Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Alan Ayckbourn & Brits Off Broadway

To mark the North American premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's Hero's Welcome and the New York premiere of Confusions at the 59E59 Theaters as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, the blog presents an updated article about the playwright and his relationship with the festival.

There's a Hero's Welcome in New York at the moment as Alan Ayckbourn and the Stephen Joseph Theatre company return to the 59E59 Theaters for the sixth time.
Last week saw the Scarborough company returning to what can now well be considered its New York home, for a five week residency at the Brits Off Broadway festival. The festival will see the North American premiere of Hero's Welcome with the same company appearing in the New York premiere of the classic 1974 play Confusions.
Alan Ayckbourn & The company: (top, l to r) Russell Dixon,
Richard Stacey, Stephen Billington & Charlotte Harwood with
(bottom, l to r) Evelyn Hoskins, Alan Ayckbourn & Elizabeth Boag.
Copyright: 59E59 Theaters
In the past eleven years, Alan’s plays have become a regular fixture of the Brits Off Broadway festival proving to be successes for both the playwright and the 59E59 Theaters.
Yet prior to 2005, Alan’s plays had had very little impact in New York and truth be told, it had been more than thirty years since his one bona fide Broadway hit.
In 1974, Absurd Person Singular opened in New York at the Music Box Theatre, directed by the London production’s director Eric Thompson, and would go on to break the record for the longest running comedy on Broadway by a British playwright.
Theoretically, the floodgates should have opened with this leading to even more success, in the same way Absurd Person Singular led to success upon success in the West End.
But it didn’t. The Norman Conquests performed unexceptionally on Broadway in 1975 and although there were subsequent successful Ayckbourn productions in New York such as the National Theatre’s tour of Bedroom Farce in 1979 and The Old Vic’s transfer of The Norman Conquests in 2009, most failed to have any major or lasting impact.
So there was no reason to believe that touring his most recent play from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough to a small off-Broadway festival in 2005 was going to make any sort of waves.
Yet when Private Fears In Public Places opened at the Brits Off Broadway festival, it was met with some of the most extraordinary reviews of the playwright’s career, including an astonishing critique from the New York Times, which amongst many plaudits spotlighted the  “first-rate, frill-free acting” of Alan’s company.
Box office records at the 59E59 Theaters were broken and Alan noted, ”Seats were at a premium. The little box office wasn’t used to the lines around the block.” [1]
The company of six actors were compared to many of the Broadway heavyweights and at the end of the year the production featured in a host of top ten theatre lists including the New York Times and Times magazine. The production also garnered an Outstanding Director nomination at the Drama Desk Awards.
For Alan, it was an unexpected and extraordinary response to the play.
“It was a sort of vindication, like a life’s work unwasted. You slog away doing what you hope is good work up in the north-east but you never really know. But to be put up against that level of competition, in that sort of cauldron of critical mayhem which I have experienced over time... In New York the knives are very long indeed when they’re long. If you’ve got a failure in New York, try to get the firtst plane out.
“I wasn’t prepared for anything like the response.” [1]
The success of Private Fears In Public Places was not only a surprise to Alan though, the 59E59 itself was stunned by its success. The venue's President and Artistic Director Elysabeth Kleinhans was both delighted and surprised by just how much enthusiasm greeted the production.
"When I first met Sir Alan in 2004 and we agreed that the Stephen Joseph Theatre would participate in our Festival, I had no idea that we were building such a wonderful and lasting relationship. The success of Private Fears in Public Places in 2005 was, in hindsight, inevitable, but prospectively, none of us expected the response we had.  Our theater had only been open a bit more than a year and we were completely surprised on the morning of the New York Times review to find a line outside the door prior to the box office opening." [2]
The success of Private Fears In Public Places made a return visit to the Brits Off Broadway festival practically inevitable and Alan had already mentioned he was keen on returning in a couple of years time.
What wasn’t inevitable was that less than a year after returning to work from his stroke in 2006, he would take one of his most challenging and ambitious works across the Atlantic.
His revival of Intimate Exchanges was an epic experience for any venue; two actors playing 10 roles in a branching play with 16 possible permutations and more than 30 hours of dialogue in total.
This play was taken over to New York in its entirety. The complexity of the play posed a challenge for 59E59 Theaters and a few pleasant surprises. When interviewed about the production, Elysabeth Kleinhans noted how initially packages to see the different permutations were not offered and had to be created due to public demand.
“Who’s going to see all those plays in five weeks,” she said. “It’s ridiculous, right? I’m an optimist, but I never expected this.” [3]
Reviews again proved to be extremely favorable and it received Drama Desk nominations for Outstanding Play and for Outstanding Actor for Bill Champion. Time Magazine once again naming it as one of the top ten productions of the year.
Alan Ayckbourn’s plays were finally getting the recognition they deserved on the New York stage aided, it was regularly observed, by the quality of Alan’s acting company.
For Alan, the festival also finally meant being able to visit New York on his own terms. One of the appeals of the 59E59 to him is the small scale of the venue and the fact the festival welcomes his production with his company.
“It’s the sort of theater I recognize and am happy with,” noted Alan in 2009. “I would be far less happy a few blocks down in a big Broadway theater. As unhappy as I would be in London on the West End.”[4]
2009 brought with it the third visit to the festival, following in the wake of the high profile transfer of The Old Vic’s acclaimed 2008 production of The Norman Conquests to the Circle In The Square theatre. This was arguably the most successful Broadway Ayckbourn production since Absurd Person Singular and was showered with major awards including the first Tony award for an Ayckbourn play.
In direct contrast to the large three-play scale and fame of The Norman Conquests, Alan brought his latest, understated play to Brits Off Broadway with My Wonderful Day. This day observed through the eyes of a mostly silent nine year old schoolgirl was again tremendously successful, receiving excellent reviews and garnering Drama Desk nominations for Outstanding Play and Outstanding Actress for 28 year old Ayesha Antoine’s performance as nine year old Winnie.
Two years later, Alan Ayckbourn returned to Brits Off Broadway with his latest play, Neighbourhood Watch, which over the course of a year had runs in Scarborough, New York and London as well as throughout the UK. It was also the year Alan emphasised why the visits to the 59E59 and New York had become so significant to him.
“We take a show from Scarborough to New York with the same company and the same production and it gets fantastic reviews. When we there with My Wonderful Day in 2009, people were screaming out of their minds with praise and that is good for Scarborough and the theatre. It gives the company, not to say me, a little shot in the arm occasionally.”[5]
There is no doubt the success of Alan’s productions at the festival have been instrumental in increasing the awareness and appreciation of his plays in New York and the USA. It’s also hard not to believe too that their success was not also a key part in the decision to award Alan the prestigious Special Tony Award For Lifetime Achievement in Theatre in 2010.
After a three year break, the most ambitious visit yet took place in 2014 with a season called the Ayckbourn Ensemble which featured the world premiere productions of Arrivals & Departures and Farcicals as well as a revival of Time Of My Life. The response again was overwhelming with both new and classic plays receiving praise from critics and audiences alike.
Now all eyes are on the 59E59 Theaters to see whether Hero's Welcome and Confusions will follow in the same successful steps as their predecessors. It seems very likely given the extraordinary response and welcome New York audiences have given the company in the past.
Although one suspects to Alan, this is far less important than the opportunity the Brits Off Broadway offers to present his work on  the New York stage as he intends it to be seen with the spotlight thrown on the play and his actors and the quality of their work.

Hero's Welcome and Confusions can be seen at the 59E59 Theaters until 3 July. Visit www.britsoffbroadway.com for more details.

[1] Interview with Louise Jury, 6 January 2006, The Independent
[2] Interview with Simon Murgatroyd, Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website, October 2011
[3] Interview with Mark Blakenship, 27 May 2007, New York Times
[4] Interview with David Cote, 18 November 2009, Time Out
[5] Interview with Simon Murgatroyd, June 2011

Friday, May 20, 2016

Archiving Ayckbourn: The Revengers' Comedies

Archiving Ayckbourn is a regular feature presenting a look at every Alan Ayckbourn play through an object held in the Ayckbourn Archive. Each week, the feature will chronologically move through the play canon highlighting an object, article, photograph or other archival object offering an insight into the play, the playwright or moments of significance.

The Revengers' Comedies (1989)
In 1989 Alan Ayckbourn celebrated his 50th birthday with his epic two-part play The Revengers' Comedies. He dubbed it as a birthday present, whilst later admitting he didn't know who to as it was such a technical nightmare to stage!
The play generated much interest in the press and this week's delve into the archive takes a look at some of the press coverage the play generated.
Copyright: Scarborough Evening News
The first article (click on image to enlarge) sees Alan celebrating his 50th birthday with this picture story in the Scarborough Evening News. The photo accompanies an article announcing the world premiere of The Revengers' Comedies in Scarborough - which was a notable moment in the playwright's history - as well as the hugely disappointing Michael Winner film adaptation of his play A Chorus Of Disapproval - a less than notable moment; whoever thought that Michael Winner and Alan Ayckbourn were a good fit?
Copyright: Northern Echo
The second article is taken from the Northern Echo (click image to enlarge) and picks up on the response to a remarkable review of The Revengers' Comedies published in the New York Times. At the time Frank Rich was, arguably, the most well-known and influential critic in the western world and his visit to Scarborough was an unexpected surprise.
Even more so was the review which praised the play, the company, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round as well as Alan Ayckbourn's achievements (it's worth noting that The Revengers' Comedies marked the point Alan had written the same number of plays as Shakespeare).
One of the apparent unexpected benefits of the review was an upsurge in visitors from North America to the theatre. Who must have very much appreciated one of the most pointless additions to the story with the note of the "tiny but air-conditioned" theatre. As a former journalist, I'm not sure what the relevance of air-conditioning to the story is!
Copyright: The Stage
Finally, we have a cutting from The Stage & Television Today newspaper (click on image to enlarge) which looks at the splendidly grotesque character of Bruce Tick in The Revengers' Comedies.
Tick is the triumphant culmination of Karen Knightly's desire to rise in the company Lembridge Tennit as she murders her way to the top. The belching, groping and 'repellent' manager driven to a heart-attack by Karen's machinations.
The character is so vividly drawn, several newspapers picked up the story of whether he was based on someone specific - one would hope not given his very dubious character! Whilst Alan has admitted several characters during his writing career have been influenced and possibly inspired by actual encounters, none - as far as this author is aware - is specifically based on a single person.
However, this did not stop The Stage getting a good story from it regarding the theatre's press officer Russ Allen, who had left the company in December 1988 (and it must be pointed out did not have quite so much experience with Alan as the report suggests, as his tenure coincided with Alan's being on a two year sabbatical from Scarborough at the National Theatre starting just prior to Alan's departure and leaving soon after his return to Scarborough).
The Revengers' Comedies opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round on 13 June 1989 and was directed by Alan Ayckbourn. More details about the play can be found here.

If you'd like to meet Alan Ayckbourn, join him in rehearsals for his latest play and get the chance to put your own questions to him, click here to find out about the Premier Patrons week at the Stephen Joseph Theatre from 27 June to 2 July.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Archiving Ayckbourn: Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays

Archiving Ayckbourn is a regular feature presenting a look at every Alan Ayckbourn play through an object held in the Ayckbourn Archive. Each week, the feature will chronologically move through the play canon highlighting an object, article, photograph or other archival object offering an insight into the play, the playwright or moments of significance.

Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays (1988)
In 1988, Alan Ayckbourn wrote the first of what are now termed his family plays with Mr A's Amazing Plays.
The playwright had become increasingly unsatisfied by what he perceived as the provision of drama for young people whilst noticing that young audiences seemed to be enjoying his plays.
His solution was to write his own play which would not patronise young audiences, would draw from his own acting company, be performed in the main space at the theatre and have a main house budget; as such giving equal weight to plays for families as any other of his plays.
His first play did all these things whilst emphasising the excitement of live theatre by introducing an element of interactivity. During the second act, the young heroine Suzy must find her way through a creepy old house and her path is decided entirely by the audience.
To give an idea of the challenge of the task Alan was presenting himself in writing this, in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University of York is his first concept sketch of how the play's second act would work.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
This strange drawing (click on image to enlarge - it's worth it!) features Alan's plans for the possible routes and rooms through Mr Acousticus's house. Note the references to the page numbers of the rehearsal manuscripts.
Messy as it is, as this was presumably created in conjunction with the play, it is accurate to the options offered within the play. Just a bit difficult to make sense of!
For comparison, this is the final map as created by Alan Ayckbourn for the world premiere production with the help of his word processor.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
Somewhat easier to read and understand, the diagram with its various paths offers a reminder of plays such as Intimate Exchanges with its perpetually branching structure.
Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays proved to be a huge hit - transferring to the National Theatre in 1993 - and inspired Alan Ayckbourn to write many more family plays, many of which became increasingly sophisticated and in several cases are regarded as companion plays to his 'adult' work by the playwright.
Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round on 30 November 1988 and was directed by Alan Ayckbourn. More details about the play can be found here.

If you'd like to meet Alan Ayckbourn, join him in rehearsals for his latest play and get the chance to put your own questions to him, click here to find out about the Premier Patrons week at the Stephen Joseph Theatre from 27 June to 2 July.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Archiving Ayckbourn: Man Of The Moment

Archiving Ayckbourn is a regular feature presenting a look at every Alan Ayckbourn play through an object held in the Ayckbourn Archive. Each week, the feature will chronologically move through the play canon highlighting an object, article, photograph or other archival object offering an insight into the play, the playwright or moments of significance.

Man Of The Moment (1988)
Between 1986 and 1988, Alan Ayckbourn took a sabbatical from his home theatre in Scarborough to join the National Theatre.
He returned to the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, with Man Of The Moment, an award-winning play notable not least for featuring a swimming pool on stage.
This week's archive item illustrates just how involved Alan Ayckbourn traditionally gets involved in practically every aspect of production and is a concept design for the poster for the West End premiere of the play.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn
This drawing in biro (click on image to enlarge) was by Alan Ayckbourn and is his idea for the poster design. Traditionally, Alan Ayckbourn has been very involved in the poster designs for his productions and has submitted designs and ideas (some used, some not) helping to indicate how he feels the plays should be promoted.
In the case of Man Of The Moment, the concept is extremely close to the final image as seen below. The poster below is the clean image used for the programmes with the actual poster featuring practically identical billing to Alan's design.
Copyright: Michael Codron Productions
Given how obtuse some of Alan Ayckbourn's play titles are, it can be a challenge to create a design for the play which captures the spirit of it and yet is appealing. Last year's new play, Hero's Welcome, went through several drafts which included a cartoon-type design to a heavily military themed idea, all of which were toned down for a relatively simple and clean image which caught the essence of the play.
Throughout the history of Alan's premieres at the Scarborough venue, he has had a huge influence on how his plays have been promoted, although Man Of The Moment remains one of the few productions where his actual concept art has survived.
Man Of The Moment opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round on 10 August 1988 and was directed by Alan Ayckbourn. More details about the play can be found here.

If you'd like to meet Alan Ayckbourn, join him in rehearsals for his latest play and get the chance to put your own questions to him, click here to find out about the Premier Patrons week at the Stephen Joseph Theatre from 27 June to 2 July.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Alan Ayckbourn on Damsels In Distress

Pitlochry Festval Theatre is staging Alan Ayckbourn's Damsels In Distress trilogy this summer.
To mark this, the venue has published several short videos in which the playwright discusses the trilogy and the individual plays GamePlan, FlatSpin and RolePlay. The videos can be seen here.
The plays can be seen in repertory at the venue from 9 June to 13 October and mark a rare opportunity to see all three plays produced together as originally intended.
Damsels In Distress opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2001 and although unconnected by narrative, the three plays share the same company and the same set with themes from each play running into each other.
Further details about the Damsels In Distress season at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre can be found at www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com.