Alan Ayckbourn: Long Biography

This is the officially approved long biography for Alan Ayckbourn. A short biography suitable for use in programmes is also available here. Please do not reproduce this article without the permission of the copyright holders.

Alan Ayckbourn is one of the world’s most popular and prolific professional playwrights. He has written - as of 2024 - 90 full length plays and more than 20 other revues and plays for children. He is also an acclaimed director, who Arthur Miller said directed the definitive version of his play
A View From The Bridge.

Alan was born in Hampstead, London, on 12 April, 1939. His mother was Irene Maud Worley – better known as the novelist Mary James - and his father Horace Ayckbourn, lead violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Educated at Haileybury, Alan left school at the age of 17 to pursue a career in the theatre immediately gaining a job with the theatre impresario Sir Donald Wolfit in 1956. He was with the company for three weeks as an acting stage manager for the production
The Strong Are Lonely at the Edinburgh Festival. Alan went on to work as an actor and stage manager in Worthing, Leatherhead and Oxford, before being employed in 1957 as a stage manager and actor at Theatre in the Round at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, Scarborough.

Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre had been founded in 1955 by Stephen Joseph and was home to the UK’s first professional theatre-in-the-round company, Studio Theatre Ltd. Alan was inspired by Stephen Joseph, who became a mentor and encouraged Alan to both write and direct. Alan’s first professional writing commission was inadvertently inspired by his acting career when he complained about a role he was playing; Stephen threw down the gauntlet saying that if Alan wanted better roles, he should write one himself. Alan wrote
The Square Cat. This was a success for the company in the summer of 1959 and Stephen immediately commissioned a second play, Love After All, for the winter of 1959.

Alan continued to act and write for Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre until 1962 when he was involved in the formation of the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, with Stephen Joseph and Peter Cheeseman. This was the country’s first permanent professional theatre in-the-round and Alan premiered two plays there,
Christmas V Mastermind and Mr Whatnot. The latter was produced in London in 1964 and received such a critical mauling that Alan retreated to the BBC in Leeds as a radio drama producer where he worked between 1965 and 1970.

Alan continued writing, though, and produced
Meet My Father for Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre in 1965. This would be a turning point in his life. In 1967, the play - retitled Relatively Speaking - opened in the West End and was a phenomenal hit.

It launched him into the public eye and in quick succession, plays such as
How The Other Half Loves, Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests, established Alan Ayckbourn as one of the country’s most popular and successful playwrights. As of 2024, he has written 90 full length plays, almost half of which have transferred to either the West End or the National Theatre. At one point in 1975, he held the record for having the most professional productions being performed simultaneously in the West End (The Norman Conquests, Absurd Person Singular and Absent Friends). His work has been translated into more than 35 languages and his plays are regularly performed throughout the world.

Stephen Joseph died in 1967 and Alan, alongside Ken Boden, Alfred Bradley and Rodney Wood, worked together to keep Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre alive. Although Alan was closely involved with the theatre during this period, both writing, directing and choosing plays for the company, he would not formally become Artistic Director until 1972. Apart from a two year sabbatical between 1986 and 1988, when he became a company director at the National Theatre, he remained Artistic Director of the company until 2009 and oversaw the company's move to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1976 before moving to its present home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, in 1996. After 37 years in the role, Alan retired as Artistic Director on 31 March 2009.

Concurrent to this, Alan’s directing career also flourished. He directed his first play in 1961,
Gaslight, at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre and in 1963 directed the world premiere of one of his own plays for the first time. Since 1967 he has directed the world premieres of all his plays and since 1977, he has directed all the West End premieres of his plays bar one. Since 1961, Alan has directed more than 300 productions and is considered one of the world’s pre-eminent directors of in-the-round staging.

He is hugely committed to theatre-in-the-round, for which he has written the majority of his plays. It is always worth remembering that when he stages a play in London or they are performed in the proscenium arch, it is a step away from the author’s original intention. It has frequently been stated that the definitive production of an Alan Ayckbourn play is the premiere production in-the-round in Scarborough, where he has premiered all but four of his plays. Although he has avoided film, he is very proud of his association with the late French film director Alain Resnais, who directed three acclaimed and award-winning film adaptations of his work.

Alan Ayckbourn has received more than 35 awards and honours including two Oliviers, a Tony, two Molières and Lifetime Achievement Awards from both the Variety Club of Great Britain and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. He was the 1992 Cameron Mackintosh Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Oxford University and is also the recipient of a Montblanc de la Culture Award for Europe for ‘establishing a thriving theatrical tradition in Scarborough and for his dedication and commitment to it’. In 2009, he was inducted into American Theater’s Hall of Fame and received the prestigious Society's Special Award at the Laurence Olivier Awards. The holder of a number of honorary degrees, he was appointed a CBE in 1987 and in 1997 was knighted for 'services to theatre'; the first playwright to be knighted since Sir Terence Rattigan.

In 2010, he received the prestigious Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. His plays have been regularly staged in America and more than 25 have been produced on Broadway and Off-Broadway. In 1975 he held the record for having the most plays simultaneously running on Broadway (
The Norman Conquests and Absurd Person Singular). However, he would probably consider his greatest success in the States came in 2005, when he took his Scarborough company to the 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off Broadway festival to present Private Fears In Public Places. The month-long run was an unprecedented success receiving great acclaim from audiences and critics alike. The New York Times proclaimed it “altogether wonderful” and the cast “flawless”. In 2007, his production of Intimate Exchanges also toured to the Festival where it broke box office records at 59E59 Theaters and received a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Play. Since then he has also toured My Wonderful Day in 2009, which also received a Drama Desk Outstanding Play award nomination, Neighbourhood Watch in 2011, Arrivals & Departures, Time Of My Life and Farcicals in 2014, Hero's Welcome and Confusions in 2016 and A Brief History Of Women in 2018 to the festival.

In 2017, having begun his professional stage career at the Edinburgh Festival in 1956, he had his first work staged at the Edinburgh International Festival with an adaptation of his epic prose work
The Divide.

In February 2006, Alan suffered a stroke leading to the announcement in June 2007 that he would step down as the Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. He would officially step down in 2009 but continues to be closely associated with the venue where he premieres his new work and direct revivals of his plays. In 2018, the theatre named him Director Emeritus to mark his long-standing contributions and achievements.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd.

* For further details about Alan's position as Artistic Director and the confusion over the year he took the job, click
** For further details about Alan Ayckbourn stepping down as Artistic Director, click