The Fall & Rise Of The SJT Archive

As an Archivist, I’m occasionally asked if I have any favourite archive-related stories. As it turns out, I do. Several in fact, but my favourite involves my second Archivist role.

In context, I’m privileged to care for two archives. The first of which, obviously, is Alan Ayckbourn’s Archive but I am also the Honorary Archivist for the Stephen Joseph Theatre caring for The Bob Watson Archive.

The Bob Watson Archive at the Stephen Joseph Theatre © Simon Murgatroyd

And my story concerns the slightly alarming history of The Bob Watson Archive and what it is today. Now, this isn’t first-hand and elements are possibly apocryphal – although I’ve heard it from enough people over the years, including the theatre’s late original Archivist Bob Watson – but I have no reason to doubt the essential story is true.

It was approximately three decades into the life of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough – Alan Ayckbourn’s home theatre which had been founded in 1955 as the Library Theatre by British theatre pioneer Stephen Joseph. There was no actual Archive in the theatre at this point, but material from the company’s early years onwards was kept and stored in an administration office.

Until a fateful day. A member of staff who worked in the office was apparently increasingly irritated by the lack of space to work and all the ‘rubbish’ apparently collecting around them.

As the story goes, it was bin day at the theatre and staff coming to work noticed there were rather a lot of bin bags that morning, but thought little more of it – and why would you? The disposal lorries came along and took away the bin bags, whose contents were never seen again…

And you can see where this is going….

Soon afterwards, it became obvious there was rather more space in that office than there previously had been. And there was rather less of the theatre’s history than there previously had been.

The Archive, this history of the company from 1955 – including material relating to the playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s formative steps into theatre – was lost in an instant. Presumably a treasure trove of historical documents and material all became land-fill or was incinerated. It’s not worth thinking about – or at least I try not to think about it.

Bob Watson – the SJT’s first Archivist © Yorkshire Regional Newspapers

There is a happy ending though for our sad story does not end here. For that, we have to thank Bob Watson, a passionate supporter of the theatre and a founding member of the Friends of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round. Voluntarily, he took on the role of Archivist and began restoring the Archive by whatever means he could. Given he never had a budget for the Archive, this is more of an achievement than you imagine!

When the company moved to its present home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, in 1996, Bob was officially named Archivist and for the first time, a permanent space was given to the Archive. Admittedly, this was originally the cloak room for the building, but a late change of plan saw it converted to an office (albeit an office that is not the most spacious in the world with a small, inoperable window looking onto the atrium and a steel beam cutting across the room at a head-cracking height – as my cracked head can testify on numerous occasions). This became the Archive.

Over the years, Bob did an extraordinary job of restoring the Archive, finding programmes, newspapers articles and reviews, photographs and documentation pertaining to the earlier plays as well as keeping it up to date with current productions. It was an exceptional achievement and a job that he was passionate about. He created the foundation upon which the current Archive was built and which proudly documents the entire history of the SJT – including a substantial Ayckbourn collection which includes prompt scripts for his world premieres going back to the 1970s.

Stephen Joseph’s desk, his books and the bear from Alan Ayckbourn’s Haunting Julia © Simon Murgatroyd

I got to know Bob whilst researching for my MA on Alan Ayckbourn and I remember with great fondness the moment he showed me the manuscript of Alan Ayckbourn’s first play, The Square Cat. I was holding history in my hands and that moment was to play a pivotal role in my life.

A week later, the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s playDrowning On Dry Land took place and with it the first night party. Bob was a huge fan of the parties, usually dancing and photographing the evening away. This party was no different and afterwards he went home where he passed away in his sleep. I suspect Bob could have imagined no better way to go.

Bob had filled me with a passion for the archive and, working as Deputy Box Office Manager at the SJT, I spoke about how Bob’s work needed to be continued and the Archive cared for (as any theatre archivist will tell you, any substantive period of neglect can take months, if not years, to rectify and catch up on). Alan Ayckbourn appointed me Honorary Archivist fitting in work between box office shifts (and occasionally during box office shifts – the dark periods during the winter were a pretty brutal time at the SJT!) This eventually led to me becoming Alan’s own Archivist, which became a full-time role but still incorporated my role as the SJT’s Honorary Archivist.

The Archive collapse of 2018 – the bear could have shown a little more concern © Simon Murgatroyd

In 2011, the SJT renamed the Archive in honour of Bob. It’s a small but substantive archive that now has its own gallery space in the corridor outside as well as a permanent small exhibition space at the front of the office which includes Stephen Joseph’s desk and the six foot tall garden gnome, Monty, from Alan Ayckbourn’s Neighbourhood Watch. Like many theatre archives, it relies on goodwill, favours and donations as, until 2018, it had never had a departmental budget (and when Executive Director Steve Freeman allocated £250 for that year, it seemed like a small fortune!) Sadly that same year, the shelving in the Archive collapsed (see photo) leading to a six month period of restoration – although the Archive is now back up and running with far sturdier shelving! I try not to think about that day too….

It is mainly an in-house resource but I’m always delighted to talk to people about both it and Alan’s Archive and occasionally give visitors the extremely cramped tour of the Archive (just mind your heads on the beam). And in particular tell the tale of how it was once nearly all lost when someone threw everything away just to make a little more room in their office!

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