Kingsley and the influential Royal Shakespeare Company director Clifford Williams amongst others.
It is little known that Stephen Joseph not only encouraged Harold Pinter to continue playwriting after his first major flop, The Birthday Party, but he also gave Pinter his first professional job as a director with the second production of The Birthday Party, which rehearsed in Scarborough Library in 1958!
The cast included the young actor Alan Ayckbourn, who Stephen went on to encourage to both write and direct - thus launching a theatrical phenomenon still going strong more than five decades later - and who has become Stephen’s most prominent advocate.
Stephen Joseph & Alan
Ayckbourn in 1958
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
“He was half-genius, half mad-man! Who else could take an unknown company with unknown plays in an unknown theatre form, to a place like Scarborough, and, eventually, make a go of it?” said Alan Ayckbourn. “He was a Renaissance man, very interested in practically everything. He knew more about the art of playwriting than anyone I've met. He knew more about the art of acting than anyone I've met and he knew more about directing - although he himself wasn't very good at any of them!”
The website has been created by Alan Ayckbourn’s archivist Simon Murgatroyd and who co-curates it alongside Dr Paul Elsam, a Teesside University lecturer and expert on Stephen Joseph whose book Stephen Joseph: Theatre Pioneer and Provocateur is published by Bloomsbury in October.
It also explores in considerable depth the first decade of the Library Theatre - still thriving today as the Stephen Joseph Theatre - under Stephen Joseph. This has been particularly helped by the support of Scarborough Library as the website includes reproductions of significant documents pertaining to the creation of the venue still held by the Library in its Stephen Joseph Theatre Collection.
The in-depth look at the Library Theatre also highlights the little-known fact that Stephen Joseph actually closed the venue in 1965, believing it could not overcome the limitations of the venue. Only the enthusiasm of Scarborough’s amateur community saved the theatre by staging an amateur season in 1966 before re-opening it as a professional venue in 1967, although without the involvement of Stephen Joseph, who was terminally ill by that time.
The Library Theatre and the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent - which Stephen created as the UK’s first permanent theatre-in-the-round venue - mark the most visible and long-lasting attempts by Stephen to make theatre-going more accessible; a subject the website will explore further in the future.
Even after his tragically early death in October 1967, Stephen’s impact was felt for many years afterwards - arguably most theatre-in-the-round and adaptable theatres in the UK owe a debt to Stephen’s ideas and work on design and lighting - particularly in the regions.
The website will expand in the future exploring in more depth his work on theatre design, his conflict with the British theatre establishment, his influential lecturing post at the University of Manchester as well as his role in founding the Association of British Theatre Technicians and the Society Of Theatre Designers.
The creation of www.stephen-joseph.org.uk has the support of Sir Alan and Lady Ayckbourn. It is run as part of Alan Ayckbourn’s official website www.alanayckbourn.net. The final words as to why Stephen Joseph deserves better recognition though belong to his protege, Alan Ayckbourn.
“Stephen was a great innovator, a great ideas man, and above all a great teacher.”

If you worked with Stephen Joseph or have memories of him, the website would be delighted to hear from you via: enquires@stephen-joseph.org.uk.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Ayckbourn Moments: 1969 Company

Ayckbourn Moments is a monthly feature highlighting photographs held in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University Of York illustrating significant events in Alan Ayckbourn's career.

It's less a significant moment this month as a fun photograph recently rediscovered and demanding to be shared!
In 1969, Alan Ayckbourn became Director of Productions for the summer season at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, for the first time (this is prior to him being appointed Artistic Director of the venue in 1972).
The season featured the world premiere of his second major West End hit How The Other Half Loves with a company which included actors such as Bob Peck, Stephanie Turner, Elizabeth Sladen, Brian Miller, Colin Edwynn, Jeremy Franklin and Elizabeth Ashton.
The recently rediscovered photograph features a publicity shot for the 1969 company stood on top of Scarborough's public library (the Church behind having long been demolished and replaced by Iceland).
The photo notable includes Stephanie Turner (the bride), Elizabeth Sladen (the basketball wielding school girl) and Bob Peck (second from right looking on).
And in an early case of photobombing, the suspicious gentleman in sunglasses behind the happy couple  is none other than Alan Ayckbourn....
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Arrivals & Departures: More Reactions

Alan Ayckbourn's latest play, Arrivals & Departures, is turning out to be one of his most critically acclaimed plays in several years.
Following last week's round-up of early notable reviews, several more reviews have since been published marking this as a must-see play for Ayckbourn fans.
Having already given the play a five-star review in The Times, lead critic Libby Purves returned to the play on Saturday naming it amongst The Times Critics' Choice in the arts for the week with the following review.
"This new Alan Ayckbourn play, his finest for a long time, is set on a railway station where an overconfident army major is preparing to arrest a terrorist. It lays bare, beautifully, a central credo about trust and cynicism. Stormingly good, and funny too."
Charles Hutchinson in The Press awarded the play a four star review in which he noted: "Ayckbourn, the playwright, is in a golden autumn, and Ayckbourn, the director, remains peerless on the Yorkshire stage and beyond, casting brilliantly once more in [Kim] Wall and [Elizabeth] Boag. Another Ayckbourn arrival is another Ayckbourn departure, taking him once more into new territory, this time in an ending as potent as any opera."
There's another four star review on the popular theatre website whatsonstage.com where Ron Simpson praises the company as well as Alan's continued desire to innovate.
"Ayckbourn has not lost the ability to surprise. Arrivals and Departures is at least two plays in one and, if the joins are structurally uncomplicated, the initial concept is mischievously audacious."
Arrivals & Departures can be seen at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until 5 October 2013. It is running in repertory with the playwright's acclaimed revival of his play Time Of My Life. Further details can be found at www.sjt.uk.com.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Arrivals & Departures: Reaction

Alan Ayckbourn's latest play, Arrivals & Departures, has been described as a masterpiece by The Times.
Lead critic for The Times, Libby Purves, gave the play a five star review and noted: "It is his new masterpiece: ambitious, inventive, mischievously funny but emotionally serious with a shocking, ironic and redemptive final twist."
The review also notes there are moments where Alan's writing "might be Arthur Miller. Only, of course, funnier."
Terence Booth & Elizabeth Boag in Arrivals & Departures.
Copyright: Tony Bartholomew.
Michael Billington in The Guardian also has high praise for Arrivals & Departures with a four star review describing it as "wildly original play in its form." The critic also writes that "Even if there are funnier Ayckbourn plays, there are few more affecting." Billington also praises the central performances by Kim Wall, Elizabeth Boag and Terence Booth.
Kim Wall, Terence Booth & Elizabeth Boag in Arrivals & Departures.
Copyright: Tony Bartholomew.
The Observer critic Claire Brennan tweeted that the "seemingly simple meshing of two lives in a terror-alert situation [was] finely crafted, deeply moving."
Nick Ahad in the Yorkshire Post also gave the play a four star review noting it was "quite brilliant" and "thrilling stuff" whilst urging readers to "see this, and don't take the brilliance for granted."
Arrivals & Departures can be seen in repertory at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until 5 October. Further details can be found at www.sjt.uk.com.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Ayckbourn Articles: Scarborough

In the run-up to Alan Ayckbourn's 75th birthday in April 2014, a monthly feature reproduces articles by the playwright highlighting his life in theatre through the years.
Last month we looked at Alan Ayckbourn's five year career as aradio drama producer for the BBC based in Leeds. In 1970, he left the BBC to concentrate on his career in theatre and playwriting. Within two years, he had been appointed the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in Scarborough, where he had begun both his playwriting and directing careers.
This article, published in 1972, offers Alan Ayckbourn's thoughts at the time about Scarborough and the Library Theatre on the cusp of him being appointed Artistic Director; a role he would keep for 37 years.

Writing a new play for Scarborough each summer has become an almost incurable habit with me now. This year will see my tenth play to be produced there [ed. the play was Absurd Person Singular]. Not all of them have gone on to be very successful and many, particularly the earlier ones, were decidedly unsatisfactory. The very fact, though, that such a theatre exists like the Library Theatre, allowing a writer such as myself both to err and develop over twelve years, is both remarkable and unusual.
Scarborough's Theatre-in-the-Round was started nearly fifteen years ago by the late Stephen Joseph. Previously, he had taught at the Central School of Drama in London, worked for a time as a producer in television and, on the side, taken to presenting an occasional series of one night shows in London in an Indian hostel. Here, he mounted little-known or new plays casting usually otherwise unemployed actors.
Plays put on for only one night are seldom very satisfying for anyone and soon Joseph was looking around for a likely place to continue his experiment. After endless enquiries he received an encouraging reply from, on the face of it, that unlikely quarter, the Scarborough Public Library. He took a day off work from his coal round in Chelsea with which he supplemented his uncertain theatrical income, and set off by motor bike, through six foot snow drifts, to investigate further.
Within days, the committee of the Scarborough Library had agreed to allow him the use of the first floor of their building at a nominal rent to rig up a theatre-in-the-round. That summer, after rehearsing in London (paid for by the sale of the same motor bike) he arrived with a company of half a dozen to present, for eight weeks, a season of new or little known plays in repertoire. The experiment was successful enough to encourage him to return and though, subsequently, he modified his playbill to include small cast classics or even the odd commercial play, the emphasis remained on the new and untried writer. Basically, the theatre hasn't varied its policy since then, even after his untimely death in 1967.
We are still committed to present new plays and are still restricted by small casts and shoestring budgets. Some improvements and modifications have been possible with outside assistance, but the company size is much the same as when the theatre was started. This is partly due to finance but there is also an optimum size for a group doing work such as ours, something less than twelve and more than five. For not only does the Round require, in performance, a certain mutual understanding and sympathy between players (preferable in the proscenium theatre but not so noticeable if it's lacking) but the business of tackling a number of untried and often pretty rough scripts demands a frenzied sort of team work.
To some it might seem that this type of theatre and its policy would be unlikely to succeed in a town such as Scarborough with its emphasis on the brasher, more commercial sort of entertainment. Yet the theory behind it can be seen to be sound enough. Firstly, Joseph argued, in-the-round (at that time an almost unheard of medium in this country) was, to a largely television weaned audience, a far more exciting, accessible and immediate experience than that normally viewed through the distant formality of the proscenium arch. For, to all but the critics, the manager's friends or the rich, who sat in the first few rows, those meaningless specks on a conventional stage (which we later identified from our programmes as actual people) were about as dramatic as the television test card. There was a crying need for either much larger actors, or failing this, smaller theatres.
Secondly, that by employing this form of simpler theatre, he could divert his limited finances towards the vital ingredients - his actors and his plays. Such refinements as lighting, sound and settings could remain, for the time being, avoidable luxuries.
The third vital ingredient, his audiences, were yet to be explored.
Scarborough audiences are governed in size by the weather and the choice of play, in that order. Over the first we can do little but hope but, as regards the second, whilst obviously a play by, say, Priestley will be almost sure fire, even a new play can be equally successful, providing it can prove itself to be sufficiently entertaining.
The play-list for a season seldom contains less than 50% new plays. This current year four out of the five plays are receiving, to use that overworked phrase, their World Premies.
It must be added that probably the majority of our new work sinks with its author, without trace. The long awaited second play never arrives either because he didn't like the way we did his first or maybe he only had one to write, anyway. But any theatre that can boast of launching David Campton, James Saunders, and, after the failure of his first play in London, Harold Pinter, can be proud of something.
Many of our basic problems remain unsolved, certainly. We are still very much tenants in a Public Library which suggests a literary-equals-obscure-and-difficult image that we don't really deserve. We suffer too, like any seasonal theatre, from lack of continuity in company or audience. We have a regular hard core of patrons but thirteen weeks is too brief to build up any real following. Despite the terrifying unemployment figures in their profession, actors are reluctant to return, feeling that going back somewhere is retrograde, preferring to stick it out in London for the lucrative if elusive television part. Each year is a fresh start for us in Scarborough, in many ways.
For every foot we gain, I often feel we have lost eleven inches.
Locally, we are regarded by the authorities with a more or less benign tolerance, bordering on indifference. Whilst happy to see us chugging along under our own steam, with only the slenderest encouragement, there is no indication that they would be prepared to launch the life boat if we seemed to be sinking. Scarborough is, after all, they reason, a holiday town and as such should provide only successful, preferably London-proved entertainment. All we can do at the Library, under the circumstances, is to try and continue providing London with it in the first place.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn (1972). Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Alan Ayckbourn: Arrivals & Departures


Alan Ayckbourn's latest play Arrivals & Departures received its world premiere last night in Scarborough.
In this short extract from an interview with his archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, he talks about the new play and what audiences can expect from Arrivals & Departures. The full interview, which talks in depth about the play will be published at www.alanayckbourn.net in 2014.

What can you tell us about Arrivals & Departures?

Arrivals & Departures is a memory play, in short. It’s got a cast of 30 speaking parts shared between 11 actors plus two children; but while it’s a big play in scale, it’s not a big play in terms of the characters. It centres around a single central relationship and is essentially all about two people, Barry and Ez. Against this background, there’s also a side plot running which is to do with an ambush to catch a terrorist, so it’s a play on several levels.
Elizabeth Boag & Kim Wall in Arrivals & Departures.
Copyright: Tony Bartholomew.
You describe it as a memory play, what does that mean?
Two strangers - Ez, a soldier, and Barry, a traffic warden from Harrogate - meet and the audience learn, basically, about their back stories through their memories.
Richard Stacey & Elizabeth Boag in Arrivals & Departures.
Copyright: Tony Bartholomew.
Was there anything which particularly inspired you to write the play?
It sort of evolved from this idea of telling a story through memories. Form always fascinates me. Arrivals & Departures has an interesting structure and having written so many plays, many of which have straight narratives, I think that nowadays one of the interests for me is to surprise and intrigue the audience through the way you tell the story, just as much as the story itself.
There aren’t that many new stories to tell, if indeed any, it’s only in the way they are narrated that the story becomes new. I think my audience has got used now to saying, ‘how’s this going to start?’ It’s also not just a matter of looking for new ways to tell a story, but keeping me fresh as well.
Kim Wall & Terence Booth in Arrivals & Departures.
Copyright: Tony Bartholomew.
The play also has an unusual setting for you.
One of the most notable things about Arrivals & Departures is there isn’t a single domestic scene in the play. They’re all set on railway stations or bus stations - all to do with transportation. Even the flashbacks always happen in airports, multi-storey car-parks and so on; anywhere except a domestic sitting room. This is, I think, not unrelated to the title of the play, which also refers to other arrivals and departures in life....

Arrivals & Departures can be seen in repertory at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until 4 October 2013. For further details about the play and bookings, visit www.sjt.uk.com.

Interview copyright: Simon Murgatroyd / photographs copyright: Tony Bartholomew. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.