The Learning Stage : Alan Ayckbourn, whose ‘Round and Round,’ will play at Actors Alley, says he is still getting an education.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Robert Koehler writes regularly about theater for The Times</i>

Alan Ayckbourn, the most prolific playwright in the English language (and perhaps any other), is talking by phone from his Scarborough, England, home about a play he wrote 21 years ago. Then he casually mentions this: “I’ve just finished my 48th play, and I find I’m still learning.”

Now Ayckbourn may pardon us, but doesn’t completing 48 plays qualify one as some kind of master? Isn’t he a little past the learning stage?

“Well, for one thing, my whole writing life has been spent finding out what actors can and can’t do,” he says, “and if I had known that from the beginning, it would have saved me a trouble of time as a writer and director.”

Oh yes, did we mention that Ayckbourn also directs his plays, at the Scarborough theater he has run for decades? This, clearly, is no ordinary theater artist.


“Of course,” he says, “having one’s own theater is a great advantage. You always know that the new play will get a hearing, perhaps even a future.”

Virtually all of Ayckbourn’s plays have had a future, and they have become the core of contemporary theater repertoire--from “How the Other Half Loves” to “Intimate Exchanges” to the recent, darker, “Henceforward” and “A Woman in Mind.”

Few have futures, again and again, like Ayckbourn’s 1973 trilogy, “The Norman Conquests.” A collective comedy of manners woven together by a set of six characters--marrieds and relatives--the three-sectioned work breaks up time and place over a July Saturday and Sunday as Norman ventures to woo every woman in sight, excepting his own wife.

Actors Alley, currently limited by its quake-wracked theater and having to perform in a big, colorful tent on the lot of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, understandably chose not to stage the entire “Norman” trilogy; rather, it opens the trilogy finale, “Round and Round the Garden,” tonight under Joseph R. Sicari’s direction.

But is one-third of a trilogy two-thirds less of an experience?

Ayckbourn is philosophical: “In an ideal world, all three are done, and an audience has the fun of revisiting the action and people at three different angles. This not being an ideal world, and since it’s possible to see them individually, ‘Round and Round’ is perhaps the best to see separately. It’s the framework piece of the three, since it covers the chronological beginning and end of the weekend.”


So, without “Table Manners” (Part 1) and “Living Together” (Part 2)--without even a real theater--director Sicari has had to make do with less.


“But I feel I found the cast required for what is a very musical, very brilliant, very tender comedy,” Sicari says in the study of his Hollywood Hills home. Casting from within the membership-run Actors Alley company, Sicari says he had to wipe away any vision of directing this for “some fictional British cast of my dreams--I mean, that’s silly. This is the staging for this cast, and this cast alone. And I am very happy with it.”

Ayckbourn revisited his trilogy in 1993 for a 20th-anniversary production, presented at his Westwood Theatre in Scarborough, located in a former boys school. (His company in the seaside Yorkshire town is soon to relocate to a new, twin theater complex with an arena stage and a smaller stage for new plays.) “Putting them together again made me realize,” he says, chuckling, “what a shrewd bit of business they were, that you could do three plays virtually for the price of one, with slightly different sets, the same costumes, the same cast.

“It was the first time I had written at that scale and at that length,” says Ayckbourn, who, at that point had already been playwriting for 14 years. “Before that, I had sort of reversed things and done the old playwright’s kind of comedy, the farce. Here, I sensed that something this long couldn’t be sustained by comedy alone, but by interwoven plots and characters.

“I must confess that it was written by someone I no longer know. I don’t really know how I wrote it. The process of writing it is vaguely familiar, like an old illness. The trilogy is an innocent work, and Norman is the kind of fellow who was very typical of British theater then. We had grown tired with all of the turmoil of the ‘60s, and he allowed me to have fun.”


Where and When

What: “Round and Round the Garden.”

Location: Actors Alley, 5220 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 30.


Price: $18.

Call: (818) 508-4200.

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