Year-by-Year: The Stephen Joseph Theatre (1971)

We’re on the cusp of major change in the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre as we reach 1971 – the year before Alan Ayckbourn became Artistic Director of the company.

But in 1971, Alan Ayckbourn wasn’t even a significant part of the company and the future of the Library Theatre seemed more precarious than ever.

1971: State Of Play but Simon Murgatroyd

1971 marks the end of an era for the company started by Stephen Joseph on the first floor of the Library Theatre in 1955.

Following the death of the company’s founder Stephen Joseph in 1967, the Library Theatre had – arguably – struggled both for its survival and to find a new sense of direction. In five years, the company had had three Directors Of Productions (essentially annually appointed Artistic Directors) and losses were steadily mounting for the company whilst it searched unsuccessfully for both a new permanent leader and a new home.

Unknown at the time, the following year would see the appointment of Alan Ayckbourn as the Artistic Director – a position he would hold until 2009 – and the company move into its second stage, the Ayckbourn era.

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

As such, 1971 marked a year of flux and it’s interesting to explore what the theatre was like at this stage of its life; how similar or different it was to when it started and where it is now.

This can be achieved thanks to two significant archival documents held in The Bob Watson Archive at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, which offer quite a frank appraisal of the theatre’s position in 1971.

The first document is taken from the Scarborough Theatre Trust minutes and was written “for the benefit of new members also to refresh the memories of founder members” of the board. Extracts are reproduced below.

Since 1955 the theatre has always been run on a shoestring budget. Rostrums, lights, facia board [the signage outside the Library Theatre] and the dressing room tables are the property of the local branch of British Drama League, who permit us to use this equipment to run our summer season.

Administration, front of house duties, coffee bar were all done on a voluntary basis until 1969. For the 1970 season, the Secretary received a small salary for his duties doing the summer season only. No pay for work done out of season.

The Artistic Directors from 1967 to 1970 received no salary for their work only accommodation found by the Trust during their stay.

Costs of running Theatre have risen considerably particularly higher wages for actors.

A publicity shot from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, directed by Caroline Smith (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

The ‘new members’ probably relates most to the incoming Director of Productions, Caroline Smith, who ran the company during summer 1971, having been recommended by Alan Ayckbourn who had previously worked with her at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on- Trent.

What is remarkable is how, even 16 years on, the theatre was still true to the founding principles of Stephen Joseph. Not just theatre-in-the-round and new playwriting – which survive as core principles of the company to this day – but also its reliance on the Scarborough community and its close links with the amateur dramatic community in the town; the theatre had been founded with voluntary help and without which it is clear the theatre would not have been able to survive even in 1971.

Meanwhile, an addendum made it clear the company was not necessarily tied to the town and its future might lay elsewhere – something which is hard to imagine now.

[The Trust] could offer our money in the Building Fund to other local authorities who might be interested; we had not pledged ourselves too build a theatre in memory of Stephen Joseph in Scarborough.

Ever since 1961, Stephen Joseph had made it clear that the Library Theatre company was not beholden to Scarborough. In fact, he had never viewed the town as a permanent home, just a launchpad and showcase for theatre-in-the-round which he hoped would find a permanent home elsewhere.

In 1965, when he had closed the Library Theatre, Stephen had made the point to Scarborough Theatre Trust that its sole purpose was to find a way to keep the company running even if it was not in Scarborough. As it was, the company had reopened in 1967 in the town, but four years on and Scarborough Theatre Trust obviously still did not feel they had the complete support of the town council and would willingly authorise a move to another town offering to financially support the company.

A grim thought for theatre-lovers in Scarborough.

The second document in archive is written by the theatre’s general manager / secretary Ken Boden and was intended for the new company that season – possibly as notes for a speech, possibly as a letter – and again emphasises the position of the company at the time.

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

The Theatre itself 90% belongs to the amateurs who do front of house, usherettes, shop and coffee.

The arrangement here in Scarborough between the professional and amateur is unique. We are tenants in this library and I have to make an agreement with the Librarian and the Cirporation [sic]. In the past I have always had difficulty but I hope there will be none this year.

The Librarian is strict and one of the staff here reports regularly to him any marks on walls or any damage whatsoever. Then the Librarian is on to me straight away and I am in trouble. I don’t like trouble and I don’t want any.

Our other Staff consist of Mr Houghton F of H [Front of house]. Ann Simpson Shop. PB [Mrs Pemberton Billing] Coffee. Connie Garlick, Hubert Ruff and Margaret Boden Box Office. Jon Boden Lucky Bricks. We hope to have a new Theatre one day,

I am personally looking forward to an exciting season. I recently went on an Arts Council tour of Theatres and I was amazed to find that our little Theatre was known and what pleased me was the high reputation of our presentation and standard. I told Caroline [Smith] this weeks ago and I have every confidence that our reputation will be maintained.

Ken was actually wrong in suggesting the relationship between amateurs and professionals was unique to Scarborough as the Library Theatre’s sister theatre, the Victoria Theatre, also extensively utilised volunteers for Front Of House; a feature of both the Victoria and its successor, the New Vic.

And for those wondering, the ‘Lucky Bricks’ was a fund-raising initiative for a proposed new theatre in which supporters could buy ‘bricks’ to contribute to the move.

This document also highlighted the increasingly uncomfortable relationship between the company and Scarborough Library; Ken almost paints a paranoid picture of the company being spied upon for infractions. It may actually not have been far from the truth as the Library would soon begin to actively look to push the company out of the building leading to the infamous moment several years later when Alan Ayckbourn was told the Library Theatre was no longer welcome as the Concert Room was required for ‘cultural purposes.’ Ouch.

Ken’s document does not imply a great deal of trust on either side.

As for what it was like to visit the theatre at the time, other documents offer a picture of the theatre-going experience.

A scene from the world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn’s Time & Time Again at the Library Theatre (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

In 1971, if you wanted to see the latest Ayckbourn play – Time & Time Again – you would have paid 45p (the UK having experienced Decimal Day on 15 February 1971, when the tickets changed from nine shillings to 45p). If you wanted a programme, they were 3p.

Your ticket was also not for a specific seat, but an unreserved seat as reserved seating had not yet started at the Library Theatre – and indeed, there would be some unreserved seating sold at its successor venue, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, until as late as 1980. Performances would start at 8pm and the theatre was open Mondays to Saturdays with weekly rep changing on a Thursday; this was typically done so a holiday maker staying in the town for a week could see two plays at the Library Theatre each week.

If you were working within the company then your pay as an actor or stage manager was £25 a week, the only person receiving more was Caroline Smith, who received £35 a week as Director Of Productions; this was the only time between 1967 and 2009 when a salary was paid to the Artistic Director. The only other person who was paid was Ken Boden (again at £25 a week) as Theatre Manager / Secretary.

And to give an idea of how theatre tickets have priced, adjusted for inflation, the price of a ticket in 1971 would be approximately £6.62 today and the programme approximately 44p.

That summer season – which ran from 14 June to 11 September featured five productions: Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, The Daughter-In-Law by D.H. Lawrence, Revenge by Howard Brenton and the world premieres of One For The Road by Ray Herman and Time & Time Again by Alan Ayckbourn.

The latter was the only involvement Alan had with the company during 1971 as he had stepped away from the company for a year to be involved with the first transfer of one of his plays to Broadway with How The Other Half Loves.

All this was to change though. The following year would mark the start of a new era for the Library Theatre and the establishment of Alan Ayckbourn as the key figure in the company’s history.

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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