Re-Inventing The Wheel

Like all UK theatres during these extraordinary times, Alan Ayckbourn’s home theatre – the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough – is having to think outside the box in order to tackle the many challenges ahead.

The SJT was one of the first in the country to announce a full autumn / winter programme in which the Artistic Director, Paul Robinson, has sought to continue to push the SJT in new directions as a way forward.

In this, I am certain he would have the approval of the company’s founder, Stephen Joseph, who advocated theatre companies should re-invent them regularly, not just out of necessity but as a means of keeping the company and programme vibrant and fresh.

During 2015, I wrote an article about how the SJT – intentionally and unintentionally – had had to regularly re-invent itself. It seems appropriate to reprint this (slightly amended) article at this time, when the company faces another re-invention to show how the SJT has previously survived adversity and challenges.

Re-Inventing The Wheel by Simon Murgatroyd

“Stephen Joseph said ‘all theatre should be designed to self-destruct in seven years.’ Most of us took that in the spirit, rather than the letter of the law.” Alan Ayckbourn

In July 1955, a theatre visionary set up a temporary theatre for the summer on the first floor of Scarborough’s public library.

He regarded it as an experiment to introduce what was perceived as a new theatre form – theatre- in-the-round – with the un fashionable intention of promoting and championing new writing.

The man was Stephen Joseph and, 65 years on, his creation – then the Library Theatre, now the Stephen Joseph Theatre – lives on. Stephen had fairly radical ideas about theatres and while it’s difficult to predict what he would now have made of his tiny experimental theatre, his protégé Alan Ayckbourn has some ideas.

“I like to think Stephen would be quite proud of it. But I think if he’d lived and still been in charge, he would either have blown it up or we would now be doing the most extraordinary stuff.”

Stephen Joseph (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

The idea of ‘blowing up’ the theatre – not literally, one hopes – was one of Stephen’s maxims. He believed theatre needed to constantly reinvent itself to succeed and survive.

Whether by design or accident, the SJT has actually adhered to this maxim and essentially re- invented itself every decade whilst ensuring Stephen’s legacy has continued to be engrained within the fabric of the company.

The first re-invention hewed the most closely to Stephen’s philosophy. In 1965, he announced the permanent closure of the Library Theatre as he felt the company had outgrown the venue.

This was a deliberate moment of self-destruction as the theatre itself was at a peak. Financially, the summer season had been the most profitable yet and there had been artistic success with the premiere of Relatively Speaking by Alan Ayckbourn as well as new plays by Alan Plater, Mike Stott and David Campton.

But 11 years after opening, Stephen tore it all down. He announced the closure of the Library Theatre and made public his belief that the Library Theatre had accomplished its aims and was no longer viable.

The Library Theatre re-opened in 1967, largely thanks to the passion of the theatre manager Ken Boden. He persuaded Stephen, now ill with terminal cancer, to let the company continue. It was relaunched with little subsidy, limited finances and restricted to a shortened summer season of four plays. The company went back to the basics, rebuilding and re-inventing itself.

It endured a difficult few years. As well as limited finances, the touring and winter seasons were lost and the company had no central figurehead to guide and inspire it. Fortunately, in 1972, Stephen’s protégé, Alan Ayckbourn, accepted the role of Artistic Director and the company found a much needed stability.

Alan Ayckbourn in 1972 (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

In 1976, a second crisis brought a far more visible change to the company. The previous year North Yorkshire County Council had told the company – in no uncertain terms – it had to leave the Library Theatre and find a new home.

Potentially, an exceptionally dramatic reinvention might have occurred as the Town Council announced a purpose- built theatre-in-the-road on a former car park opposite the library. But this plan was abandoned in 1977 before a brick was even laid.

In order to survive, the company moved to a new home at the former Westwood County Modern School in October 1976. In just 60 days and at a cost of £38,000, the ground floor of the former shcool, was transformed into a theatre-in-the-round. Intended as a temporary home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round became a base for 20 years and was launched as a year-round performance venue complete with a second smaller space, the Studio.

It marked a huge moment in the company’s history and would cement the company’s reputation as a home for exciting new writing with new writers nurtured with the introduction of lunch-time and late-night shows; those who showed promise often commissioned to write for the main stage.

A decade later in 1986, Alan Ayckbourn – Artistic Director of the company since 1972 – announced he was to take a two year sabbatical as a company director at the National Theatre; his intention to take on a new challenge and recharge his creative batteries.

Many people – incorrectly – believed this would mark the point Alan would permanently leave the company and possibly lead to the end of the theatre in Scarborough. However, Alan never had any intention of doing this and one of his stated aims was to, anyway, prove that neither he nor the theatre were dependent on the other.

In his absence, long-term collaborator Robin Herford was named as Co-Artistic Director responsible for the day-to-day running of the theatre and who brought a different artistic vision to the venue for two years – including the commissioning of Stephen Mallatratt’s famed adaptation of The Woman In Black, which went on to global success.

Alan returned in 1988, re-invigorated and with new ideas. Within two years, he would be planning to ‘blow up’ the theatre – as literally as was possible..

The Stephen Joseph Theatre (©Tony Bartholomew / www.bartpics.co.uk)

This single largest re-invention of the company’s history came in 1996 with the opening of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. This £5.2m conversion of Scarborough’s former Odeon cinema gave the company its first permanent home in four decades.

A state-of-the-art theatre-in-the-round and an end-stage space were created and, despite initial funding issues, the company was relaunched with its most ambitious and wide-ranging programme yet.

The theatre welcomed touring productions and links were forged with other companies such as the New Vic and the Northern Broadsides. The artistic programme expanded massively to incorporate music, dance, art, film and talks as well as a diverse range of visiting theatre.

Most significantly, the company’s first official Literary Department was launched and Stephen Joseph’s founding principles were clearly re-established at the centre of the company’s philosophy but on a far larger canvas.

The re-invention which followed this was out of necessity rather than planning. In 2006, Alan Ayckbourn suffered a stroke and although he was back directing his latest play within six months, he announced the following year his plans to retire as Artistic Director. For the first time since the Library Theatre launched, the company would not have a direct link to its founder.

In April 2009, Alan Ayckbourn stepped down after 37 years as Artistic Director and the baton was passed. Naturally, a new re-invention took place – as would be expected – reflecting a new Artistic Director with their own vision for the theatre.

The almost regular re-invention each decade continued in the year of the company’s 60th anniversary during 2015 when both the Artistic Director and Executive Director stepped down. This came at a time of enormous challenge for the arts in the UK with austerity and financial uncertainty leading to companies re-evaluating every aspect of their operation; in many cases, this led to exciting and radical solutions.

Five years on and the SJT, like all theatres, is once again facing extraordinary challenges. Change is inevitable for theatres to adapt and survive. And they will, it won’t be an easy nor painless path, but the arts will get past this.

Stephen Joseph could never have anticipated such extreme challenges, but he knew theatres had to change and advocated it, in order to remain relevant. He was not wrong. More than ever, theatres have to adapt and reinvent themselves to reassert their relevance and pertinence to the community, where – arguably – they are needed more than ever.

Who knows what the future will hold? The next year will be extraordinarily difficult for so many in the Arts and we must support them where we can.

But of one thing I’m certain, the SJT and other theatres will survive because history supports this. The SJT will re-invent itself, it will adapt and push itself in exciting new directions whilst staying true to the founding principles of Stephen Joseph. It has done so before, it will do so again.

I believe in 65 years, the SJT in Scarborough will still be going strong, still championing new writers and writing and theatre-in-the-round – hopefully with the odd Ayckbourn revival! – in new and exciting ways, probably in a way completely unrecognisable from what we see today.

Why? Because there isn’t any other choice. How many of us can imagine or would want to imagine a country without theatre, without the arts, without culture? We have to believe, re-invent and move forward. The alternative is unthinkable.

“Where are we without our theatres? Our lives are greyer and our spirits poorer. May they open their doors soon and let some light back into our lives.” Alan Ayckbourn

Simon Murgatroyd is Alan Ayckbourn’s Archivist and administrator of his official website www.alanayckbourn.net. All opinions are the author’s own.

This article is by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do no reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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