Year-by-Year: The Stephen Joseph Theatre (1963)

Welcome back to our continuing exploration of significant events in the history of Alan Ayckbourn’s home theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

These articles were written for the SJT Circle – the newsletter for the friends of the SJT – and explore the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. We’re now at 1963, when the company was still based at the Library Theatre on the first floor of Scarborough’s public Library.

By this point, the company’s founder – Stephen Joseph – was having serious concerns about the viability of the company setting in motion a series of events which would actually close the company two years later.

1963: An Ultimatum

During 1963, Stephen Joseph – Artistic Director of the Library Theatre in Scarborough – began the process which would eventually see him close the Library Theatre little more than a decade after he had founded it in 1955.

Stephen had became increasingly frustrated at what he felt was a lack of support for the Library Theatre from the likes of the local and county councils; by 1963, the company had become firmly established in the town and was well supported by both locals and tourists alike. Stephen felt the company had proven its worth and deserved more recognition and support.

Stephen Joseph
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Stephen was also, arguably, at a crossroads. The previous year, the Library Theatre’s founding company – Studio Theatre Ltd – had moved to Stoke-on-Trent to open the Victoria Theatre and with it, most of the Library Theatre’s Arts Council subsidy had gone.

Stephen was torn between his new project – a permanent theatre-in-the-round venue in Stoke – and the Library Theatre, where he had launched professional theatre-in-the-round in 1955.

To his mind, he felt that if the Scarborough company were to survive, it needed better and more support. To this end, he and the general manager, David Campton, wrote an ultimatum to Scarborough Borough Council asking for help and improvements to the Library Theatre space; the theatre performed in the Concert Room on the first floor of the public library. There were no dedicated facilities and as the company grew ever more successful and ambitious, it was being held by the limitations of the space.

Scarborough Library had never been intended as a permanent home for the in-the-round company and Stephen had always hoped a theatre might be built for the company. This was not to happen and, each year, the company struggled more and more with the inadequate facilities of the library.

The four-page, strongly worded ultimatum – held in archive by Scarborough Library – was issued in April 1963 and highlights the issues Stephen felt faced the company if it was it to survive in Scarborough.

It also emphasised what Stephen hoped to achieve through his work with the Library Theatre, what its potential for the town was and how far he felt the company had progressed since 1955.

A promotional poster showing the Library Theatre, Scarborough
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

What shines through is how little money the company had and how it was essentially being run on good-will. Actors were paid less than they should, volunteers running front of house and back-stage, equipment loaned rather than being bought or hired, plus no ability to make improvements in any meaningful way.

It is very clear Stephen was unhappy with practically every aspect of the venue. Which is not surprising, given it was a conversion of the Library’s existing Concert Room and never intended to house a theatre company.

This was essentially the nub of the problem, the Concert Room was not designed for this purpose and thus lacked the necessary seating arrangements (Stephen created the theatre-in-the-round space through specially designed rostra), had no lighting facilities and had no purpose built dressing rooms; of the latter, it has always seemed extraordinary that the venue had a single toilet shared by both company and audiences during performances!

An example of the limited facilities at the Library Theatre: the temporary dressing room set up in a room adjacent to the Concert Room.
(© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Stephen did not make any massive appeals for help or threats, he just appealing for a little more subsidy and help in running the venue; that the Libraries Committee become more involved and be responsible for improvements and funding.

Up to this point, the Library Theatre had been made to work through Stephen and theatre manager Ken Boden’s dedication, ingenuity and making the most of a group of dedicated volunteers. They had carried the company so far, but it was obvious money and support were needed if real change and longevity were to be encouraged.

The ultimatum also laid bare Stephen’s real hope and desire for the company in the town – a permanent home fit for purpose and available to the Scarborough community which would celebrate and strengthen the existing links between professional and amateur theatre in the town.

Perhaps Stephen already knew what the likely response would be, as the document opens with the statement that summer 1963 was ‘likely to be the last’ without help. The theatre was living on borrowed time.

Sadly, no help – certainly none asked for within the document – was given. Stephen’s repeated calls for help were ignored over the next two years, possibly because the Council believed he was bluffing and making empty threats. As a result, the company struggled on for another three seasons before Stephen decided he had had enough.

At the end of the 1965 summer season, Stephen closed the Library Theatre and walked away. By the time, it re-opened in 1967 – ironically with better financial support from both Scarborough Borough Council and the Arts Council and an impetus, sadly not realised for decades, to try and create a permanent home for the company in the town – it was too late for Stephen who was just several month away from his untimely death.

Perhaps if Stephen had been good on his threat in 1963, events might have been different and he might have lived to see his Library Theatre at least begin to receive the support it needed and begin on the road to becoming the hugely significant part in would play in Scarborough’s cultural and community life.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. All images are copyright of Scarborough Theatre Trust (unless noted). Please do not reproduce either the article or images without permission of the copyright holder.

These 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.

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