Since it opened as Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre in Scarborough in 1955, the company synonymous with Alan Ayckbourn has been through many changes.
In this series of articles, I’m continuing my look at how theatre-in-the-round has changed in Scarborough over the decades from 1955 to 2009 under Stephen Joseph and Alan Ayckbourn (click here for Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre and here for the Stephen Joseph Theatre). Changes both front-of-house and backstage as well as 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.
Following my look at how Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre changed over time (click here), this week I’m looking at the company’s second home, Theatre in the Round at Westwood – again a name that probably isn’t as familiar as it might be…
Changing Spaces: Theatre in the Round at Westwood by Simon Murgatroyd
Theatre in the Round at Westwood: You may not recognise this name for the second home of the company from 1976 to 1995, but this is what the venue was originally known as.
In 1976, the company left its 20 year home at Scarborough Library and moved to the converted ground floor of the former Westwood County Modern School. This was intended to be a temporary home for the company as plans were afoot for a purpose-built new theatre on Vernon Road opposite the library.
As a result, the company did not want to give this temporary home the name intended for its permanent home. So, just as the company was previously Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, it now became Theatre in the Round at Westwood (Westwood was to become the colloquial name for the venue over the next two decades and which we’ll use for the venue throughout the article).
By 1978, it became obvious the new theatre wasn’t going to be built and the temporary home was going to be rather more permanent. So on 1 April, Westwood was officially renamed the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, the title it would have until 1996 when the company moved to its present home.
Despite Westwood never being the hoped for permanent home for the company which was intended to bear its founder’s name, as the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, it became a much loved home for the company and audiences.
On Stage Access: Possible the single largest difference between Westwood and the SJT today is, for all of its 20 years, entrance to Westwood’s auditorium was through the vom 1 stage entrance. You walked onto the stage and then up to your seat.
For those of us who remember this, it was quite a special feeling and – personally – gave one a sense of participation within the productions. You could touch the set and you were also walking through the same space as the actors – which, of course, meant late-comers had to wait for the interval or hope there was a suitable break between scenes as there was no other way to get to their seats without interrupting the play.
It also made it very difficult to leave your seat for any reason as – again – you would be interrupting the performance by walking through the actors to leave! This also posed challenges in 1981 for Way Upstream, when the stage was flooded and getting the audience to their seats had a very plausible risk of falling into the murky water!
When the company. moved to its present home in 1996, on-stage access was apparently considered but then replaced by the more practical as well as health and safety conscious access via the rear of the auditorium. But for those who remember Westwood, there’s something special about the memories of walking across the stage upon entering and leaving.
Rep Theatre: Theatre in the Round in Scarborough had always been conceived as a repertory theatre and this was ingrained into its creation by its founder Stephen Joseph.
However, it was only at Westwood that it truly came into its own, largely because the company became a year-round concern for practically the first time. Acting companies would stay throughout the seasons, often the year – sometimes longer – with minimal changes allowing a varied rep system to evolve.
The theatre had always worked on the premise of offering two plays a week with a change of play every Thursday – thus offering holidays-makers staying in the town for a week, a choice of plays. In Westwood, this was ramped up considerably with the inclusion of lunch-time, late night and even Saturday morning children’s shows. At times, it was possible to see three, four even five different productions during a week.
The rep nature also allowed a considerable flexibility that would be impossible today. If a play wasn’t successful, then it would be pulled and another from the rep slotted in to fill its schedule. With several plays on the go at any one time, it was an easy decision to pull back on less popular works and give more performances to the popular ones.
It also emphasised the skills of the actor – something Alan Ayckbourn has always felt was important. Rep theatre gives actors the chance to show their talents off in different roles and to highlight different members of the company – a lead role one week, a supporting the next. Alan has always believed audiences enjoy seeing actors not only develop but also demonstrating their skills.
Rep – if we take it as a single company performing all the plays during one season – survived into the move to the company’s present home from 1996 until 2010 – probably hitting its apex in 1998 with the 10×10 season – and then became less prominent before vanishing entirely. The days of seeing several in-house productions in a week in Scarborough are probably long gone.
Company Photographs: It’s a strange one this and tied into the idea of rep theatre, but as there was one company of actors performing all the plays, it was possible do a company photograph every year.
From the early ’70s to the late ’80s, there would be an annual photograph of the entire company – backstage crew, front of house and actors – creating a valuable visual record of the time. Some were quite formal, others less so. And for a phase, the photos were taken around various well-known sites in Scarborough such as on the miniature railway, on a fishing trawler, at the castle and other places. Eventually, they tended to be taken in the auditorium. But they’re a lovely photographic record of the people who worked at the theatre during these years.
The Programmes: Westwood also began the tradition of the hanging of the programmes. If you’ve been to a first night at theatre in the round in Scarborough, you’ll have seen the programme being hung at the bar by a member of the company post-show on the press night.
This originated back in Westwood and the programmes would be, again, put on display in the bar and foyer. Unlike the theatre today, all the programmes were then kept on display in the foyer, so there was a visual public record of every play performed by the company.
This idea was intended to transfer to the company’s present home, but the space in the bar was deemed unsuitable in 1996, so the decision was made to instead put all the programmes on walls backstage. They’re still there – every programme since 1976 – but unless you have access backstage, you’d never know and since the regular backstage theatre tours stopped by the 2010s, there’s little opportunity to see this slice of the theatre’s history.
Sunday Night Concerts / Scarborough Rock: Between 1978 and 1987, Sundays night at Westwood featured music concerts by predominantly local talent but also including notable musicians such as Isaac Guillory and Brendan Crocker.
Between 1986 and 1987 – concurrent with Alan Ayckbourn’s sabbatical to the National Theatre – these developed into the popular Scarborough Rock evenings. These loud and frequently messy evenings saw many a pint slopped on the Studio Theatre’s floor (which apparently was one of the reasons cited for the concerts’ demise!) as well as attracting new audiences to the theatre and a wide variety of talented bands and performers.
Perhaps most significant of the bands to perform over those two years was Scarborough own band Mr Thrud which was later renamed as Little Angels and was the town’s first bona fide chart-topping rock group – if memory serves, their first concert as Little Angels was at Westwood.
Sadly, the Sunday night concerts ended with Alan Ayckbourn’s return to the company in 1988. They had largely been championed and organised by the theatre’s musical director Paul Todd and with when he left the company, the impetus behind them appears to have been lost. Plus there was the issue of the sticky carpet…
The Square Cat: Having been denied the opportunity to serve hot food at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre (including the very sharp condemnation in the 1960s by the library committee for a proposal to serve sausage rolls…), Westwood saw the installation of a cafe called Doreen’s Pantry in 1981.
The cafe had several names during its operation, but the most famous one was The Square Cat, named in honour of Alan Ayckbourn’s first play to mark the 25th anniversary its premiere in 1959.
It was also notable – for a short period in 1986 – as being a vegetarian cafe run by the noted chef Sarah Brown. This was quite forward-thinking for the theatre, but – ironically – it meant the Artistic Director couldn’t eat there as Alan Ayckbourn was a meat and two veg chap.
As apparently was most of the theatre-going public at the time as, soon after its launch, the partnership came to a close with the press office reporting “most of our customers are not vegetarians and there is a demand for meals containing meat.”
The Press Officer…: For two years between 1986 and 1988, the same press officer (who shall remain unnamed here) frequently became the subject of the story and made quite a name for himself. There were a number of bizarre publicity stunts including auditions for a garden gnome for Alan Ayckbourn’s Time & Time Again, a suggestion Westwood was a major terrorist target and a publicity campaign which never once mentioned the play in question – the play was later cancelled in its entirety.
The controversial figure also became the face of a very public spat with a former theatre manager, which was reported in the national media – with Private Eye magazine and The Stage newspaper taking particular interest.
Perhaps most damning though is the tale told that the press officer was so irritated by the fact the theatre’s archive was stored in the press office and took up too much room, that one day he stuffed it all up in bin bags and left it outside on bin day for waste disposal to collect, never to be seen again.
You can imagine what this archivist feels about that subject when it comes up in conversation….
So, that’s just a small selection of some of the traditions, events and operations that have changed or been lost over time that are associated with the Stephen Joseph 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.
Fascinating as always. I’ve just got my hands on a Just between ourselves programme which was a celebration of 20 years at Westwood and the last production there. Look forward to your next Blog.
That’s a great souvenir as Alan wrote a potted history of 20 years at Westwood for it, recounting some of the memorable experiences at that venue. I shall have to reproduce it as a follow up to this article!
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🙂 Look forward to reading it
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