Friday, March 3, 2017

60 Years At The SJT: 1971 - 1972

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: 1971 - 1972
After two years as the annually appointed Director Of Productions at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, Alan took a break in 1971 to head to North America.
The previous year had seen him achieve extraordinary success in the West End with his play How The Other Half Loves and this was his first play to be picked up for transfer to Broadway with a production starring Phil Silvers of television's Sergeant Bilko fame.
Alan Ayckbourn & Phil Silvers during a publicity launch
for How The Other Half Loves.
Copyright: To be confirmed
With a need to re-work the script for American audiences - later acknowledged as a major mistake - and a pre-Broadway tour as well as the actual Broadway transfer, Alan decided to concentrate on this production in 1971 and his only major involvement in Scarborough was writing and directing his latest play, Time & Time Again.
This, arguably, is the first of Alan's tragicomic plays and the development of a unique playwriting voice.  It also marked the playwright's recurring interest in water features on stage.
Which was not without consequence.
"It was first produced in Scarborough in 1971, when the in-the-round company were still based at the Library Theatre in amongst the outsize books on the first floor. During the night, after a very happy opening performance, our modest pond leaked slowly through the stage into the Reading Room below, fusing the lights and wrecking the latest copies of Gardeners' Weekly and Bellringers' World."
Time & Time Again also marked the first appearance of what would later be dubbed the 'Ayckbourn Man' with the lead character of Leonard; a protagonist who drives the play through having no kinetic energy whatsoever.
"I wanted to write a total vacuum, a central character who took no decisions, did nothing, everything was done for him and by simply taking no decisions he affects the whole course of the play. Doing nothing, he upsets about five lives. He comes through it in the most extraordinary way; everybody else ends up miserable."
A publicity image for Time & Time Again taken on the roof
of the Library Theatre. Christopher Godwin as Leonard is
pictured centre.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Leonard would also lay the groundwork for one of the archetypal Ayckbourn men who would make their stage debut in 1972 - and be indelibly marked as one of Alan's most famous and hideous creations.
But prior to that, Alan had returned to Scarborough following his sojourn to America where How The Other Half Loves had not been he Broadway success hoped for.
Yet from this disappointment, Alan would enjoy one of the most significant years of his career in theatre as big changes were afoot at the Library Theatre. The previous year had seen Caroline Smith appointed Director Of Productions at the venue, but on 15 January, Scarborough Theatre Trust "agreed unanimously that Alan Ayckbourn be appointed Director of productions for summer season 1972." It was the final time such an annual appointment would be made.
Alan had an ambitious season lined up and an idea for a new play called Absurd Person Singular. Or, more accurately, he had a title for a play - a title discarded from a previously unwritten play and which would have no bearing whatsoever on the play he would actually eventually write.
Unusually, the play was rehearsed not in Scarborough, but initially in London and then in Sheffield, where the company were presenting a pre-Scarborough week-long run of David Campton's Carmilla. There the company met up eager to learn about Alan's new play.
"We had literally started rehearsals before I wrote Absurd Person Singular. I met the cast on a Sunday night in my house and mine was the second play that was going to be rehearsed. I suddenly got nervous, all these actors in the room saying 'I'm dying to read yours' and they're asking me what sort of clothes are they going to need, and I'm saying 'Well, sort of a suit, but it could be a pair of jeans.'"
Alan Ayckbourn stood outside the Library Theatre,
Scarborough, during the summer of 1971.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Which does not sound terribly promising. What emerged though was a classic Ayckbourn play with an iconic central character in the shape of Sidney Hopcroft; a man who as described by Alan Ayckbourn in 1972 seems all too pertinent to the world today.
"If you really want to succeed, you don't have to look any further than the unimaginative, humourless, grabbing sort of guy, the opportunist who does not worry about other people's feelings, who looks neither to the left nor to right. One must be very lucky to not feel."
The play marked a huge step forward for Alan and would later win his first major award with the Evening Standard Award For Best Comedy. It became best known for its formidable second act in which a character is indirectly foiled at several attempts at suicide, the earliest pure example of the 'guilty-laughter' so common in Ayckbourn's plays.
"Dramatically, Eva's suicide scene is one of my first experiments in the use of dramatic counterpoint, i.e. using a deeply serious action against a background of comic events (or is it the other way around?) Both serving to strengthen the other but hopefully neither selling the other short. Jane is just as serious about cleaning her oven as Eva is to commit suicide. It's all a question of priorities."
Absurd Person Singular would go on to become the single most successful Ayckbourn play to be staged in both the West End and on Broadway. Perenially popular, its success was summarised by the noted critic and Ayckbourn biographer, Michael Billington.
"This is the Big One. The one that shows his [Ayckbourn's] fascination with the desperation behind English social rituals interlocking with his well-oiled comic craft.... In this one, form and content meet in perfect harmony."
Absurd Person Singular is the first Ayckbourn play for which
colour photos of the original production exist.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Absurd Person  Singular marked another highpoint in Alan's writing career, but there was more to come that year with one final piece of news to cap off a successful year. An appointment which would dictate the course of his professional life from then to the present.
On 12 November 1972, Scarborough Theatre Trust unanimously agreed that Alan Ayckbourn should be the Artistic Director for the 1973 season; the first time the term Artistic Director had ever been used by the board.
There is no record in the trust's minutes of any other annual vote from that point on. Alan Ayckbourn had fully stepped into Stephen Joseph's shoes and was now responsible for the company Stephen had founded in 1972.
He would guide this company for 37 years. Most importantly, he would preserve, champion and further the legacy of new writing which led Stephen Joseph to create the company and through which - alongside's Stephen's support and encouragement - Alan himself had thrived and achieved extraordinary success.
He was Artistic Director of his own theatre at the age of 33 and on the verge of writing what is probably his most famous work.
A trilogy of plays about an assistant librarian....

No comments:

Post a Comment