Friday, January 6, 2017

60 Years At The SJT: 1957

2017 marks the 60th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn joining the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1957. Alan has been indelibly associated with the company since that time as actor, writer, director and Artistic Director.
To mark this anniversary, the blog will be running a weekly feature highlighting each year's significant achievements and events relating to Alan Ayckbourn alongside notable photos.

60 Years At The SJT: 1957
If life had gone the way Alan Ayckbourn imagined at the age of 16, he would have gone on to become a professional actor. Certainly, it seems unlikely he would ever have imagined becoming a world famous playwright and director nor - even more improbably - that he would be associated with a small Yorkshire seaside town for the next six decades.
As it was, Alan Ayckbourn left his school, Haileybury, at the age of 16 in 1955 with the intention of becoming a professional actor. During the next two years, he worked with theatre impresario Donald Wolfit at the Edinburgh Festival and worked at the Connaught Theatre in Worthing and Leatherhead Theatre Club.
Then in April 1957, a friend took him to London to see Studio Theatre Ltd performing at the Mahatma Gandhi Hall. It was a turning point in the young actor's life.
Studio Theatre Ltd was a company created by Stephen Joseph to promote theatre-in-the-round and new writing. Founded in Scarborough in 1955, the company performed on Sundays in London in a bid to attract interest in the company, ideally with the hope of finding a base in the city.
Alan Ayckbourn (back row, second from left) with the Library
Theatre company in 1957 with Stephen Joseph (front row, far
right). Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
The play was the UK premiere of Sartre's Huis Clos (In Camera) and Alan was captivated by theatre-in-the-round. After the performance, his friend, Rodney Wood, revealed that he had been offered a job as stage manager with the company in Scarborough for the summer and he asked Alan if he would like to join him.
Alan agreed - despite not even knowing where Scarborough was ("Oh, it’s somewhere up there, you know. You go up to York and you turn right," he recalls being told). He arrived in Scarborough in June 1957 and was immediately taken with the town.
"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 was employed as an acting stage manager - that is an assistant stage manager with some acting responsibilities. He worked on all of the summer shows that season beginning with stage-managing The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.
Alan Ayckbourn (right) as Eric Birling in An Inspector Calls.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
His first acting role was as Eric Birling in a production of J.B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls and he followed it up with a role as Jack Bensted in Catherine Prynn's world premiere The Ornamental Hermit.
Alan Ayckbourn & Clive Goodwin in The Ornamental Hermit.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Although he did not receive any notice in reviews for An Inspector Calls, he was mentioned in several reviews for The Ornamental Hermit including The Times, which noted: "Mr Alan Ayckbourn at the end gave a lively account of a young country-bred poet of an engaging dishevelment."
With regards to Stephen Joseph - who Alan regards as the most influential person and single most important mentor in his life - Alan did not meet him until well into the season and then in the most unexpected of ways.
Stage managing in 1957 - Alan Ayckbourn and John Smith.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
"I was on the lighting by then, now working this dimmer board, which was very, very rudimentary and had these vicious slider dimmers that sparked and often gave you quite nasty shocks! I was doing a blackout with my arm across the top of them, trying to pull all seven down in sync - so that there was a blackout on stage. And I was suddenly aware of this huge man standing behind me, staring. And I said, ‘Excuse me, sir. I’m sorry this is a restricted area. Professional people working here.’ And he said, ‘There’s a good way to do that you know?’ I said, ‘eh?’ ‘A better way than you’re doing it,’ he said, ‘You’re going to miss a dimmer one day.’ I said, ‘oh, yes, and he said, ‘look, let me show you.’ I said ‘Just excuse me, I’m just about to start the first scene’ and I brought the lights all up again and he said, ‘no, no, what you need is a piece of wood,’ and he handed me a piece of wood and he said, “now lay it across the top of the dimmers and now we pull it down and there you have it. Instant blackout.’ And I said, ‘You’ve just blacked out the scene!’ And I could hear the actors blundering around in the dark and I whipped the lights up again and then they all came out through the curtains afterwards and they, ‘What the hell went on there!? My great speech!’ And I said, ‘this great big man came and did all the…’ - I was like Stan Laurel and he said, ‘Oh, that’ll be Stephen.’ And that was my introduction to Stephen Joseph and we struck up a sort of friendship after that."
At the end of the summer season, Alan left Scarborough and joined the Oxford Playhouse for the winter season. He was not to know it at the time, but he would be back in Scarborough the next year and for many more years to come.

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