Finding A New Home

Forty-five years ago this week, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round opened; the second of three homes of what is now the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

At this point, Alan Ayckbourn had been the Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough, for four years and was responsible for the move to a new home.

To mark the anniversary, the blog has an article by Simon Murgatroyd exploring the journey from its original home, the Library Theatre to its second home.

Finding a New Home by Simon Murgatroyd

The need for a new – preferably permanent – home for the Library Theatre company had been a fixture of discussions since 1963, but came to a head in 1975.

The company had been told in no uncertain terms that it had to vacate Scarborough Library by January 1976 as the Concert Room – where the Library Theatre was based – was now needed for ‘cultural purposes’. Which begs the question, what did the Libraries Committee believe the Library Theatre had been doing for the past 20 years?

A solution was urgently needed to enable the company to continue in Scarborough, but this had already been a long and ultimately fruitless journey.

An artist’s impression of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round (by Don Mickelthwaite)

There had actually been enquiries about possible new homes for the theatre even before Alan Ayckbourn became Artistic Director of the company during 1972. Since 1967, several sites in the town had been considered and ultimately rejected included Regent Street, Castle Road, Valley Gardens, Burniston Road, Falsgrave, Vernon Road, Westborough and Filey Road.

But with less than a year to move, a sense of urgency ket to a number of new possibilities, the most convenient being a conversion of the former Christ Church on Vernon Road, next to the Library (and which is now Iceland). Interest was shown and plans drawn up, although the building was later deemed unsuitable for conversion to a theatre.

An interesting proposal was for the former maze and crazy golf site on The Esplanade (now Dulverton Hall) overlooking the town’s South Bay. The theatre’s architect George W Alderson designed a striking circular building that was submitted to the Arts Council. However, the proposed cost of £160,000 and the lack of parking put paid to this plan. Ironically the lack of parking in the town would raise its head not just for the company’s second home but also when developing its present home at the town’s former Odeon cinema.

The most serious contender for a new home for the company was the former St. Thomas’s Church in East Sandgate, near to where the playwright lives. Since 1974, the building had been used by the theatre for carpentry and as a prop-store and seemed a genuinely suitable space.

Plans were drawn up for an extensive conversion despite its less than accessible location and – again – serious parking issues. Granted change of use and planning permission, it was publicised in the media that the £180,000 conversion was proceeding with a planned opening date of June 1976.

All this came to a dramatic halt on 29 October when Scarborough Town Council revealed previously secret plans for a purpose-built theatre opposite the Library on Vernon Road car park (now the back of Brunswick Pavilion shopping mall) with permission to proceed approved in the same meeting.

With this surprise news, plans for St Thomas’s Church were abandoned and attention turned instead to the pressing matter of a temporary home for the company whilst a new theatre was built.

Although North Yorkshire County Council had agreed to extend the Library Theatre’s use of the library for another six months – it actually became eight months – there was a definitive refusal to even consider a several year extension. So despite apparently having a new home, the company still needed another home.

Fortunately, an alternative was on offer at the former Westwood County Modern School, beneath Valley Bridge. This was offered as a short term home by the County Council with a three year lease.

Scarborough Theatre Trust agreed to move into Westwood – as it was colloquially known – at an estimated cost of £30,000 to convert the ground floor of the building into a practical theatre space.

At the same time, the new Vernon Road theatre was budgeted at £500,000 of which the Trust agreed to raise £120,000.

Twenty-one years after Stephen Joseph had opened the Library Theatre, the company performed in the Concert Room for a final time on 11 September 1976 with a performance of Alan Ayckbourn’s Just Between Ourselves.

Sixty days later, Theatre In The Round At Westwood – as it was originally known – opened on 26 October with a revival and first Scarborough production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Mr Whatnot.

It was a phenomenal achievement converting the school – primarily the former school hall – into an auditorium and theatre in such a short space of time for the minimum amount of money possible and Alan Ayckbourn recalls concrete was still drying in the foyer during the dress rehearsal!

Little did anyone know though that this apparently temporary home was to become a permanent and much-loved fixture in the town. For the proposed new theatre in Vernon Road never transpired – cancelled by the Town Council when the budget mysteriously doubled within the space of a year.

With the realisation that the company was likely to be in Westwood for longer than initially expected, it was renamed on 1 April 1978 as the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in honour of the company’s founder.

It would be home to the company for twenty years from October 1976 to January 1996 before the company finally found a purpose designed and built home at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

But that’s another theatre and another story.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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