Changing Spaces: The Library

In 1955, Stephen Joseph created the UK’s first professional theatre-in-the-round company in the UK based at Scarborough’s public library.

In a series of articles, I’ll be looking at how theatre-in-the-round has changed in Scarborough over the decades from 1955 to 2009 under Stephen Joseph and Alan Ayckbourn. Changes both front-of-house and backstage and how different aspects of the theatre have altered – or even vanished – with both the inevitability of change over time and, also, Stephen Joseph’s maxim that a theatre should reinvent itself every seven years.

We begin with The Library Theatre, although even that’s not a completely accurate term…

Changing Spaces: The Library by Simon Murgatroyd

The Library Theatre; The original home of theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough has been referred to as The Library Theatre for as long as I’ve been theatre-going in Scarborough for more than three decades. But it’s not strictly accurate.

Extract from the original 1955 season brochure (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

For The Library Theatre existed outside of Stephen Joseph’s enterprise and its limited seasons between 1955 and 1976. Whilst it appears Stephen Joseph came up with title of the The Library Theatre, the library itself utilised the title for productions and events outside of the theatre-in-the-round consistently throughout the period. After 1976, The Library Theatre continued to operate and be used as a title for many years afterwards by the library.

The original brochure for the company from 1955 advertises ‘Theatre in the Round in the Library Theatre’ and for the next 20 years, most of the brochures and adverts are ‘Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre’ or ‘Theatre in the Round, Library Theatre’ with many of the programmes just advertising it as ‘Theatre in the Round’.

So that’s one major change just with the passage of time, the title of the venue contracted to The Library Theatre but if we’re being accurate, it should be ‘Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre’ or just ‘Theatre in the Round’ – which is also worth bearing in mind too when we come to the second home of the company.

Limited Seasons: For most of the theatre-in-the-round’s first two decades, there was no year-round theatre but only limited seasons. From 1955 – 1956, 1962 – 1965 and 1967 to 1973, there were only summer seasons lasting on average 13 weeks.

Winter seasons – of approximately four weeks – joined the summer seasons from 1957 to 1961. From 1974 – 1976, productions essentially ran from June to late December / early January. But for the majority of Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre’s existence, it operated for less than 20 weeks a year.

No Seat Numbers: For the entirety of Theatre in the Round’s tenure at the library, all seats and tickets were unnumbered. It was a case of first come, first served and then shuffle up to let the stragglers in. To be fair, the Orange Tree Theatre in London worked on the same system for decades without issue.

But it feels odd now and it even carried over to the Scarborough company’s second venue for a limited time.

But from 1955 to 1976, there was no finding your specific seating block and then the seat number, it was come in, find a seat and on with the show.

The stage with the two entrances visible (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Two Entrances: A bit of trivia for you, how do you know if an Alan Ayckbourn play was written before 1976? It only has two stage entrances. Be it Absurd Person Singular, Relatively Speaking or The Norman Conquests, they all have just two entrances in the original scripts.

That’s because there were only two entrances onto the stage in the Library space, both of which were on the same side and not terribly far apart. One was also the audience entrance and the other led to the changing room. So less than ideal with all actors entering from one side of the round.

It was only from 1976 when the company moved to a new home and built its own performing space that the three entrance, Y-shaped configuration, so familiar today came into existence.

No Visiting Shows: Whilst many producing theatres today are increasingly reliant on income from visiting productions, this wasn’t the case in the first two decades. The vast majority of productions were performed and produced by the company.

Notable exceptions were the theatre-in-the-round amateur festival, initiated by Stephen Joseph which ran at the library from 1960 to 1968 and short annual amateur runs by local companies which were also in-the-round. Sadly, the visiting amateur theatre-in-the-round tradition effectively ended in Scarborough 1996 and has never been revived.

Professional visiting productions were few and far between. In 1958, Stephen Joseph’s own company bizarrely toured to Scarborough with Phèdre – this didn’t utilise the Scarborough company and visited the town as part of a national tour promoting theatre-in-the-round. Mimic Dance Theatre performed during the 1960 summer season leading to a disastrous collaboration the same year in Alan Ayckbourn’s first Christmas play, Dad’s Tale.

And then, intermittently, from 1970 to 1974, Hull Arts Theatre brought productions in – the company would later form the basis of the Hull Truck Theatre. They toured in documentary plays, classic plays, music hall style shows and shows for children.

And that was it. Visiting productions only really came into force in the ‘modern era’ from 1996 onwards.

Free Programmes: Stephen Joseph was largely inspired to create a theatre-in-the-round space in the UK as a result of a year’s sabbatical to study for a degree in drama at the University of Iowa from 1951 to 1952. As a result of this, he toured the country visiting venues with ‘new theatre forms’ (i.e. not proscenium arch).

One of the initiatives he brought back with him was the idea that programmes should be free – which, of course, has been a mainstay of American theatre throughout the decades with the free Playbills. Programmes appear to have been free throughout Stephen Joseph’s tenure as Artistic Director from 1955 to 1965.

A charge was finally levied in 1967 at sixpence for a programme. For those of us post-decimal readers, that equates to approximately two-and-half pence then and – allowing for inflation – approximately 37p today. Wouldn’t it be nice to pay just 37p for a programme!

Headline from the Yorkshire Post in 1959

The National Anthem: Strange as it may seem today, when Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre opened in 1955, it was still normal practise to play the National Anthem at the end of every performance. Stephen Joseph, ever one to break convention, decided this was not for him.

In 1958, he decided to stop playing the National Anthem at every performance, relegating it to the start and the finish of the season. It is believed The Library Theatre was the first regional theatre to do this.

It had significant repercussions and even made it into national newspapers with one local councillor and theatre board member, making it a personal mission over the next decade to restore the national anthem. The theatre even held a poll as to whether it should be restored with the Mayor of Scarborough at one point declaring 90% of the population of Scarborough wanted it restored!

Obviously this was as the result of a scientific, fully balanced poll and not just a figure pulled off the back of a beer-mat!

Stephen refused to bend – arguably enjoying all the publicity it all brought for his little theatre. A decade later it was still occasionally bering brought up at board meetings, despite the fact that there was neither obligation nor legal basis for any venue to play the anthem.

This was summed up, rather tersely, by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office: ‘There is no regulation on this. We are completely indifferent to it, and would never contemplate issuing any order or advice.’ So there.

Post-Show Chats: One thing that Stephen Joseph was very keen to do was to break down barriers between actors and audience. As a result, he advertised the company would be available to talk to the audience about the evening’s production most nights after the show.

There is no record of how well this was received or what uptake it had, but it was a radical idea for the time in British theatre that the director and the actors would be there to talk about and answer questions about the show. Of course, it’s become quite common place now, although not quite on the daily basis Stephen proposed.

The lecture room at Scarborough Library (© TBC)

The Lecture Room: For the vast majority of Theatre in the Round’s tenure at the library, the seasons took place in the Concert Room on the first floor of the library – previously called the Harrison Room – and which can still be visited today, looking pretty much as it did in 1955.

However, for a couple of the later winter seasons, post 1974, the Concert Room wasn’t available. So a smaller room, the Lecture Room – now converted into offices – also on the first floor was made available. The problem was, this oblong room was considerably smaller than the Concert Room, so performances couldn’t take place in-the-round and had to be done three-sided or thrust.

So the original productions of Alan Ayckbourn’s Just Between Ourselves and Bedroom Farce were not performed in-the-round as conceived but three-sided. In the case of Bedroom Farce, this led to a complete re-design of the set as Alan has mis-measured the sizes of the beds. And in the case of Just Between Ourselves, Alan believes this was the final straw for the Chief Librarian when the shell of a Morris Minor was brought up to the first floor of the Library and squeezed into the lecture room space.

PB’s Cakes: Legendary at the time was the interval refreshments provided by Stephen Joseph’s house-keeper PB. This was her nickname and how was she, it appears, universally known to most people. She was actually Mrs Pemberton-Billing and in a fascinating story all of its own was the second wife of the controversial MP, Noel Pemberton Billing, who somehow ended up as a devoted house-keeper to Stephen Joseph in Scarborough.

Extract from a programme (© Scarborough Theatre Trust)

Most of the programmes from 1955 to 1965 feature the line ‘Excellent refreshments are served in the exhibition room before and after the performance by Mrs V. Pemberton Billing.’ Alan Ayckbourn testifies the cakes were excellent and rather luxurious and that any leftovers fed the company. It appears the acting company largely survived on very rich cake for most of the summer!

Of course, there was no alcohol license, so drinks were initially limited to coffee, later expanding to tea and soft drinks. A later application to serve warm food, such as sausage rolls, was stamped down on hard by the Libraries Committee. Warm food in the Library, heaven forbid!

Limited Facilities: There’s no way round this one. The Concert Room on the first floor of the public library was never intended to be a theatre and its facilities – or lack thereof – amply demonstrate this. The Library Theatre was notorious for hassling just the one lavatory which was shared by both audience and company.

You think facilities in some West End theatre are poor today, well it could be worse. Possibly.

So that’s our first look back at The Library Theatre and things that changed during Theatre in the Round’s tenure there or later became obsolete as the company moved onto new homes and venues. In part 2, I’ll be looking at Theatre in the Round at Westwood from 1976 to 1995.

Article by and copyright of Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce or store in any format.

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