If you were auditioning for Sir Alan Ayckbourn, you might get a little nervous too.
He is, after all, one of the world’s most popular (and prolific) modern playwrights, with more than 70 scripts to his name and a 1997 knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for his “services to theatre.” He has pocketed many prestigious British and American play awards. And at age 74, he’s still crafting thoughtfully witty and distinctive serio-comedies for the stage.
No wonder Seattle actress Emily Chisholm was anxious trying out for a lead role in “Sugar Daddies,” a revised 2003 Ayckbourn play the author is directing in its American premiere here at ACT Theatre.
“I was nauseous beforehand, and so nervous I forgot how to act,” recalled Chisholm. “But Alan was just delightful. He’s so relaxed and confident; he makes things calm in the room.”
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He probably could get away with lording it over cast and crew, but you don’t hear a jot of grumbling about Ayckbourn at ACT. Quite the contrary.
“He doesn’t direct by intimidation; he’s a gentleman,” reflected local stage veteran Sean Griffin, who co-stars with Chisholm in “Sugar Daddies.” The play is a “comedy of dark intentions” about the unusual relationship between a naive young woman and a doting but sinister older man three times her age.
Ayckbourn’s affable charm and undiminished zest for theater were well evident during a leisurely lunch interview last summer. The playwright was in Seattle at the time with actress wife Heather Stoney to conduct auditions for “Sugar Daddies,” which is now in previews at ACT.
A droll raconteur and all-around theater hand with many stories to impart about a bountiful life on the boards, Ayckbourn has a kindly demeanor and a twinkle of mischief about him. He has directed in the U.S. before, but expressed delight to be mounting one of his plays for an American company that’s already presented 10 of them.
But like most theater folk, he prefers not to jinx a show with overconfidence. “I said to my wife, I may be on a suicide mission here, but being in a rehearsal room with keen actors can only be good. I feed off that energy. I need to work with new people who will challenge me. It’s one reason I wanted to come here, when [ACT artistic director] Kurt Beattie invited me.”
Ayckbourn’s pithy synopsis of “Sugar Daddies” goes like this: “It’s Christmas. There’s a country mouse down from Norfolk living in London with her half sister. She’s a girl full of urban angst, working at the BBC as a researcher.
“She comes to the aid of a man after a car accident. He’s in his 70s, while she’s in her early 20s. The play is in part a retelling of the Faust legend, about someone who may or may not sell her soul to the devil. It’s also a [platonic] love story.”
There are laughs woven in, yes. But as The Guardian newspaper observed, “despite its light tone and slightly enforced happy ending, the comedy is a thin crust covering a dark world of criminality and corruption.”
“Sugar Daddies” had its world premiere in Scarborough, England, under the author’s direction, at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, an in-the-round-playhouse Ayckbourn has been closely associated with since he was hired on as an actor in the late 1950s by its namesake.
The impresario Stephen Joseph “could see I wasn’t really an actor, and he challenged me to direct,” Ayckbourn recalls. His mentor also encouraged him to write. That lit the spark, and Ayckbourn plunged into staging and penning scripts (“I’ve been a compulsive writer since the age of 15”), in Scarborough and around England. He also did a long stint as a director-producer for the BBC’s radio drama division.
It wasn’t until Ayckbourn’s seventh play, “How the Other Half Loves,” became a London hit in 1971 that the wider theater world took notice. That “huge success changed my life,” he confirms. It allowed him to leave the BBC to focus on writing such other hits as “The Norman Conquests,” “Absurd Person Singular,”“A Small Family Business” and a slew of other intricately constructed, sharply observed yet empathetic farces about “ordinary” middle-class Brits in extremis.
Despite his trans-Atlantic success on the West End and Broadway, Ayckbourn preferred to stay in Scarborough, where he succeeded the late Joseph as the artistic director of the latter’s theater.
Thanks to the many laugh lines and farcical situations in his depiction of modern life, Ayckbourn was often pegged “the British Neil Simon.” But the playwright demurs. “I didn’t see that at all. I like to write comedies with dark shadows or dark comedies with patches of sunlight, as Chekhov did. There’s a lot of funny stuff, but it’s about human nature — and there’s darkness in that.”
He has also masterfully experimented with form. In the popular trilogy “The Norman Conquests,” for instance, each play depicts the same characters and events during a single country weekend — but allows the audience to see what occurs simultaneously in three different areas of the house where they’ve gathered.
“I always look for the right way to tell a story,” Ayckbourn said. “And as the head of a theater, I sometimes needed to make plays events that would wake up the regulars.”
Slowed by a stroke in 2006, Ayckbourn retired as artistic director, but he still writes one, two, sometimes more scripts per year for the Stephen Joseph. (Seattle Public Theatre covered a splendid recent one, “My Wonderful Day,” in 2011.) His newest, “Arrivals and Departures,” is currently running in Scarborough.
Ayckbourn also found time to fine-tune “Sugar Daddies” for ACT. “Reading it objectively, for the first time in years, I thought, ‘Yes, he could have done better here and there.’ ”
Chatting between rehearsals last week, Ayckbourn seemed right at home at ACT directing in the Allen Theatre, another in-the-round venue. He gives his Seattle colleagues high marks, and they return the compliment. “Working with Alan is a highlight of my career,” says Griffin.
If Ayckbourn has a beef with British and American theater these days, it’s mainly over “ the dearth of nurseries for new plays. I’ve had a theater, a safe haven, where I could develop my craft. I never had to write for TV or films to make a living. This is such a hit and miss business, and I often think, ‘How lucky I am to have had that showcase.’ ”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org