Alan Ayckbourn: Streaming ‘just isn’t theatre’

Alan Ayckbourn: Streaming 'just isn't theatre'

Sir Alan Ayckbourn

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Getty Images

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Sir Alan Ayckbourn says the “special” quality of live theatre is lost online

Sir Alan Ayckbourn, the award-winning playwright, says streaming shows during lockdown “just isn’t theatre”.

“You watch a streamed play and you might as well be watching television,” he adds.

“Although everyone tries to make it feel like theatre, and some people, they watch it on Zoom together, it’s not the same.”

Many theatre companies have turned to streaming past productions as theatres remain closed due to the coronovirus.

Among the most successful has been the National Theatre’s Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, which attracted nearly three and a half million views over its week-long run.

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National Theatre Live

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Benedict Cumberbatch (left) and Jonny Lee Miller alternated the lead roles in Frankenstein

But Sir Alan, known for plays such as The Norman Conquests, A Chorus of Disapproval and Bedroom Farce, is not a fan of watching productions on a screen.

While he thinks it reminds people who like theatre that it is still an “enjoyable process”, for anyone “coming new to theatre through streaming”, he fears what is special is “lost”.

“The theatre in the end essentially has to be live. It has to be a moment when I always say to an audience who come on a specific night, this performance is purely for YOU.

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Tony Bartholomew

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Sir Alan Ayckbourn was due to start rehearsing his new play at Stephen Joseph Theatre

“The excitement and spontaneity of live theatre is like nothing else.”

Sir Alan was due to start rehearsals for his new play Truth Will Out at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, this week.

But the coronavirus crisis put paid to that, with the theatre closed since March.

Lockdown, however, triggered another plan. Sir Alan, who worked as a radio drama producer for the BBC in Leeds between 1965 and 1970, decided to create and produce a new work, Anno Domino, which will be his 84th play.

“I dug this play off the shelf,” he says, “and it looked recordable. It looked radio friendly. There wasn’t too much visual action, there were no vicars running around with no trousers on.”

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Tony Bartholomew

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Sir Alan Ayckbourn and his wife Heather Stoney will be performing his new radio play

The play is about the breakdown of a long-established marriage and the “domino effect” that has on friends and family.

But once he had decided on the play he had to cast it. With social distancing, his options were limited. So Sir Alan himself also stars in Anno Domino – marking his return to acting after nearly 60 years.

If that wasn’t enough, it is also the first time he has directed and performed one of his own plays.

And then he teamed up with his wife, the actress Heather Stoney, to record the show at their home in Scarborough during lockdown. They even provided their own sound effects.

“It was a labour of love,” he observes.

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Scarborough Theatre Trust

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Sir Alan Ayckbourn and Heather Stoney in Two For The Seesaw in 1964

The show will be available as an audio recording on the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s website from 25 May to 25 June. It will be free, although it is hoped that those who listen will make a donation.

Given his antipathy towards streaming Sir Alan is keen to stress: “Don’t be fooled that Heather and me mucking about in our sitting room is live theatre. It’s a radio play.”

But he does want the show to raise money because the Covid-19 lockdown has been “particularly damaging for live performance arts”.

“The whole point of us really is getting people together in the same room. And of course, viruses don’t like same rooms,” he adds.

“It could be a very slow recovery. I think people are going to be understandably very nervous before they come out of their homes.

“And certainly the theatre audience is going to step back into the firing line, because they are going to sit next to each other, row after row.”

But after such a long and distinguished career, Sir Alan is ultimately optimistic. He thinks theatre “will pick itself up again”.

“It always does, eventually. But it might start again from the back of a cart. Maybe the big theatres will no longer be viable.”

And when live theatre does return, Sir Alan will be ready.

“I’ll probably write a lockdown play next year,” he says, “when we’re emerging from it.”

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