The Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round

On 26 October 1976, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round opened in Scarborough. After 21 years at The Library Theatre, Artistic Director Alan Ayckbourn led his company into a new home.

To mark the anniversary, the Blog is taking look at the history behind the second home of what is now the Stephen Joseph Theatre and the challenges which faced both Alan Ayckbourn and the company.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round by Simon Murgatroyd

Forty-four years ago today, the doors opened to the public to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round for the first time. Twenty-one years after the company had been founded by Stephen Joseph as The Library Theatre, it had a new home.

The need to move the company to a new home had been mooted since the early 1960s largely due to the lack of facilities at the Library Theatre. However, it was only during the 1970s that a move became an imperative both in the company’s desire to expand its operations and Scarborough Library’s desire to claim back the space utilised by the theatre.

Matters had famously come to a head in 1975, when Alan Ayckbourn recalls he was infamously told by the Libraries Committee that the Concert Room – where the theatre was based – was needed for ‘cultural purposes’! Whether this was entirely true cannot be verified, but what is accurate is the Libraries Committee had decided it was no longer tenable to have a substantial part of the first floor of the public library given over to The Library Theatre for approximately 40 weeks a year.

The company had been seriously looking at different premises in Scarborough since 1967 but to no avail. The situation was made imperative when in early 1975, the Libraries Committee announced the company would no longer be welcome in Scarborough Library from January 1976. This had come after a couple of years of acrimony which saw Alan Ayckbourn threatening to leave Scarborough and during which he had become increasingly frustrated by bureaucracy and local politics.

He wanted to be able to run a theatre company that was active at least 43 weeks of the year – which the Library Committees would not agree to – as well as expanding or, at least, improving facilities. In 1975, the opposite seemed likely when the town’s Fire Officer has said the theatre had to lose 50 of its 250 seats for safety reasons. There appeared to be no means of progress at the Library Theatre.

Unexpectedly, in October 1975, a solution appeared to have been found when Scarborough Town Council announced it had been secretly making plans for a new home for the company to be built at the cost of £500,000 on a car park across the road from the company’s current home at the public library. Despite a short extension to summer 1976 by the library, the company still needed a temporary home and this was provided by North Yorkshire County Council with the offer of the ground floor of the former Westwood County Modern School (colloquially known as Westwood), beneath the town’s iconic Valley Bridge.

The Westwood County Modern School hall at the start of conversion into the theatre-in-the-round auditorium (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

The company agreed and moved to Westwood in 1976 looking at an estimated cost of between £20,000 – £30,000 (It would actually cost £38,000) with the move completed as cheaply as possible as it was believed that Westwood would be a temporary home and that more funds would be needed soon for the move to a permanent home.

The conversion from school to theatre took just a remarkable 60 days and concrete was still apparently being laid on the afternoon of the opening production’s technical rehearsal! The 308-seat venue opened as Theatre In The Round At Westwood on 26 October 1976 with a revival of Artistic Director Alan Ayckbourn’s Mr Whatnot; one of the few plays by the playwright which had neither premiered nor been seen in Scarborough.

The acting space itself, built and designed from the ground up, was an improvement on the Library Theatre’s make-shift space and set the template for the future. It was an approximate square with three voms (vomitoriums) or stage exits. Two in adjacent corners and one in centre of the opposite seating block (imagine a Y with the end points of the letter being the voms). There were five rows of seating and all access to the seats was via the stage through the central vom. This space would be replicated when the company moved to its new home 20 years later; although access to The Round is now via the gallery above the seats rather than via the stage.

At the time, the company received £11,000 in annual subsidies and the move was a huge strain on finances due to the increased costs associated with a larger, better equipped building. Alan Ayckbourn estimated in a contemporary interview, he had to lay off half the company just to keep it running initially.

The original lease for Westwood was for just three years, but it soon became obvious there was not going to be a new permanent home for the company. By 1977, the town council indicated the escalating costs of the new building meant it would no longer be prepared to build a new home (no explanation was given as to how costs had risen so dramatically in the space of just two years) and it was suggested the lease at Westwood be extended to allow time for the company to formulate new plans for a permanent home and to be able to apply for more funding. Still, no-one believed Westwood – which was essentially still a temporary space – would be the long-term home for the company.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

On 1 April 1978, the venue was renamed the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in memory of its founder; a name that was initially planned for the new permanent home for the company. The following year, the Westwood lease was extended to 10 years and a grant of £105,000 from the local authority, English Tourist Board and the Arts Council offered an opportunity to make the building fit for purpose.

A rehearsal room was finally created alongside a costume store, extra offices and other improvements including air conditioning in the main auditorium. With this, it appears to have been tacitly accepted Westwood would be the company’s home for the foreseeable future and one shared with the town’s technical college which occupied the basement floor of the building; during the early years it was not unusual for performances to be disturbed by the sound of metalwork lessons taking place directly beneath the auditorium!

Facilities at Westwood were not as basic as at the Library, but were still not ideal. However, the space proved to be flexible and a small end-stage studio space was created in 1977 and this became home to lunchtime and late night productions of mainly new work as well as as becoming a popular music venue in the town. It was in this space that the world premiere of the extraordinarily successful play The Woman In Black was held in 1987.

A bar was another positive development not found in the Library Theatre and this later led to the creation of the adjoining kitchen area and cafe – which went through various itineration before settling on the name The Square Cat; the name of Alan Ayckbourn’s debut play.

The bar at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

During the twenty years at the venue, the company’s programme substantially expanded and it became – to all intents and purposes – a year-round venue. Touring was increased and saw the company undertake several extensive international tours in conjunction with the British Council.

Lunchtime productions and concerts were introduced and proved to be very popular over the years; the lunchtime productions in the Studio also becoming the launching space for new writers, many of whom having had success in the studio graduated to full length productions in-the-round soon afterwards.

The Library Theatre’s strong relationship with the amateur community was also largely sustained with frequent performances by many of the town’s amateur communities and from 1977 to 1987, the popular Sunday night concerts highlighting established and up-and-coming regional musical talent.

Although the company largely flourished in its cramped and less than ideal quarters, its future was questioned in 1984 when a series of issues brought to light the still precarious nature of the company’s position in Scarborough. The company had made a rare loss of £500 – which should not have had much impact. However, at the same time the Arts Council threatened to cut the theatre’s subsidy and the town council refused another 10 year extension of the theatre’s lease, claiming the building was far too valuable a property to be used as a practically permanent home for the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.

Artistic Director Alan Ayckbourn’s response was simple and shocking, that the future of the theatre was on the line and he was prepared to take the company elsewhere, arguing there were many towns and theatres which would welcome both him and the company with open arms. The council relented and renewed the lease, although the Arts Council’s budget cuts did lead to a slightly shortened season in 1985 and a production being cut from the schedule.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round auditorium (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Although the company’s future was secured for the short term, attention was once again focused on finding a new, permanent home for the company which yielded results in 1989, when Alan Ayckbourn suggested the recently closed Odeon cinema – one of Scarborough’s most prominent landmarks – could become the new, permanent base for the theatre. The following year, a company was formed to secure the lease of the building and fund-raising began in earnest in 1993.

The company left Westwood in 1996 after twenty years at was initially considered a temporary home for the company. During that time, the profile of the company soared and it gained an international reputation.

But the building had more than served its purpose and on 3 February 1996, the final performance took place at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round with Alan Ayckbourn’s Just Between Ourselves. Over the next couple of months, the company would leave a home created for £38,000 to a new home which cost £5.2m to convert into a state-of-the-art theatre.

Forty years after being founded, Stephen Joseph’s company finally had a permanent home at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

You can find out more about the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Ayckbourn & The SJT section of Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder. All images copyright of Scarborough Theatre Trust. Please do not reproduce any of these images.

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