Year-by-Year: The Stephen Joseph Theatre (1969)

Our exploration of key moments and figures in the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre continues today as we reach 1969 and the permanent return of the person most associated with the company

Alan Ayckbourn had left the Library Theatre in 1962 and although there was some tangential involvement over the next seven years, he was not an active part of the company. But with the theatre looking for a way forward, inevitably attention turned back towards Alan.

At stake was not only the future of the Library Theatre but the legacy of the company’s founder, Stephen Joseph.

1969: Return Of The Prodigal by Simon Murgatroyd

In 1967, the first phase of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s life essentially came to a close with the death of its founder, Stephen Joseph.

The next phase of its existence arguably came in 1969 with the return of its most famous protégé, laying the foundations for a relationship which would became famed around the world and which would lead to the single longest and most successful period of the theatre’s existence.

But all this needs to be put into context and how what is regularly taken for granted as part of the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre was never a given and is actually more noteworthy than has previously been given credit.

Alan Ayckbourn circa 1969 (© Haydonning Ltd)

In 1962, Alan Ayckbourn left the Library Theatre in Scarborough with much of the Studio Theatre company to help launch the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, the UK’s first permanent professional in-the-round venue (to clarify, the Library Theatre was home to the UK’s first professional theatre-in-the-round company).

It’s fair to say that although the previous five years had had a huge impact on Alan’s life and professional career, there doesn’t appear to be evidence of Alan being particularly wedded to Scarborough and the Library Theatre. He had joined the company in 1957 as a stage manager with acting aspirations and, with Stephen Joseph’s guiding hand, had gone on not only to act by also to write his first professional plays and to direct as well.

Despite this, Alan’s loyalty was to Stephen Joseph rather than a specific place or venue. Stephen had become a close friend and mentor to the young man which was a key reason why he left Scarborough in 1962 to follow Stephen to Stoke, rather than stay in Scarborough.

Alan only stayed with the company at Stoke for two years until 1964 – by which point, Stephen had little actual involvement in the fledgling company – when his first London transfer took place with the play Mr Whatnot. The quirky play had been a great success at the Victoria Theatre and had been optioned for the West End by Peter Bridge. Unfortunately, the producer proceeded to rip the soul from the play with a production which ejected all that had made the play so charming and successful for an over-bloated West End production which was met by some of the harshest criticism any of Alan’s plays have ever received.

Wounded and despondent from the failure of Mr Whatnot, Alan joined the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer based in Leeds in 1965 and considered leaving theatre for good.

Most accounts of this accounts for both Alan and the Stephen Joseph Theatre gloss over this period and the fact the link between the two became quite thin.

ALan Ayckbourn in a publicity shot for the Library Theatre in 1970 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Between Alan Ayckbourn leaving the Library Theatre at the end of summer 1962 and the spring of 1969, he had only a nominal involvement with the company. During these seven years, he wrote and premiered just two plays and only directed one for Scarborough – Meet My Father in 1965 (which was directed by Stephen Joseph and later retitled Relatively Speaking) and The Sparrow in 1967, which Alan directed.

Records of Scarborough Theatre Trust also do not mention Alan as being part of the theatre’s board until the Annual General Meeting of 7 December 1969; in reality he probably joined earlier in that year but there are no minutes held in archive for the December 1968 board meeting or AGM.

Which is to say, although Alan had kept contact with Scarborough, his actual connection with the theatre was not terribly strong. During the latter months of Stephen Joseph’s life in 1967, he did spend time with his mentor at his home in Scarborough but other than directing his latest play, The Sparrow, that summer, there is nothing to indicate he was actively involved in the Library Theatre in any other way.

Yet this is despite the fact that, realistically, he must have been viewed by the theatre board at that point as one of the few people capable of taking the Library Theatre forward, given the company was operating on a year-by-year basis and making appointments by the same criteria.

Stephen had decided to close the Library Theatre at the close of the 1965 season with no intention it would ever re-open. It had re-opened on a limited basis in 1967 but without Stephen’s involvement as his cancer was so far progressed. The Library Theatre had been saved from extinction but for the rest of the decade was limited to just short summer seasons.

For the 1967 and 1968 seasons, the role of Artistic Director (then called Director of Productions) was appointed annually by the Scarborough Theatre Trust board with Rodney Wood taking on the role. It was obvious a more permanent solution was needed, particularly given the theatre was also intent on finding a new home.

Alan Ayckbourn outside the Library Theatre in 1971 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

In the Scarborough Theatre Trust minutes of 17 March 1968, the need for a permanent Artistic Director was discussed not least in order to work in conjunction with the theatre’s architect, George Alderson, in planning for the proposed – but unrealised – move of the company to the former Pindar print works building on Castle Road.

But above and beyond that, the theatre was arguably directionless and not fulfilling its original remit. Without Stephen to guide it, the company was losing the impetus for promoting new writing. By 1965, the company had two successful writing protégés, David Campton and Alan Ayckbourn. David would not have another play produced that decade and Alan was not commissioned for the 1968 season which saw only one new play among five productions.

The surviving minutes of Scarborough Theatre Trust indicate a desire to find someone to lead to the company forward and to give it leadership and momentum. There was realistically only one person to turn to.

Sometime between Spring 1968 and early 1969, Alan Ayckbourn was approached about the annual appointment of the Director of Productions at the Library Theatre and whether he would consider taking on the role.

The timing is significant as although Alan had become the most famous and successful playwright to have developed from Scarborough, it should be remembered that when he left the company in 1962, it was unlikely he was even considered as being part of the long-term future of the company.

Circumstances had changed though. Alan was now the most visible protégé and champion of Stephen Joseph following his death and, significantly, he had shot to fame with the West End premiere of Relatively Speaking in 1967; from which the theatre had also benefitted financially.

Alan Ayckbourn in 1972 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

It is no great leap to believe the board now saw Alan as a potential long-term solution to the problem of where to go next for the company. Alan apparently agreed for he accepted the offer.

Thus in 1969, he was appointed the Director Of Productions for the summer; although with finances still precarious at the theatre, he was offered accommodation for the season in lieu of pay for the role.

Alan balanced his job at the Library Theatre with his full-time contract at the BBC that year where, apparently, his secretary at the BBC would frequently take calls, pretend he was in his office in Leeds and then surreptitiously contact him in Scarborough!

Alan would again be appointed Director of Productions the following year in 1970, before taking a year away for the American launch of How The Other Half Loves in 1971. Perhaps the Scarborough Theatre Trust board realised that with Broadway and the West End calling, time was of the essence in order to secure Alan for the long term.

As a result, after Alan returned to the Library Theatre for the 1972 summer season – which incidentally saw the premiere of what would be his biggest success to that point with Absurd Person Singular – the board appointed him on a permanent contract as Artistic Director of the Library Theatre.

The long-term future of the Library Theatre and Stephen’s legacy looked to be more secure than ever. The company was able to benefit from someone who appreciated Stephen Joseph’s legacy and wanted to continue in those footsteps, who was making his own name within theatre in a substantive way and who could help financially support the theatre given every play of Alan’s which opened at the Library Theatre and then transferred to the West End, brought in royalties to the venue.

But until that point, it should never be assumed the future of the Library Theatre was safe nor that the man most associated it with, Alan Ayckbourn, was necessarily always going to take over from Stephen Joseph.

You can find out more about Alan Ayckbourn’s relationship with the Stephen Joseph Theatre at the playwright’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.

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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