Year-by-Year: The Stephen Joseph Theatre (1965)

In 1955, Stephen Joseph founded the UK’s first professional theatre-in-the-round company at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. Today, it is better known as the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Yet, ten years after it was founded, the company teetered on the edge of closure with its founder having apparently lost faith in the project and sceptical of any support from Scarborough Town Council.

In today’s blog, we continue our look at the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre and the shocking moment when it was closed during 1965 – apparently for good – and theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough almost came to a sudden and traumatic end.

1965: The End? by Simon Murgatroyd

In 1965, the Library Theatre – home to the UK’s first professional theatre-in-the-round company – closed its doors for, apparently, the final time.

Unable to secure consistent or long-term support for the venue from either Scarborough Town Council or the Library Committee, Stephen Joseph announced the venue was to close at the end the summer season, 11 years after it had opened in 1955.

Stephen Joseph giving a public speech (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

It was not an idle threat nor – had anyone been paying attention – a surprise. As early as 1963, Stephen had written a comprehensive and forthright document stating the future of the Library Theatre would be in jeopardy if the facilities were not upgraded or better support offered. It was a source of some frustration and disappointment that these issues were neither acknowledged nor properly addressed.

Stephen had found little to no support from either the Libraries Committee or the Town Council; while both seemed happy to reap the rewards of the now well-established company, they were apparently begrudging in providing any actual support for the company.

Against this, Stephen had successfully launched the first permanent theatre-in-the-round venue in the UK at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1962. With a supportive council there, Stephen optimistically believed the future of theatre-in-the-round lay there, rather than Scarborough.

And perhaps this was not something entirely grasped by Scarborough Town Council. Stephen had no prior connections with the town and had chosen it as a location for his theatre-in-the-round experiment more out of chance than design. He appreciated the fact the community had embraced and supported the Library Theatre, but he was in no way wedded to the town or committed to staying there. His aim was to found a permanent and viable theatre-in-the-round.

And Scarborough no longer seemed viable.

On 9 July 1965, Stephen announced to the Scarborough Theatre Trust board that there would be no performances at the Library Theatre during 1966 and that unless alternative premises were found, the company would never perform again in Scarborough.

The Library Theatre, Scarborough (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

As far as he was concerned, the Scarborough project had ended. In his book Theatre In The Round, published in 1966, he discussed the decision to close the Library Theatre.

“The odd thing about Scarborough is that the corporation runs its own theatres and puts on its own entertainments, and they have never decided if we are a rival company that should be driven out of town, or a good addition to the wide range of attractions that a seaside town wants to boast of. Somewhere between these two extremes is the position from which no action is taken…. It became clear that a place that was admirable for the first steps, had been outgrown entirely; and just as there is discomfort in wearing clothes that are too small, and embarrassment in wearing fashions that have just gone out, so the company felt increasingly uncomfortable and unhappy at the Library. We wanted to develop in every way, and, if this was not possible, the sensible alternative seemed to be to abandon Scarborough altogether.”

The shock news was made public on 27 August, when the Scarborough Evening News interviewed Stephen Joseph and he lambasted the lack of support for the venue.

“This theatre is now totally inadequate for our company’s needs. It has no storage space, no proper dressing rooms, no kitchen for making refreshments and washing up crockery etc. For several years, we have repeatedly asked for help from Scarborough Council, but they have done nothing to improve facilities at the Library Theatre…. Therefore, it seems we have no choice but to find our own theatre, even if it means – as it most probably will – that we must move from Scarborough at the end of this season.”

It wasn’t as though the theatre itself was not doing well. Stephen himself noted it was “perhaps ironical that we must close the Library Theatre after a season of record returns” and, following the summer season, it would transpire it had been a record-breaking year in ticket receipts for the company. But good box-office did not solve the underlying issues.

Nor did the fact that the summer season saw the world premiere of a play which, ironically, would help provide vital financial support for the theatre in the years following. Alan Ayckbourn – fresh from the disastrous transfer of his first West End play, Mr Whatnot – had been persuaded by Stephen to write a play for the Library for summer 1965.

Despite now employed as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC, Alan had agreed and produced a comedy called Meet My Father. It was a hit and caught the eye of the London producer Peter Bridge. He liked the play, but hated the title. Two years later, it would premiere in the West End as Relatively Speaking and would have a profound effect on the future of both Alan and the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Alan Ayckbourn’s Meet My Father at the Library Theatre (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

But that was in the future – a future which seemed highly unlikely at the time. The summer season ended during September 1965 and Stephen confirmed the Library Theatre was to be permanently closed. A short article in The Stage newspaper on 2 September bluntly reported the news.

FINIS: It seems probable that this years’ 11th season by Stephen Joseph’s ‘in-the-round’ company at the Library Theatre Scarborough, will be the last. Frustrated by the local of facilities at the Corporation owned Library and the improbability of improvement, Mr Joseph has decided to give up production there.”

Later, in November 1965, a document was published by Stephen Joseph in which the reasons for the closure of the venue were made clear. He did not hold back in his contempt for the Town Council.

“The general effect is that the Corporation has blown hot and cold at the company, and, though much energy has been used up, little progress has been made to develop the company’s potential. But in 1965 it had become clear that helpful action was not intended [by the Corporation].”

The final decision to close the Library Theatre was confirmed by the Scarborough Theatre Trust board on 17 December. The minutes of the meeting are direct and to the point. There would be no professional season in Scarborough in 1966 and the sole purpose of Scarborough Theatre Trust was now to find a new home for theatre-in-the-round.

Preferably not in Scarborough.

Stephen Joseph’s great theatre experiment had ended and there was seemingly no hope for the future of theatre-in-the-round in the town where it had begun….

Except, waiting in the wings, was an unlikely saviour in the shape of an insurance agent and keen amateur theatrical.

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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