Thursday, July 31, 2014

Countdown to 60: Alan Ayckbourn & Scarborough

On 14 July 2015, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough will celebrate its 60th anniversary. 
In the coming months as we move towards the anniversary, the blog will be publishing occasional features about the history of the venue and its relationship with both Alan Ayckbourn and the town of Scarborough.
The first article (click here) asked why the UK's first professional theatre-in-the-round company was established in Scarborough. Here we follow that up with how did Alan Ayckbourn also end up in what is now his adopted home-town of Scarborough?

Like Stephen Joseph before him, Alan Ayckbourn had no existing ties to Scarborough before he first visited the town in 1957.
Born in Hampstead in 1939, Alan Ayckbourn had left school in 1955 to work as an actor. Following a brief stint with Sir Donald Wolfit's company at the Edinburgh Festival, Alan found himself working at the Connaught Theatre, Worthing, followed by the Thorndike Theatre in Leatherhead.
There Alan worked as an Acting Stage Manager (a stage manager with occasional acting roles) and met the stage manager Rodney Wood - who would later play an important part in the survival of the Stephen Joseph Theatre (then the Library Theatre) following Stephen Joseph's death in 1967.
Rodney Wood & Alan Ayckbourn at the
Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1957.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
At the end of the Leatherhead season, Rodney asked Alan if he'd like to come with him to join the stage management team at the Library Theatre in Scarborough.
Alan had never heard of the company, but intrigued by mention of theatre-in-the-round, he agreed to accompany Rodney to see the company perform a production of Sartre's Huis Clos at the Mahatma Ghandhi Assembly Hall in Fitzroy Square, London.
Alan saw the production on either 3 February or 14 April 1957 (he does not remember which, but the company only performed the play twice in London) and it had the most profound effect on the 18 year old.

"[It] sticks out still in my mind as one of the most exciting things I'd ever seen in the theatre.... It was an absolute knockout. It was a pretty racy play, for its time, you know. And I thought, 'This is terrific.' I also liked it because it had no scenery and that meant less work."

Alan agreed to join the company and spent two weeks in London rehearsing for the summer season with Clive Goodwin directing three plays and Rodney directing another; Stephen Joseph did not actually play much part in the 1957 season and Alan would not meet him for many weeks.
Alan was predominantly a stage manager, but also had small acting roles in two productions in Priestley's An Inspector Calls and Catherine Prynne's The Ornamental Hermit.
After two weeks, the company moved up to Scarborough with Alan having no idea where it was other than the vague direction of turn right at York - leading to his first experience of the town he was to become most associated with.

"I remember I got off the train packed with holidaymakers and this bracing air and smell of chips. I said, 'Wow!' Because I was an inland child living in north Sussex, one of the great treats as a child was a trip to the seaside - so, dear reader, I bought the sweet shop. I came to the seaside and stayed. I thought, 'This can't get better'.”

Alan worked the summer season at Scarborough before taking a job at the Oxford Playhouse for the 1957 / 58 winter season. Although he enjoyed his time there and was offered the chance to stay, Stephen Joseph had contacted him about returning to Scarborough for the summer 1958 season - with the opportunity of more acting.
The rest is history, Alan returned to Scarborough in 1958 and that winter was commissioned to write his first professional play, The Square Cat, which premiered at the Library Theatre on 30 July 1959 (and whose story was reported on the blog yesterday here). Two years laters with Stephen's encouragement, he made his professional directing debut with a production of Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight.
Alan has been wedded to Scarborough ever since he arrived for the first time 57 years ago* in 1957 and considers it to have been his adopted home ever since. During this time, he has premiered 73 of his 77 plays (with the 78th to premiere in the town soon!) and directed more than 200 productions in Scarborough and between 1972 and 2009 was the Artistic Director of what is now the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
All this stemmed from a fortuitous job offer and an early glimpse of the company that was to change his life forever.

"The first question everybody asks me is 'what am I doing here?' My answer is always the same - it was a happy accident that I came here and I am happy I chose to stay. I have stayed here longer than most Scarborians, since 1957!"

You can find out more about the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre and its connections with Scarborough at the website Scarborough In The Round, a sister site to Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website and the Stephen Joseph & The Library Theatre website, where you can also learn more about Alan Ayckbourn's most influential mentor Stephen Joseph.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without the permission of the copyright holder.

* Somewhat longer than the 37 years quoted in the Yorkshire Post last week (37 years actually being how long Alan was Artistic Director of the SJT between 1972 and 2009).

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Square Cat: 55 Today

Today marks the 55th anniversary of the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's first professionally produced play The Square Cat.
To mark the anniversary, the blog presents an extract from the book Unseen Ayckbourn, by Alan Ayckbourn's archivist Simon Murgatroyd, looking at the story behind the play.

The Square Cat

The Square Cat was Alan Ayckbourn’s first professional play, commissioned by his mentor Stephen Joseph and premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 30 July 1959.
The genesis of the play has often been repeated in interviews over the years, but what should not be forgotten is Alan never had any grand intentions to be a playwright; at the time of his first commission he was just an actor at the Library Theatre, Scarborough.

“I have never made any decisions; they have always been made for me. I could look back on my life and say I planned it that way, but I didn't plan to be an actor, nor a director, nor a writer. They ran out of writers!”

Alan Ayckbourn as Jerry Wattis &
Arthur Brummage in The Square Cat.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
Even if he did nit intend to be a playwright, Alan had actually been interested in writing for many years and had written a number of scripts - mostly inspired by his favourite writers - which he was confident enough to submit to Stephen Joseph, the founder of the Library Theatre, for advice. This knowledge of Alan’s nascent talent and enthusiasm for writing gave Stephen the perfect opportunity to further encourage the young writer when Alan infamously complained about the roles he had been playing recently.

“Stephen had the complete, some would say lunatic, disregard in allowing me to write for him. The story goes that I came off stage one night and said that I could write much better than what I had just acted in and he told me to get on with it then."

The offending play was David Campton’s Ring Of Roses, although for many years Alan mentioned it was John Van Druten’s Bell, Book And Candle, as he did not want to upset Campton, a friend and contemporary at the Library Theatre.
Stephen Joseph was always keen to encourage new writers, although this also had other benefits for the company as Alan recalls there was funding to encourage new writing.

“The Arts Council gave us £300, more than I’d ever seen in one place before. I thought, this is money for old rope.”

Stephen’s writing challenge was made during the winter season at the Library Theatre in 1958, when Alan was also in rehearsals for the company’s brief winter tour. The play he was rehearsing was by and being directed by a relatively unknown writer who had just suffered his first West End flop. Harold Pinter had been invited to Scarborough to direct The Birthday Party following its critical mauling in London. This would only be the second time it had been professionally staged and featured Alan in the role of Stanley. The play may not have directly influenced The Square Cat, but its author certainly inspired Alan.

“I got fascinated by his [Pinter’s] use of dialogue, his use of words, the structure of sentences. You can see even now what’s actually rubbed off on me from him.”

The Square Cat was written during the tour, but it was not a sole effort. Alan’s partner and soon to be wife, Christine Roland, worked together with him offering advice on the play.

“I stomped off home and, with the help of my then wife, who was a very judicious editor, wrote a play under a joint pseudonym, Roland Allen. This was the time of skiffle and coffee bars and the play was an unashamed launch for my own acting career.”

The pseudonym Roland Allen (Christine Roland / Alan Ayckbourn) was used by Alan for his first four plays, although Christine was only involved in helping The Square Cat and Love After All.
The Square Cat was a showcase for him both as a playwright and actor with Alan playing two roles; it has never really been emphasised Alan spent the play quick-changing between the rock ‘n’ roll star Jerry Wattis and the mild-mannered Arthur Brummage.

“I came on in act one and stayed on, with all the best lines, until the end, and I danced and sang and played the guitar - none of which I was very good at. It was an immensely practical way to start. I learned a great deal from seeing the same bits die every night."

It opened at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 30 July 1959 and was a big hit with the summer audiences. The surprise success and demand for tickets led Stephen Joseph to cancel a week’s performance of David Campton’s adaptation of Frankenstein (which had not been well received) and scheduled a second week for The Square Cat’s second repertory run the following month; the first time a play in repertory had run for two consecutive weeks at the venue.
For Alan, the over-riding memory was the pay-cheque.

“It made me forty-seven quid, I remember, more than I earned in several weeks. It proved very popular because it was what it was - a farce, with no pretensions to anything else - and it did give people quite a laugh.”

Financial accounts for the 1959 season record that 3,440 people saw the play during its three weeks of performance and it made £695 with a number of the performances booked to capacity; in comparison the most successful show of the season was John Van Druten's Bell, Book & Candle which was seen by nine more people and took an equivalent amount of money.
Conventional wisdom has it The Square Cat was never performed again, but it was produced once more during the company’s 1959 winter tour. Alan was unavailable to reprise his role, having received his National Service call-up (deftly avoided by being signed out after just three days) and Barry Boys took on the role for the play’s swansong.
It has never been performed since then and the script has never been published. Although Alan suggested for many years all copies had been destroyed, it is surprisingly profligate. Originals of the play are held by The University Of York, The University Of Manchester and the British Library.
The only other public glimpses of The Square Cat have been in 2005 when on the anniversary of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 50th anniversary, Alan agreed to let the first scene of the play be read as part of the theatre’s celebration event 50 Years New. He also agreed to a reading of this scene as part of the Royal And Derngate Theatre’s Ayckbourn At 70 celebration in 2009 and for an Ayckbourn themed weekend in Scarborough in 2010.

“We read The Square Cat [at 50 Years New] and I would say to anyone that heard it: “Take heart, if you are writing plays it can only get better than this.” They [the early plays] are not producible pieces, they are nothing more than my early jottings. My early plays are an object lesson in someone having confidence in someone - I was just delighted that someone would put my plays on.”

Unseen Ayckbourn is available from amazon.co.uk here and amazon.com here. You can find out more about the book by clicking here.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Boy Who Fell Into A Book

The new musical adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn's play The Boy Who Fell Into A Book is now running at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.
Evelyn Hoskins as Kevin, the boy who falls into a book
Copyright: Tony Bartholomew
Directed by Alan Ayckbourn, the musical has been adapted by Paul James with music by Cathy Shostak and Eric Angus and is the first of Alan's plays to have been adapted into a musical.
For Alan Ayckbourn, it has been a new experience directing an adaptation of his own work, but he feels that Paul, Cathy and Eric have created something he has enjoyed working on.
"They’ve caught the spirit of the play very closely and they obviously love it because otherwise you can’t work on something you don’t like. I think they’re as passionate about it as I was when I first wrote the play. As a director, I’ll hitch onto that!"
Katie Birtill as Monique
Copyright: Tony Bartholomew
The play features Evelyn Hoskins as Kevin with Nicolas Colicos as the pulp detective Rockfist Slim alongside Katie Birtill, Natasha J Barnes, John Barr and Stephen Matthews.
It follows Kevin's adventures after he falls into the pages of Rockfist Slim's latest adventure, leading the pair into an unlikely friendship as they try to find the way back to Kevin's bedroom through the books on his book-shelf whilst avoiding the evil machinations of Rockfist's nemesis The Green Shark.
Delighted with the adaptation, Alan believes this is a show which will appeal to all ages - or anyone who enjoyed reading a book! - and will appeal to the entire family.
"I think The Boy Who Fell Into A Book lends itself to a musical because it has this fantasy element to it and it is a family show - it’s not a children’s show, definitely a family show - and it’s a play for anyone who was a child and anyone who read under the bedclothes under a child and anyone who’s ever been activated by am story or a book. It’s a neat show but with huge potential."
The production has musical direction by Michael Warman with design by Michael Holt, lighting by Jason Taylor, choreography by Sheila Carter with the band consisting of Chris Guard, Timothy Dullaway and Anthony Lawton.
The Boy Who Fell In A Book can be seen at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, until 31 August. Tickets are priced from £10 to £24.50 with family tickets also available and can be booked at www.sjt.uk.com where further details about the production can also be found.
A look at the history of The Boy Who Fell Into A Book (and an entire section on the play) can be found at Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website by clicking here.
Evelyn Hoskins, John Barr & Nicolas Colicos
Copyright: Tony Bartholomew
Stephen Matthews & Nicolas Colicos
Copyright: Tony Bartholomew

Friday, July 18, 2014

Tweet The Archivist: Ayckbourn on DVD

Although it's a much-repeated topic, a recent @ayckbourn tweet queried Ayckbourn plays on DVD - and it gives me a chance to shamelessly plug a new article!
Running through daily tweets mentioning @Ayckbourn, there was a recent query whether The Norman Conquests is the only TV adaptation of an Ayckbourn plays to have been released on DVD.
Sadly, the answer is yes. Recently re-released on DVD in the UK by network (which has a 20 Facts article about the TV adaptation written by Alan's archivist here) and in the USA by  Acorn Media, The Norman Conquests trilogy remains the lonely Ayckbourn TV DVD.
Despite the fact there have been television adaptations of 11 of Alan Ayckbourn's full-length plays, only The Norman Conquests has ever been commercially released and none of the BBC adaptations have ever seen the light of day (The Norman Conquests was produced by Thames Television).
Despite the onset of digital programming and streaming, this also doesn't look likely to change in the foreseeable future - or at least Alan Ayckbourn is not aware of any plans regarding them.
While this is disappointing, it is presumably a commercial decision as Sir Alan has publicly spoken about how he is not against them being released on DVD; however the release of DVDs is not something he has any involvement with or say in (and for anyone who thinks otherwise, do you honestly believe the atrocious A Chorus Of Disapproval film would be on DVD if he had any say in such matters!).
The only other DVDs available of Alan Ayckbourn's plays are the movie adaptations with Private Fears In Public Places available in the UK and the USA, a French language (non-subtitled) Smoking / No Smoking (adapting Intimate Exchanges) available in France, the previously aforementioned Chorus DVD in the UK and on streaming services such as Netflix and America in North America, and, from next year in the USA and parts of Europe, Life Of Riley.
You can also still find Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical By Jeeves on DVD.
If ever the situation changes, www.alanayckbourn.net will be there to report on any future DVD / digital releases.

The Norman Conquests, starring Tom Conti, Richard Briers, David Troughton, Penelope Wilton, Penelope Keith and Fiona Walker, is available now on DVD and further details can be found here.
Details of all the filmed adaptations of Alan Ayckbourn's plays can be found on his official website here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Countdown to 60

Monday saw the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough celebrate its 59th birthday.
It is the venue most associated with Alan Ayckbourn and, it is fair to say, the two are now inextricably linked. Further more, after six decades in the town, both the theatre and playwright are also inseparable from Scarborough.
One of the questions frequently asked of the website is, why Scarborough? What were the links between Stephen Joseph and Alan Ayckbourn with the town leading them to become such an essential part of the cultural fabric of it?
The answer is, surprisingly, luck and chance. Which given both elements have played significant parts in several Ayckbourn plays (including his latest Roundelay), seems very appropriate.

Neither Stephen Joseph nor Alan Ayckbourn had any pre-existing links or connections with Scarborough. It is actually just a fortunate set of circumstances which brought both men independently to the town creating life-long bonds.
With regard to the British theatre pioneer Stephen Joseph, he arrived in Scarborough almost as a last resort as he struggled to find a home for what would become the UK's first professional theatre-in-the-round company during the '50s; in context, the vast majority of theatres in England at this point were proscenium arch - theatre-in-the-round was a rarity outside of experimental theatre groups in thiscountry.
Stephen Joseph had been searching for a home for theatre-in-the-round, preferably in London, for a number of months having seen a number of theatre-in-the-round venues in the USA. Unable to find or afford suitable premises in the capital, his attentions led elsewhere as he explained in his book Theatre In The Round.

“For several years, John Wood, education officer for the North Riding Education Committee, had asked me to take part in weekend courses and summer schools in Yorkshire, and it was on a weekend course in acting at Wrea Head that he challenged me to put theatre in the round to the test of professional performance to the public, I told him of the difficulties in finding a suitable hall, in London. So he took me to the concert room in the Central Library at Scarborough; and after a friendly and helpful talk with W.H. Smettem, the librarian, our first booking was made.... On the whole, a very good place in which to make experimental first steps.”

But the Library Theatre at Scarborough's Public Library was never intended to be a permanent home for the company. Stephen later noted: "And so each year another and another season was planned. But still on a very ad hoc basis. No sureness about the future; each season likely to be the last." One of the main reasons for this was the lack of guaranteed financial backing from Scarborough Council or, several years later, a perceived lack of support in finding a permanent new home for the company.
So the town which has the longest continual association with theatre-in-the-round in the UK was an accidental choice and certainly never intended to be a permanent home for Stephen Joseph's theatrical experiment.
When the Library Theatre began touring in 1957, Stephen did not hide the fact he was essentially selling his product to towns without a civic theatre, hoping theatre-in-the-round would catch someone's attention and they would build a permanent home for his company.
This eventually resulted in the Victoria Theatre being built in an old cinema conversion in 1962 in Stoke-on-Trent; what is now the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme is considered the UK's first permanent professional theatre-in-the-round venue.
Stephen was a practical man and, although he liked the town, he had no long-term loyalty to Scarborough. Indeed, as chronicled in his book Theatre In The Round, in 1965 he decided to close the venue due to a perceived lack of support from the town council.
That the theatre survived and flourished was due to the support and commitment from the town itself with an amateur theatrical, Ken Boden, arranging for the theatre to continue and relaunch itself as a professional venue in 1967, the year Stephen Joseph died.
This is the moment the Library Theatre - later the Stephen Joseph Theatre - really became a permanent fixture in Scarborough, further cemented in 1972, when Stephen's protege Alan Ayckbourn committed himself to the theatre and the town by becoming the Artistic Director of the venue for the next 37 years.

As to why Alan Ayckbourn found himself in Scarborough - and then decided to make it his adopted home - that's the subject of another feature on the blog in the near future.

You can find out more about the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre and its connections with Scarborough at the website Scarborough In The Round, a sister site to Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website and the Stephen Joseph & The Library Theatre website, where you can also learn more about Alan Ayckbourn's most influential mentor Stephen Joseph.

Alan Ayckbourn premieres his latest play Roundelay at the Stephen Joseph Theatre this year with it running from 4 September - 8 October. He is also currently directing the world premiere of the musical adaptation of his play The Boy Who Fell Into A Book. Further details about both plays and how to book tickets can be found at www.sjt.uk.com.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

New Ayckbourn Ebook Releases & Digital Play List

Updated: 14 July with Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 3 ebook

This week has seen the release of two ebook collections of Alan Ayckbourn's plays.
Faber has published the Damsels In Distress trilogy and Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 2 in digital format and they are currently available from Amazon for Kindle; no news about other platforms yet but presumably they will be coming soon.
Damsels In Distress features Alan Ayckbourn's highly acclaimed 2001 plays GamePlan, FlatSpin and RolePlay; the trio are not connected by were written to utilise the same set and the same company of seven actors. More details can be found here.
Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 2 is a collection of family plays and includes Invisible Friends, Ernie's Incredible Illucinations, The Champion Of Paribanou, This Is Where We Came In and My Very Own Story. More details can be found here.
This means there are more than 20 Ayckbourn plays now available for download. The list of publications can be found below followed by the current list of Ayckbourn plays available as ebooks (please note, all links are for the Kindle publications).

Ayckbourn ebook Publications
> Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 2 (Invisible FriendsErnie's Incredible IllucinationsThe Champion Of ParibanouThis Is Where We Came In, My Very Own Story)
> Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 3 (Haunting Julia, Drowning On Dry Land, Sugar Daddies, Things We Do For Love)
> Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 4 (The Revengers' Comedies, Things We Do For Love, House & Garden)
> Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 5 (Snake In The Grass, If I Were You, Life & Beth, My Wonderful Day, Life Of Riley)
> Three Plays (Absurd Person Singular, Bedroom Farce, Absent Friends)
> Confusions (student edition)
> Damsels In Distress (GamePlan, FlatSpin, RolePlay)

Ayckbourn Plays In Digital Format
> Absent Friends (Three Plays)
> Absurd Person Singular (Three Plays)
> Bedroom Farce (Three Plays)
> The Champion Of Paribanou (Plays 2)
> Confusions
> Drowning On Dry Land (Plays 3)
> Ernie's Incredible Illucinations (Plays 2)
> FlatSpin (Damsels In Distress)
> GamePlan (Damsels In Distress)
> Garden (Plays 4)
> Haunting Julia (Plays 3)
> House (Plays 4)
> House & Garden (Plays 4)
> If I Were You (Plays 5)
> Invisible Friends (Plays 2)
> Life & Beth (Plays 5)
> Life Of Riley (Plays 5)
> My Very Own Story (Plays 2)
> My Wonderful Day (Plays 5)
> Private Fears In Public Places (Plays 3)
> The Revengers' Comedies (Plays 4)
> RolePlay (Damsels In Distress)
> Snake In The Grass (Plays 5)
> Sugar Daddies (Plays 3)
> Things We Do For Love (Plays 4)
> This Is Where We Came In (Plays 2)

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Stephen Joseph Theatre Funding News

The Stephen Joseph Theatre, where Alan Ayckbourn has premiered the majority of his plays and where his latest play Roundelay will open in September, has announced its continuing status as a National Portfolio Organisation and its successful bid for a Small Capital Grant from Arts Council England.
The Scarborough theatre secured Arts Council funding for the next three years beginning 2015/16.
Chris Monks, Artistic Director, said: “Everyone concerned with the SJT is delighted that the company will receive funding from Arts Council England for the next three years. The news acknowledges the importance of the SJT to the cultural life of the country and the region. However, our future still hangs in the balance. We have to rely more and more on corporate and private philanthropy to support our work and maintain our beautiful Art Deco building. Despite these continual challenges, we are determined to provide the best theatre we can at prices everyone can afford.”
Following an application in December, the SJT has also secured a £275,000 Small Capital Grant from the Arts Council towards a new multi-functional studio space to be used for OutReach community projects, SJT rehearsals and helping emerging companies produce new work as well as storage facilities.
Executive Director Stephen Wood said: “We are delighted to have been awarded this grant to enable us to not only bring the bulk of our costume and large prop storage within the SJT but, more significantly, provide extra facilities for emerging companies and our OutReach department which has become so important for our work in the borough of Scarborough. The challenge now is to raise the extra £80,000 matched funding to allow us to press the button on the project.”
Richard Grunwell, Chairman of the SJT Board, added: “I am delighted that the very hard work put in by the staff at Stephen Joseph Theatre has been rewarded by an Arts Council grant. Not only does the grant reflect all that work, but it recognises the contribution which the theatre makes to Scarborough life. We look forward to the future with confidence with our mix of good theatre and ever-increasing involvement in the town.”

Alan Ayckbourn is directing two world premiere productions at the Stephen Joseph Theatre this summer. He is currently directing a new musical adaptation of his play The Boy Who Fell Into A Book, which will run from 18 July - 31 August.
He will then direct the world premiere production of his latest play Roundelay, which will run from 4 September - 4 October. Further details can be found at www.sjt.uk.com.