Annual Interviews: Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website (2015)

The Annual Interviews reproduces one significant interview with Alan Ayckbourn from 1969 to the present; 1969 being the year which saw the start of regularly published interviews with the playwright. The interviews are drawn from a variety of sources (of which they remain copyright of) and a variety of subjects.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre At 60
by Simon Murgatroyd
20 April 2015

This previously unpublished interview took place between Alan Ayckbourn and his archivist Simon Murgatroyd on 20 April 2015. It concentrates primarily on Alan Ayckbourn's thoughts about the 60th anniversary of his home theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, in 2015.

Simon Murgatroyd: What are your thoughts on the Stephen Joseph Theatre as it celebrates its 60th anniversary?
Alan Ayckbourn: Well it's definitely been an interesting journey, I think. It's certainly grown from a tiny idea into something quite big! It is rather difficult though to define where I see the theatre, as it is so intertwined with my own personal life. In a sense, my own life is also the theatre’s life. My writing life and my directing life was all - in a sense - tangentially affected by this theatre. Even my trips to the National Theatre, in a sense, came about as a result of this theatre because I got lured into the West End and the National Theatre by dent of the plays that were produced here.

Is there anything you think has particularly changed during the past 60 years?
One of my great regrets is there is far less flexibility in programming than there used to be. It may to do with the theatre's size, but I think it’s increasingly been like that. I remember at the Library Theatre, we were running a summer season and I got to the point where one of the shows was just not fulfilling its function and I just took it out of the rep; you just can’t do that now. Then the seasons were only announced on a month-by-month basis and you were able to make those decisions and know that artistically it didn't make a lot of difference because the actors involved in that production were also involved in other productions. You can’t do that now. What I think is that advance planning - which is always attractive to advance planners - is not conducive to artistic freedom. One of the things that I’ve noticed now is that everyone accepts the fact that theatre is a long time-scale - it’s all changed. I used to commission a play now [April] for the summer and I’d say, ‘could I have it by June?’ Now if you asked a writer if you could have it by June, they would say, ‘June next year, you mean?’ No, this June. Three months! You can write a play in three months. Which is what I always did, because I was known to do that and be able to deliver plays. But you couldn’t deliver a play now the night before you started rehearsing.

So it's the flexibility which has been lost?
Yes. I'm going to see a production of
Way Upstream at Chichester next week and I remember that first production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round (1982). I remember the Saturday before we read it, I rang up the production manager and I said, ‘it’s a play with a boat, you’ve got a month.’ So they started working on it - designing then creating it - at the same time we started rehearsing it. They didn’t have any more leeway than that! The production team was tearing off to Irton to see this guy who made boats and it was mad. But we did it. It was extraordinary. We did have the odd problems with it along the way - the odd breakdown - but it was there on the first night. We had some hairy moment subsequently like things weren't working which you had to put right, but we had no major problems.
That sort of freedom is largely lost, I think. Yet there’s something about theatre that should remain instant, because it is one of the instant media. You can understand it with a movie, when you look at that list of people at the end just going on and on and on. And you think, yes they were justified setting that up two years in advance and gradually putting it together because it's a labour of love. But with a theatre play, it can be as simple as ‘can we find a couple of chairs?’ and occasionally you might want a chandelier or something - but you can find that quick enough - but everything else ought to be relatively easily assembled.
The thing that isn’t easy, is the risk factor which is the major change that I’ve seen over the years. The risk now discourages courage. The Stephen Joseph Theatre started with an act of complete folly and courage by Stephen Joseph, who started it with a group of like minded people all staying in the one house and doing an uncompromisingly new set of plays in a place that had never seen anything like it. To open within fifty yards of the
Black & White Minstrels at their peak with plays such as Honey In The Stone (1955) - which was set in South Africa with a Chinese servant - is extraordinary. There were weird plays and my stuff, by comparison, was blazing in there as heavily commercial! The Square Cat (1959) was extraordinary and one of the first shows to turn a profit - it was like everyone said, ‘oh, this is funny.’ I guess from this risk-taking you created an extraordinary environment; I always says this, that when - certainly in the later years of Westwood - we had just drummed our audience into accepting the fact that we would only do new work, there was an audience willing and ready to take advantage of that. But once you draw back from that, you just feel there is less and less willingness to take risks.
Of course the first casualty of this by far was the West End, where now a new play is almost out of the question unless it has transferred from somewhere and someone else has taken the risk. We’ve almost got to the point where the disease has spread into the regions where very little experimentation is encouraged, so theatre has lost the seed-beds essentially. We were growing them and letting them transplant them and become big beautiful plants and saying, ‘aren't we clever.’ Grown in Yorkshire.

Do you think there's a solution to this?
I think it needs to be something big. I think what you need to do is take Stephen Joseph’s maxim of just reinventing. Keep reinventing. I think there is a new re-invention to be done at the SJT, but I think its got to be a big one. It’s got to be major. A major investment, but I would suspect although I devised certain distractional techniques such as House & Garden to keep people interested, in the end you probably need to tear it all down and start all over again.

And there's also the problem that the Stephen Joseph Theatre was specifically created as an outlet for new drama, if you take that away, one has to question what the point of the SJT is?
There have been times recently when I've thought the SJT is no longer fit for the purpose it was devised to be. You cannot survive without doing new work; I’ve lined up all the reasons for not being able to do new work and knocked them down. In my wildest dreams, I've thought of just forming a touring company, rehearsing in my rehearsal room and taking it out. But what do you lose if you do that? You're always homeless, so there’s a sort of nomadic feeling about the company, a home of some sort is needed. I look and feel quite envious of the Esk Valley Theatre in Eskdale. You've got a lot of people who are really passionate about it and they come and work front of house and work in the bar and maybe there is a way to do that.
What is frustrating is people seem to forget the work is the thing that matters; not the building. Perhaps there's a natural end before you have to totally reinvent - I think 60 years is probably enough. Thats my feeling.

Do you think it was it easier to stage new work when the theatre first opened 60 years ago?
It was quite easy for Stephen Joseph to do a new play in the old days. They gave him money to do it! If he said 'I want to do R.C. Sheriff's Journey's End', the Arts Council would say, ‘No, we can't give you money for that, that's an old play.’ But if Stephen said this is a new play, they would read it and if they thought it was rubbish they wouldn't give you any money but if they read it and two-thirds of the panel liked it, you'd get the money for it. So he based his season on the fact that there was small seed money to be had. And you chanced your arm that if you did enough new things, you could pay for the season. Nobody got anything out of it but, nevertheless it was an atmosphere that actively encouraged new writing.
Now there's more hoops to jump through and you get this awful thing of workshopping plays, I mean, come on, just do it. Get it right in rehearsal!
When we moved to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1996, we got cut back on productions - so the repertoire shrunk and the playing period shrank. If you got - as you did in the last days of Westwood - 9 or 10 shows over the year you could afford to loose about 3 or 4 of those without substantial losses. You could take risks as, hopefully, there'd always be enough bankers in there to make it work. But when you've only got five plays in total - as we have in 2015 - that’s a very high risk. If one of those goes down you've lost a fifth of your income. So there a lot resting on each play and it does take quite a lot of arrogance / moral courage to write something that you really want to write without thinking, ‘I have to write something really popular. I have got to help this along.’ So that pressure is immediately on the writer to do something that a) is known and b) is familiar.
I’ve been very lucky in that I've been completely unfettered - I think that’s the word - until quite recently. I feel fettered now by cast sizes and to a certain extent by other things such as the need to tour it. You're always aware that something is cutting into the artistic decisions such as the practical considerations. One tries to avoid these - if I’d have thought about it for too long, then
Arrivals & Departures (2012) probably wouldn’t have had two little girls in them, because you were slogging around the countryside to find young girls for the tour. But I thought they were very necessary to the construction of the play so I kept them in - it would have been easier not to have done.

What do you think Stephen Joseph would have thought about the SJT reaching 60?
I think Stephen Joseph would have been secretly quite proud. I think he would have had his criticism, but he was always a man for trying to constantly push things further. I would like to think he would be quite proud of it now. But I think if he’d still been in charge he would either have blown it up - which is possibly the way it would have gone anyway - or we would now be doing extraordinary stuff. He always had ideas and the rest of us tried to translate them into something that was possible. You need that bit of blue sky thinking.

Copyright: The Times. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.