Year-by-Year: The Stephen Joseph Theatre (1967)

My exploration into the key moments in this history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre continues today as we reach the significant year of 1967.

And don’t worry, you haven’t missed an article about 1966! After Stephen Joseph closed the Library Theatre in 1965, the following year saw no professional theatre performed during the summer. Instead an amateur season was instigated to keep the Library Theatre going whilst plans were set in motion for the future.

Which leads us to 1967 and the relaunch and rebirth of the Library Theatre and the desire to keep Stephen Joseph’s legacy alive.

1967: Rebirth by Simon Murgatroyd

In 1955, Stephen Joseph founded the Library Theatre in Scarborough – home to the UK’s first professional theatre-in-the-round company.

In 1965, he closed the venue.

During those eleven years, Stephen had championed three things in Scarborough: theatre-in-the-round, new playwriting and – less discussed – encouraging professionals and amateurs to work together.

It is frequently forgotten how essential – during those early years – the amateur drama community was to the Library Theatre. Volunteers were responsible for front of house, box office, refreshments, get-ins and get-outs as well as helping to construct and dismantle the theatre each season.

Stephen Joseph relied on an army of volunteers as, both financially and practically, it would have been impossible to run the Library Theatre without them. He frequently wrote and talked about how voluntary involvement was an essential way forward inspired by the community theatre he had seen in the United States.

Later, this would have a fascinating and unforeseen knock-on effect. That there is still a Stephen Joseph Theatre today is predominantly because of those amateurs, in particular Ken Boden; an insurance agent, leading member of Scarborough Theatre Guild and someone who had worked with Stephen at the venue since it opened.

Margaret (centre) and Ken Boden (right) with front of house staff at the Library Theatre, Scarborough (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

On 18 September 1965, Stephen Joseph closed the doors on the Library Theatre for, apparently, a final time. The closure had been widely publicised in the press and Scarborough Theatre Trust had been tasked with finding a new home for the company – which Stephen sincerely doubted would be in Scarborough.

The Library Theatre should have died then, were it not for Ken Boden. He was passionate about the venue and he was not about to let it close.

It appears he began making plans for the future soon after Stephen announced the theatre’s closure. Late in 1965, he approached Stephen with a proposal that Scarborough Theatre Guild organise an eight week in-the-round amateur season for 1966 at the Library Theatre. Stephen – apparently reluctantly – agreed, unaware of Ken’s long term ambitions.

For there is little doubt Ken was working to a larger plan. Stephen had previously said the venue would not survive a year’s closure; the amateur season would keep the venue open and give Ken time to plan a revival of professional theatre.

A key piece of correspondence held at Scarborough Library from May 1966 explains that Ken hoped the British Drama League could run the 1967 season; in essence an amateur company presenting professional plays.

Contacting organisations such as the Arts Council, Scarborough Town Council and the Libraries Committee as well as other key figures, Ken ascertained there was support for reviving the venue and that financially it might be viable. He found support from the likes of Alan Ayckbourn, the BBC Radio Producer Alfred Bradley, the playwright David Campton and other people who had worked closely with Stephen Joseph such as Rodney Wood and Ian Watson.

With support in place, Ken told Stephen of his plans. Stephen was broadly supportive and offered to transfer Scarborough Theatre Trust to a new board. What really sealed the revival, though, was Scarborough Town Council reversing a funding cut made in 1965. Since 1962, the Library Theatre had practically been working on a shoe-string budget having lost Arts Council funding, the loss of local council support in 1965 had – essentially – made the Library Theatre unviable as a business.

With Stephen’s blessings, Ken moved forward with his plays and, in October 1966, Scarborough Theatre Trust reconvened for its first meeting for a year. Stephen Joseph – now aware he had terminal cancer – stepped down as Chairman of the Trust and Dr N Walsh took his place.

Ken Boden was appointed General Manager – a role he’d essentially been doing voluntarily since 1955 – and was also in charge of the voluntary workforce the company now depended on more than ever to run the theatre due to its parlous financial situation.

A Director of Productions (essentially a short-term Artistic Director) was appointed for 1967 in Rodney Wood – who had previously worked closely with Stephen and had been responsible for bringing Alan Ayckbourn to the Library Theatre during 1957. He programmed four plays which included world premieres by Alan Plater and Alan Ayckbourn.

This would actually be an unforeseen coup for the theatre. For although Alan had been writing for the company since 1959 and was closely associated with it, his star rose substantially during March 1967 when Relatively Speaking opened in the West End and became Alan’s first hit play. Without intending it, the Library Theatre had a new play from a hit West End playwright premiering during the season.

The only downside was that this essentially marked the end of Stephen Joseph’s association with the theatre he had created. Whilst he supported Ken’s endeavour, he played no further active role in the theatre, largely due to being confined to bed by his illness.

Twenty-two months after closing, professional performances resumed at the Library The atre on 10 July 1967 with the world premiere of Alan Plater’s Hop, Step And Jump. The rest of the season included the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Sparrow, J.B.Priestley’s Eden End and Anouilh’s Romeo & Jeanette.

The season was successful enough to guarentee a follow-up season, which Rodney Wood also oversaw. The Library Theatre was back on its feet – if perhaps a tad unsteadily – and there was hope for the future.

Stephen Joseph (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

But this rebirth was tinged with a hint of sadness. For although Stephen saw both the company he had founded successfully relaunch and the first successful transfer from the Library Theatre to the West End with Relatively Speaking , he died in the autumn on 5 October 1967.

He was only 46 years old, yet achieved an exceptional amount during his time and he would have a profound effect on British theatre over the subsequent years. At his funeral, his influence, impact and vision was eloquently marked in the eulogy by Professor Hugh Hunt.

This is not an occasion for sorrow, but rather one of joy. Joy that a man has passed through our midst, touching our lives at various points, leaving each one of us the richer for his passage.

Stephen has given us so much from the wealth that he discovered in life that there can be no-one who came into contact with him who did not receive some fresh revelation, some surprising insight, some flash of inspiration which will have thrown a new light on their problems, their work, their hobbies, or on the humblest of their daily tasks.

I suppose that each one of us has tried to discover the particular secret that made Stephen so different from the majority of the men we meet.

What was the key to his un-bounded enthusiasm? What made us so anxious to share his company, and to share his views even when we disagreed with him?

I believe that it was a very simple secret – it was his ability to look on the world and all that happens in it as something that is happening for the first time, as a discovery that must be made by each one of us, as if it had never been seen or felt before, as a challenge which demands the full use of the faculties which God has given us. Not that he denied the wisdom and experience of others, but that he be- lieved in man’s right to question, to probe for the truth, to discover for himself.

Life was for Stephen an adventure, a challenge, a question and an endless wonder. He met it with the eyes of a child and the mind at a man. Eyes that saw everything as if for the first time, unblurred by the preconceptions of tradition and a mind that he had trained to distinguish between truth and falsehood, emotion and sentiment and, above all, between beauty and its many imitations.

For Stephen, beauty lay in the way a man works, as well as in the completed work itself. He taught us to endow each work we undertake – however humble – with the care and love of a craftsmen. It is as a craftsman that many of us will remember him – as a man who worked with his hands as well as his head. For him there was no such thing as a menial task – the skill of the stagehand was equal to the skill of the playwright. Workmanship was the basic of all art.

If he was a perfectionist it was as a lover of a simple task well done, rather than an ambition to create a masterpiece or become a public figure. For Stephen, beauty was to be found in all humble things – even more perhaps than in the complexities of creation. The beauty of a leaf, of a kitten at play, the beauty of carpentry, the beauty of an old-world melodrama or an early film.

It was, I think, this love of simple craftsmanship that led him to champion the course that will ever be associated with his name – theatre- in-the-round. He was drawn to this form of theatre – not that he despised other more elaborate forms – for a variety of reasons. He saw it as a challenge to the outworn conventions of a theatre that was rapidly losing touch with humanity. He saw it as a stimulus to a new approach by actors and playwrights as an opportunity to create more vital relationships between actors and audience, but above all he saw in theatre-in-the-round the simplest form of dramatic performance, springing from the earliest days of man’s history when poet, actor, and artist were united as craftsmen.

This unity of man’s God-given faculties – the unity of head, heart and hands – is the quality that Stephen championed, it is the challenge that he holds out to those of us who loved and admired him. This love of simple things, this pride in our work however humble, this perpetual discover of life for ourselves, this never-ending search for truth – these are the secrets Stephen discovered, the riches that he leaves behind. Stephen is not dead as long as we preserve these things. He lives on, in us and with us.

The Library Theatre’s founder had passed on, but his creation – his legacy – was reborn at the same time. It would continue to grow into something Stephen could not have imagined and, 65 years after it was founded, the company – now in its third home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre – continues, proudly bearing the name of its founder and inspiration.

But that the Library Theatre was saved was significantly due to the tenacious efforts of Ken Boden, Scarborough’s amateur community and the people who Stephen Joseph inspired.

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.

You can find out more about the Stephen Joseph Theatre at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website by clicking here.

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.

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