An Interview with Alan Ayckbourn about Stephen Joseph

During 1997 and 1998, Stacey Morley - a student at Arden School Of Theatre, Manchester, studying for her BA(hons) in Acting Studies - conducted two extensive interviews with Alan Ayckbourn about his career, writing and background. Within these interviews, Alan Ayckbourn spoke at length about his relationship with Stephen Joseph and his thoughts on the person he considers to be his most influential mentor.

Edited extracts from these interviews focusing on Stephen Joseph can be found reproduced below.

Stacey Morley Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

Stacey Morley: Why did you take on responsibility of Artistic Director at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre in 1972?
Alan Ayckbourn:
My two careers - in fact, three careers at one point - developed independently of each other. I came here [to Scarborough] in 1957 as an actor / stage manager. At that stage I had no formal training, couldn't afford one and it was easier to get in through the back door - that was my admission [into theatre]…. When I first came in [to Scarborough], it was not like the other theatres I had worked in - they were conventional reps - this was extraordinary in that it was in-the-round and it was also extraordinary in that it was run by Stephen Joseph. He became a sort of mentor for me. I was just 18 and he was in his 30s; he was so dynamic. He found out that I used to write a bit at school and he was very keen on getting active members of the theatre to write - he believed the writer belonged inside the theatre rather than some guy who wrote a play in the Hebrides; which was quite common because unless you were Noël Coward, you really weren't inside the theatre framework. And Stephen said - quite rightly - from the days of Shakespeare, that a writer was an integral member of The Company. Shakespeare of course was an acting member of The Globe company. So Stephen encouraged me to write and then when he saw my acting abilities he started encouraging me to direct and the two developed. And when he died, very young, in 1967, I was like his second Director. In the few years I'd been there, I'd grown from being an ASM to being a director come stage manager, come leading actor....

I would like to ask what you see Stephen Joseph's legacy to be?
Several things. He of course was enormously influential in introducing back into this country, if you like, theatre-in-the-round; but more than that he opened up the whole prospect of open staging. There were no 'professional' open stages around when I started in the 1950s, except for temporary ones. There was no Chichester, no Bolton, no Crucible - all of which which had direct influence from Stephen. This all came about, I think, because of Stephen and not just him but a small group of men who formed the ABTT (Association of British Theatre Technicians) which was the first time theatre practitioners had attempted to put together the legacy of theatre building….

Apart from the theatre building side, did he have a particular vision on the type of theatre that should be performed?
He liked the 'Round'. He was not too fond of what he called the compromises between the round and the proscenium. He didn't like three sided stages very much and I know why, as I don't either! The reason being is that you can finish up with the worst of both worlds. I don't particularly like theatres such as Sheffield where the actors have terrible trouble focusing; they have a small amount of audience at the side so you tend to play to the front and the side audience always feels slightly cheated. The sight lines are all peculiar. Stephen, I think, felt that theatre should begin to address itself to people rather than the 'elite' stalls, the 'slightly elite' dress circle and the 'rather a commoner' upper circle. He was very keen to bring the audience as a whole back into the proximity of the theatre. He felt very strongly about theatre being in-the-round, but that was dictated not just by his passion for architecture, it was also his passion for re-establishing the basics of theatre: actors and audience. He had practically no time at all for directors and he had very little time for designers. Light and sound he liked as ingredients, because they were much more supportive of actors. In the end he had sort of three ingredients and I suppose he would have thrown one of those out if he thought it would help. He had a writer, he had his actors and he had his audience.

As far as the writing was concerned, was what he was giving the audience in terms of content important to him?
Oh yes. His attitude towards writers was very old fashioned in the idea of bringing a writer into a building and having them working alongside as one of the team; he always stressed that [the writer] was one of the team. He did have time for the writer as part of the building, as part of the structure, a working member who was not someone whom the actors regarded as a sort of alien presence; and that had a direct influence on me. When I arrived he encouraged anyone who looked like he could hold a pen to write.

What Stephen Joseph taught you - has that influenced you a lot in your career or have you swayed from that teaching and gone your own way?
The teaching is still very strongly there because I think the enigma he set me was to write for a company which was unashamedly an experimental company. A group of people who wanted to move back the barriers of theatre, to be working in new form and yet address a Scarborough audience; at that stage the most conservative audience who had come to see the summer shows and Val Doonican in his prime and somehow we had to compete with that. You couldn't rely on weird, experimental stuff unless it had an incredible entertainment content. It was a very unfashionable thing to do…. Stephen was very much a popularist in that sense - he was moving very much into the realm of Joan Littlewood. He was closing with her fast with his desire for a 'Fish and Chip Theatre'; he had this idea for a huge long chip frying counter round the back of the theatre and you could sit or walk up like you might do in an American football game, pick up some chips and come back and watch the action. We actors rather resented the feeling that we were competing with six penny worth of chips, but I think he just wanted to get away from all this conformity.*

I think what he did - and what I've inherited from him - is the desire to keep the magic of theatre. I think there is something magic about people coming on and telling us a story and creating things from nothing….

In terms of writing, did Stephen Joseph state what he wanted you to write about?
…He did suggest it [in the beginning] but in the end I think he saw me going my own way and he was quite content then to be an advisor and editor. He'd talk about writing - but was not a good writer of plays - but he knew more about play writing than anyone I'd ever met. He was like a teacher - he was a great, great teacher - and yet he was more than that in his vision and his concept of theatre which was very original. He wasn't a very good director, but he talked about directing very intelligently and he certainly wasn't a very good actor, but he talked about acting very intelligently. All these subjects he was greatly involved in and you could learn an enormous amount. He simplified play writing to the slightly unfashionable basics.

*Note by Simon Murgatroyd: Although Stephen Joseph is associated with the concept of 'fish and chip' theatre, it was no more than one of many different concepts he considered in making theatre attractive to the wider audiences. Although he advocated the idea, he apparently admitted to Alan Ayckbourn near the end of his life that the idea of 'fish and chip' theatre was not practical and would not have served either actor or audience well.

Copyright: Stacey Morley. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder. With thanks to Dr Paul Elsam for his help with the original Stephen Joseph site from which this section of A Round Town was adapted.