Friday, January 20, 2017

60 Years at the SJT: 1959

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: 1959
In December 1958, Alan Ayckbourn had been commissioned to write his first play for the Library Theatre in Scarborough by its Artistic Director, Stephen Joseph.
It was his first professional commission and, at the time, he considered himself an actor and had no ambition to become a playwright; he essentially just wanted better roles and saw writing them for himself as a means to achieving that end.
Before he would begin writing though, he was due to embark on the Library Theatre's winter tour in which productions from the previous summer and winter's repertory season would be toured to several towns without municipal theatres around the UK alongside several new productions.
The most notable of these was a play called The Birthday Party. It had opened in the West End to disastrous reviews in 1958 and closed soon afterwards, leaving the playwright despondent about both the play and his writing skills.
However, Stephen Joseph was aware of the playwright and interested in his work, so he invited him to stage the play as he intended with the Studio Theatre Company. The playwright was Harold Pinter.

Harold Pinter reading The Birthday party with David Campton
and Dona Martyn from the Studio Theatre Ltd company.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
This production was only the second ever production of The Birthday Party and it marked the playwright's debut as a professional director. Although staged on a limited budget, in-the-round and with obvious limitations, Pinter would say the production - and Stephen Joseph's belief in him - restored his faith in both the piece and his abilities.
Cast into the play was Alan Ayckbourn as Stanley and thus began a truly memorable experience for the young actor - and something completely unlike anything he had experienced before.
"We read the play and thought he [Pinter] was barking mad. It made absolutely no sense whatever. I can only compare it with the first time I heard Stravinsky, when I thought 'This man's got a tin ear.' But what helped us was that the author was directing it. And he was a mixture of an actor and an extremely nice guy and passionate in his belief that his play would work."
Alan Ayckbourn playing Stanley in The Birthday Party.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
This belief in his own work also led to one of the most famous stories regarding Alan and Pinter, which Alan has frequently recounted.
"I remember asking Pinter about my character. Where does he come from? Where is he going to? What can you tell me about him that will give me more understanding? And Harold just said 'Mind your own fucking business. Concentrate on what's there.'"
The experience and the reception to the play, which played at Birmingham and Leicester during the tour, was 'electric' according to Alan Ayckbourn and, there is no doubt, his experiences with Pinter had a profound influence on him.
It was during the tour that Alan and his fiancee began work on his first professional commission for the Library Theatre's summer season. For his first play was a collaboration with Christine Roland and was one of the reasons it was written under the pseudonym of Roland Allen; combining both their names.
"It was untypical of me in that firstly, it was written over quite a long period, and secondly, it was written with a great deal of help from Christine, structurally, not dialogue-wise. She was very helpful. We talked out: 'What if ... ? What if ... ? What if ... ? How about trying it this way round?' And it was very much an exercise, in the sense that we were trying to get effects.”
A publicity postcard for the Library Theatre, Scarborough,
featuring Alan Ayckbourn in The Square Cat.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Although Stephen Joseph obviously had a degree of confidence in the new playwright, the play was not initially scheduled in early drafts for the Library Theatre's season and was only inserted in the schedule later, presumably after Stephen had approved the piece.
The Square Cat was a farce in which a mother sneaks off to a country home to meet her idol, the rock 'n' roll star Jerry Wattis - in reality a mild mannered man looking for a quiet life away from the fame - and is followed by her family. It was also, unashamedly, a star vehicle for Alan.
Although one has to question the wisdom of a playwright who writes a role for himself which involves singing, dancing and guitar-playing. None of which he could do...
Alan Ayckbourn in a rarely seen image from The Square Cat.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
“It was my first appearance on stage in a play of my own. Unashamedly (and rather foolishly) I had given myself the lion's share of everything. From my first entrance at the end of Act One till the final curtain line at the end of Act Three quite apart from singing, dancing and playing the guitar - none of which I could do - I had all the laugh lines and got the girl. Well, two of them actually. I made £47 in royalties. The most money I'd ever made in my life.”
Thus the playwriting career of Alan Ayckbourn was born. Helped, not least, by the fact the play was a great success for the Library Theatre, being the second most well-attended and profitable play of the season.
Such was its success that Stephen Joseph immediately commissioned Alan for a second play, Love After All, which premiered on December at the Library Theatre. Whilst not as notable as The Square Cat, it was similarly popular and it appeared a successful playwriting career had been launched.
Or perhaps not. 1960 was about to give Alan his first taste of playwriting failure.

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