Wednesday, June 29, 2011

An Interview With Alan Ayckbourn

On 24 June 2011, the University Of York announced it had acquired the archive of playwright Alan Ayckbourn as part of the Borthwick Institute for Archives. Here Paul Tyack, Development Manager for the University Of York, interviews Alan Ayckbourn and his archivist Simon Murgatroyd about the archive.

Paul: How do you feel about the archive moving out of your home and into the University of York?

Alan: I think a strange mixture really. You never delve into your personal archive on a regular basis; I don’t wake up on a morning and think ‘I must go and look in the archive and see what I was doing in June 1984!’  But you just know that it’s accumulating.
It’s my past really and I have mixed feelings about my past. Sometimes I get regrets and get very nostalgic, but mostly the person I look back on is someone I don’t really know.  It was me, at that time, writing things that I’ve never really understood how I wrote. The writing process for me – and that is what the archive is mainly about – is why I wrote the play; how I wrote the play remains a complete mystery.  I think how did I write The Norman Conquests? When people ask me, I just trot out the stock answer: ‘I guess I must have started with one and then I went to another and so on’, but I have no idea really what happened except for necessity. The life of a playwright is a very pragmatic one. I write very much responding to a situation, in my case, the needs of a theatre company and the limitations and the potential that go with that. The potential being the quality of the company and the limitations being the building.  When I started at the Library Theatre in Scarborough, you couldn’t have a play running after 10 o’clock because that’s when they closed the library and this awful bloke would stand there jangling his keys during the final moments!

Paul: What messages do you think your archive will have for future generations of writers and directors?

Alan: I think in that it covers quite a long span of time - my writing career has been pretty long at 50 plus years - at the very least it can be quite an interesting historical document. What it was like to write at the end of the 1950s at a time when there was a feeling of optimism about the arts coming out of World War Two; when the Arts Council was newly formed and very bullish and definitely wanting to encourage new writing.  I was lucky to be there.  I was also caught in the whirling cross-streams of the creativity of the old guard – Rattigan, Coward, Shaw and all the way back - with coming up around me at the time Osborne and the new wave. So I got caught in those two currents.  It was very interesting although I never allied to either. I think people early on saw me as a direct descendant of Noel Coward, but then as time went on I became a direct descendant of Harold Pinter! I think I’m quite interesting historically to that extent.
Also, watching how I developed in the subsidised sector as the majority of my plays were directly written for the subsidised sector. I’m a sort of walking record of that.

Paul: Do you have any particular treasures in the archive that someone looking through it in 200 years’ time would consider an especially welcome find?

Alan: With the creation of a play in the early days – I’m thinking here of the playscripts – it’s an archivist’s dream. The scripts were all written in long hand with lots of crossings out. Now it’s all on a disc which is probably binned anyway at the end of the day and there’s no original document.

Simon: There’s a fantastic example of Alan’s transition between physically writing and working on a computer with the play A Chorus Of Disapproval.  In the archive, there’s Alan’s hand-written script of the first act in pencil on foolscap paper, but there’s no second act.  I said to Alan: ‘Why did you get rid of this?’ and he said: ‘Oh no, I got my first word processor mid-way through writing this play, so I did the second act on the word processor.’ We know the exact moment Alan went to writing on a computer, because we have the first act hand-written and then nothing after that point.

Paul: Did your writing change after it moved to the computer?

Alan: I think it could have done. The old method was me sitting on a sofa dictating from my handwritten notes to my partner Heather Stoney at the typewriter; I just elaborated on the writing occasionally, just extending it. When I got on to the computer myself, I can remember vividly plotting A Chorus Of Disapproval. There’s a long speech in that about the arts, how you’re on a hiding to nothing if you’re part of a small community in England and trying to be an artist. I spent a good day on that speech just because I was able to. This was a new toy and I was shunting paragraphs, moving words, changing syllables. That speech must have undergone two hundred changes and I thought, if I go on at this speed, I’m never going to finish the damned play! I’ve got to just get on with it and go back to the way I wrote - get it down on the page and then tinker with it.
I have this phobia, which probably goes back to my childhood, I still have to go to bed with a tidy script. Often I write until I’m knackered and then I stop and just do a tidy, which of course on a computer is so easy as it reformats and takes out the mistakes.  It’s much, much easier.  In the old days, I would trawl back through several pages of typing and possibly blot things out with Tipp-ex or at the long-hand stage, most of my scripts were covered in arrows!  Move that line back there – it isn’t what you say, but the order you say it in! 

Paul: Have you any message you’d like to give to writers in the future?

Simon: I think what I’ve learnt from Alan’s archive is that writing is a continual learning process. Alan is still learning about his craft today and the plays are still moving on. You look at all the scripts and you can see he never stops. Even someone as accomplished as Alan is continually pushing and moving in new directions. If you look at his plays by decade, they’re not the same. His latest play, Neighbourhood Watch, is nothing like a play from even ten years ago. In recent years, there’s been a brevity emerging, a sparseness in the writing that you can trace back to the beginning of this decade. I think that’s what I’ve learnt from the archive; you never stop learning and you never stop improving.

Paul: Was it always your wish your archive would become available to the public?

Alan: Well, if you mean had I a burning desire to be remembered for posterity – possibly!  But I’m usually too busy trying to think of another play to care about that, hence my high strike rate.  At the moment half my brain is tossing around working through a new play for next year which is in the back of my head.
But I’m glad the archive will be available because I was persuaded a few years ago to write my first book, The Crafty Art Of Playmaking, and I suddenly realised that because I’d been doing things instinctively and learning from the examples of other great writers and from experience, this knowledge was quite valuable and I wanted to chronicle it.  I hope the archive is an extension of that in a much less self-conscious way.  I just think that there’s so much to playwriting, it’s such an interestingly varied craft.
At the literary end of it, there’s a part of me that was rather pleased in the early days when publishers declined to publish me on the grounds I had no literary value! Thank God for that, because there’s something awful about having literary value as a playwright. You can have great literary value as a novelist, but the ideal play should be a working document for actors to work with. It’s quite interesting if you read a scene off the page, it doesn’t read quite the same as when you see it.  Because when you see it, you realise there’s perhaps a third person on stage not saying anything but who is the one making that whole scene make sense.  On the page, that silent person sitting there whilst this scene is going on around them, who unless you write in the script ‘She shrugs’ or ‘She looks at them’, you’ve no idea what they’re doing.  That is something you only pick up when you have an eye for reading the sort of drama I write, which is the drama of the unsaid.  If you read a play like My Wonderful Day, the lead character Winnie hasn’t much of a part on the page. She only says ‘Oui, madame’ and lets people rabbit away for ages, but of course she’s bang in the centre of that play.

Paul: What is it about the University of York that makes it a suitable home for the archive?

Alan: It’s my local, isn’t it? I’m very fond of York and, of course, I’ve spent so much of my life here in Yorkshire.  My affinity with York is quite strong.

Paul: Would you give any particular message to theatre and film students who are studying theatre and film at York as they start their careers?

Alan: Yes. When I went into theatre, I wanted to be an actor- I think that’s what a lot of people still want to do. But theatre is a wonderful institution and it has a big wide door through which anyone of any discipline can pass.  Be they painter, actor, writer, fundraiser! There are endless opportunities.  I think what I’ve had from it, though, is a lot of fun. There’s that old maxim, which is attributed to Clint Eastwood: ‘Take the work seriously, but never yourself.’  It’s still a wonderful maxim.  I’ve had more laughter and fun in the rehearsal room doing something inherently quite serious, but nonetheless joyful and then sharing that with other people. If you take that as a starting point, then that automatically, I believe, conveys itself on stage and to an audience. There’s a sense of real joy watching a group of performers who have pleasure in each other’s company and pleasure in performing for you, whether it be Oedipus Rex or See How They Run. It’s that sort of feeling, that joy.
Theatre is live and people say are you worried about theatre dying out?  It’ll never die out as long as people want to do it!  It’ll be there and they may troll off to make mega-bucks from movies or television series, but eventually everyone says they want to work in theatre as that’s where really the magic lies, in front of an audience.  I’ve been lucky enough to have been there for a long time.

Paul: Do you have any hopes for how the archive will be used over the years to come?

Alan: Well, hopefully in the same way my book has been used. Someone will go in there with an open mind and start to follow a thread and say this is interesting, I think now I can write.  That perhaps I might inspire someone – if he can do it, I can!

Simon: Ten years ago, we launched Alan’s website www.alanayckbourn.net and it was our first step in making archival material available. What came through, that was very surprising, was the interest from not only across the world, but from the ages. That you get nine year old children writing an email, ‘I’m interested in playwriting, any tips?’ or ‘I’ve just been cast in Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations, what advice would you give? Is there something in the archive to help?’ That to me is amazing.  And I think this acquisition will develop that to a far larger degree, now that people will have hands on access to far more material than we can ever present on the internet. You will realise how widespread the appeal of Alan’s plays is, from Australia to Eastern Europe, America to Japan, which astonishes me. It’s one of the great pleasures of my job that I’m talking to people across the world about Alan and I think a resource where those people can come and access this archive can only be an amazing opportunity and an amazing resource.

Paul: One of the parts of the funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund is to help open the Borthwick up to young people, how do you feel that your archive might have a particular appeal to a younger audience?

Alan: If you have that glimmering of an ambition to be in theatre, I think the archive will offer not only fertile ground for ideas but I hope will inspire others to write. 

Simon: I think it will provide an inspiration for the potential of writing. There are so many subjects and genres that Alan has written about.  He’s written for audiences from three year olds to older children to teenagers and on across the main body of his work. I think it’s quite inspiring coming in as a young person and finding you can write about anything; that the sky is the limit. Here’s just one person that proves that you can do absolutely anything you want in theatre. His imagination as a writer and the challenge to realise those ideas in theatre is all there in one place, in this archive. It’s a very good example of what you can do in theatre and of the amazing potential of theatre.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn 2011; please do not reproduce without permission.
Transcription by Simon Murgatroyd 2011

More news and information regarding the acquisition of the Ayckbourn Archive by the University Of York continues in the news blog tomorrow.

Anniversary news: Today (29 June 2011) marks the 50th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn's directing debut when his production of Gaslight premiered at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1961.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Ayckbourn Archive: An Archivist's Perspective

The announcement that the University Of York has acquired Alan Ayckbourn’s personal archive for the nation really is something for Ayckbourn fans the world over to celebrate.

As Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist, I’ve been working with these papers for approaching ten years and it is – whether viewed objectively or subjectively – an extraordinary collection. The University quotes the figure that there is more than a tonne in weight of material; I can’t verify that, as lifting the entire archive is one of the few things I haven’t attempted. What I do know from my own experiences is it encompasses tens of thousands of pages of material covering a lifetime in theatre and offers an incredible glimpse into the mind and development of Alan Ayckbourn as a writer and director.

This is one of the reasons I’m delighted it has been acquired by York, which has such exciting plans for making it available to the public in the pipeline. For ten years, I’ve also been administering www.alanayckbourn.net, which from humble beginnings now encompasses more than 3,500 pages of online material, much drawn from Alan Ayckbourn’s archive. I am told it is now one of the largest single online resources dedicated to one playwright in the world. But to put this into perspective, even at a conservative estimate, there is less than a quarter of one percent of the information on the website that is held in the actual Ayckbourn Archive. The website, I hope, does a good job as an online resource about Alan, but in terms of actual quantity available, it barely scratches the surface.

Which is why the acquisition is such good news. Of course, www.alanayckbourn.net will keep expanding and will be working in conjunction with the University Of York to make even more available digitally. But at York, in the Borthwick Institute For Archives, the entire Ayckbourn Archive is now preserved and available for researchers to visit and use. Every play and their histories – from reviews and press cuttings to set sketches and behind the scenes correspondence and so much more – will be there for students and researchers to explore in person or eventually online.

Whether it’s an original manuscript for Alan’s first play The Square Cat, his handwritten early drafts of Absurd Person Singular, unpublished and unproduced plays written when a teenager or his voluminous and fascinating correspondence with his agent Margaret Ramsay and other pivotal figures in British theatre, there is a huge treasure trove of material offering new insight into the playwright’s work and life.

To give a sense of the scale, every day I worked with the archive over the past ten years, I can genuinely say I found some information that, even as Alan’s Archivist and a lifelong fan of his work, was new to me; the very day before the Archive moved to York, I discovered some previously unread notes about Way Upstream and its infamous sailing at the National Theatre.

That pleasure of discovery and working with such a unique resource will now be shared with an audience of all ages, potentially around the world. I can’t wait to share their discoveries and hear about their experiences.

Simon Murgatroyd, Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist, 2011

Tomorrow's blog will feature Alan Ayckbourn giving his thoughts on the move of his archive to the University Of York.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Ayckbourn Archive acquired for nation

University of York acquires Ayckbourn Archive for the nation

The archive of one of the country’s foremost contemporary English dramatists, Sir Alan Ayckbourn, has been acquired by the University of York and will now be made accessible for the first time.

Mike Cordner, Chris Webb, Lady Ayckbourn, Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Professor Brian Cantor, and Fiona Spiers, Head of Heritage Lottery Fund, Yorkshire and Humber. Photo by Ian Martindale

The archive – which contains thousands of items including original stage sketches, working manuscripts, plot diagrams and correspondence – will become part of the internationally important Samuel Storey Writing and Performance Collection at the University’s Borthwick Institute.

Professor Brian Cantor, the University of York’s Vice-Chancellor, announced the news at a performance of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean comedy A Mad World, My Masters! by the Out of the Blue Theatre Company in the new auditorium in the University’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television.

The £240,000 purchase has been made possible thanks to support from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the Samuel Storey Charitable Trust, the MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the National Libraries.

The Ayckbourn Archive will be the focus of a major outreach programme, supported by HLF, which will see its contents made available for public use. The archive will also form a major teaching resource for undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television.  It will provide a unique research resource, because of the completeness with which it documents one of the most outstanding theatrical careers of our time.

Fiona Spiers, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Yorkshire and Humber, who attended the performance said: “This is incredibly exciting news, both for the University and the public. The Ayckbourn Archive is a fascinating collection and resource which will enable everyone to learn more about one of the greatest playwrights of our time for many years to come.”

Janet Davies, Head of V&A UK Section & Purchase Grant Fund, added: “The Borthwick Institute fully merited what will be the Purchase Grant Fund’s largest grant this year for this archive of international importance. We are very pleased to support the development of the Samuel Storey Writing and Performance Collection in this absorbing subject.”

Sir Alan’s archive maps his pre-eminence as playwright, theatre director, and (at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough) artistic director over the last five decades. By the end of this summer, he will have premiered 75 plays. His work has been translated into more than 30 languages.

With a playwriting career unrivalled in modern times, Ayckbourn is the creator of some of the greatest comedies since the Second World War – from The Norman Conquests to Woman in Mind, and Absurd Person Singular to Bedroom Farce.

The archive documents the composition and preparation of both his plays’ first productions and their subsequent runs elsewhere in the UK and abroad, as well as including many theatre reviews.  It includes working drafts, holograph manuscripts and revised typescripts, showing Sir Alan creating some of the most complex comic structures of modern times. There are notes on plots, diagrams of relationships between characters, sketches of stage settings, and positionings and movements of characters.

Correspondence with playwrights, actors, directors, producers, designers and agents, reads like a Who’s Who of theatre from the second half of the 20th century onwards. Peter Hall, Peggy Ramsay, Trevor Nunn, Michael Winner, Stephen Sondheim, John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Alan Plater and Martin Jarvis are among the familiar names which appear.

Sir Alan said: “The archive is really about the writing process. The old method was my wife, Heather, at an old typewriter with me dictating from my handwritten notes. I always like to go to bed with a tidy script and, in the old days, I would trawl back through several pages of typing and blot things out with tippex or cover my scripts with arrows.

“I realised that what I was learning from others and from experience was valuable and I wanted to chronicle it. I hope the Archive is an extension of this. I think the Archive will be a fertile ground for ideas and inspire people to write.”

The University aims to reach a wider audience through a suite of online educational tools and resources based on the archive that will support A and AS level teaching in English and Drama and Theatre Studies.

Mike Cordner, Ken Dixon Professor of Drama in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television said: “Sir Alan is a uniquely prolific, radically innovative, and supremely inventive dramatist. His work holds a special resonance for Yorkshire and it is entirely appropriate that the archive remains in the county where much of the work was produced.

“We are enormously proud that the University of York is to be the repository for this extraordinary collection, and that it will be available for use not only by the University community but the wider public.”

The Samuel Storey Writing and Performance Collection was established in 2003 through the generosity of the Samuel Storey Trust. The Ayckbourn archive is an important addition to the collection which also contains work by a range of writers including David Storey, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran and Barry Took.  It features contemporary comedy from Charles Wood's screenplay for the second Beatles film Help! via Round the Horne to Goodnight Sweetheart.

Keeper of Archives at the Borthwick, Chris Webb, said: “As part of this project, we plan to establish a new position of Educational Outreach Officer at the Borthwick to forge closer links with schools in the region. Sir Alan’s Archive is a hugely welcome and important addition to the Samuel Storey Writing and Performance Collection.”


The Alan Ayckbourn News Blog will be covering the Ayckbourn archive acquisition throughout thisweek. Watch this space for more news in the coming days.