Year-by-Year: The Stephen Joseph Theatre (1955)

During these strange and difficult times, I’ve been looking for extra content to put on the blog and found an extended series of articles I wrote looking at the life of Alan Ayckbourn’s home theatre between 1955 and 1996.

As a result, I’m going to reproduce these insights into significant moments and events that affected the Library Theatre – later the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round – in Scarborough, during its first four decades alongside some relevant Archival pieces drawn from The Bob Watson Archive at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

The Articles were first published in the Circular – the e-publication for the SJT Circle supporters’ organisation. During these difficult times for theatres, the SJT Circle is a great way of helping to support the theatre and further details can be found here.

1955: Circle Of Love by Simon Murgatroyd

On 14 July 1955, the Library Theatre opened on the first floor of Scarborough’s public library. Founded by the British theatre pioneer Stephen Joseph, it was home to the UK’s first professional theatre-in-the-round company.

The opening play was Circle Of Love by Eleanor D Glaser and – like the other three plays in the debut season – it was a world premiere. It is also notable that of those four plays, three were written by women – this is a remarkable figure for the period and another glimpse into the pioneering efforts of Stephen Joseph to break own barriers and preconceptions.

Stephen had met Eleanor through his playwriting classes at the Central School of Drama in London and commissioned her to write a play for the first season. Such was the novelty of – shock, horror – a female playwright that the Scarborough Evening News interviewed her in a – from a modern perspective – not at all patronising article….

Extract from the Scarborough Evening News (22 July 1955)
(© The Scarborough News)

The only known extant original manuscript for Circle of Love is held by the University of Warwickshire, which kindly donated a copy to the Stephen Joseph Theatre to mark the company’s 50th anniversary in 2005 and from which an excerpt was read in the still-standing Concert Room at the Library when the company celebrated its 60th anniversary during 2015.

There are very few items held in The Bob Watson Archive at the SJT which relate to Circle of Love, but one treasure is a postcard, which was donated to the Stephen Joseph Theatre by Nick Thomas, chairman of the Scarborough-based company Qdos Entertainment.

Circle Of Love publicity postcard
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

The postcard is the earliest surviving piece of production-specific advertising relating to the Library Theatre and features a rehearsal photograph of the cast of Circle Of Love with ’Theatre in the Round, Library Theatre, Scarborough’ at the foot of the image.

What is special about this postcard is it was written by a member of the company, Kara Aldridge, on 5 August 1955 – three weeks after the start of the first Library Theatre season.

Rear of the postcard, written by Kara Aldridge
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

The pertinent part of the short missive reads: ‘We are doing better, will stay the course. I am adoring it. Thank you for all your kindness to Ralph and Katie and your nice letter.’

Although we can only take educated guesses about the content of the letter, the suggestion ‘We are doing better’ in all probability makes reference to the very hesitant start to the Library Theatre’s life. The summer of 1955 began with a record-breaking heatwave which meant audiences initially fell far short of the 100 people per performance Stephen Joseph had calculated was needed to break even.

Extract from The Times (28 July 1955) on the effect the heatwave had on the Scarborough company.
(© Times Newspapers Limited)

The risk to the fledgling company posed by the dry-spell is illustrated in the extract above from The Times newspaper which highlighted the possibility off the theatre closing within two weeks of its opening. One wonders whether any other theatre would have got this publicity had the founder’s mother not been the famed actress Hermione Gingold!

The dry spell broke on 2 August when the first major rainfall of the summer led to the Library Theatre’s first full-house; the venue held 248 people in the Concert Room space (it being Scarborough – and being a Scarborough man myself – it’s no surprise it finally began to rain during August!) From which point, audiences picked up and – having threatened to close the theatre – Stephen Joseph confirmed the company was safe for the rest of the season, which the postcard alludes to.

The Ralph referred to is probably Ralph Nossek, who was also a member of the inaugural company. It’s also interesting to note Kara’s love of the Library Theatre experience as it should be remembered that none of the company had had any experience of theatre-in-the-round before joining; theatre-in-the-round was, to all intents and purposes, an unknown quantity in the UK prior to 1955.

Very few original items survive in the Archive relating to Circle Of Love, aside from an original programme – the cover of which is reproduced below.

The first programme cover for The Library Theatre
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

This makes this postcard extremely valuable to the collection, offering as it does both an image of the first production, an early look at promotional material and a direct connection to a member of the original company.

Circle Of Love proved to be a success for the company and did very respectable business for a new theatre venture promoting new writing and a new theatre form in a town which was perhaps not the most obvious place to begin such a venture.

Eleanor would return to the company the following year with a short play, Call The Selkie Home. It is not believed good weather has threatened the future of the SJT at any point since 1955!

You can find out more about the history of the SJT in The SJT section of Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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