In Scarborough: The Studio Theatre Company part 1

This article by Stephen Joseph looks at the founding and first year of the Studio Theatre Company in Scarborough with its inaugral season at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre. It is an extract from Stephen Joseph's book Theatre in the Round, published in 1967. The second of the articles can be found by clicking here.

The Studio Theatre Company: The First Year

In England there have been three professional companies making considerable use of theatre in the round. The first of these opened in Scarborough in 1955 for a summer season [Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre], and returned each summer since then until 1965. The second started in 1962 at the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent and is now the only permanent theatre in the round in the country. Between 1959 and 1962 the Pembroke theatre flourished in Croydon. Apart from a few brief ventures, professional actors have not otherwise used theatre in the round. The Scarborough and Stoke theatres have both been largely my responsibility and for this reason I have much to say about them.

The main impetus behind the Scarborough theatre in the round was a concern with
new plays. This may seem odd now, for playwrights have seldom had less difficulty in getting even passable plays performed than at present. But in 1955 this was not so. The English Stage Company had not yet started, and this company, more than any other, created a revolution in the attitudes of public, managers and critics towards new plays. In 1955 the young playwright seemed to be having a particularly difficult time; not only because managers were unwilling to take risks, but because the widely held and limited concept of what a play should be had a constricting effect on what might even be considered for performance. For several years I had been holding seminars on playwriting, under the aegis of the British Drama league and the Central School of Speech and Drama, and, through these seminars, had become acquainted with several new writers of great promise. Their plays were rejected by enough managements to make me seek a way of staging the plays myself. I had no money of my own, and no one else’s was available for a theatre venture based entirely on new plays by unknown writers. The idea of theatre in the round was first considered for reasons of economy. It was the only practicable proposition.

The appeal of theatre in the round, though, was not solely economic. I had seen and enjoyed several theatre in the round performances in the United States. I had for sometime been using the idea of a central stage for rehearsing with students and amateurs in order to draw attention to certain basic concepts of acting, and had become fascinated by the possibilities of carrying such exercises further - as far as public performance. But to start my own theatre was a development that I did not then anticipate.

The main hindrance to public performance on a central stage lay in the absence of any properly equipped theatre. The idea of converting a hall could only be carried out if several performances, or a season, were contemplated, so that a budget that included enough money to cover the expense of conversion might be reckoned with; and in the London area I looked at over five hundred halls before concluding that it would be difficult to get a suitable one, at a low rent for a period of several weeks. Meanwhile I talked about theatre in the round to students, to actors and to friends.

In spite of the many theatres in the round in the USA, very few people in this country had then heard of it and many could not even envisage it. Some of my friends, including those whose knowledge of theatre and long experience commanded respect, had no patience with the idea; sometimes because it was new a gimmick merely, a passing craze; sometimes because it was primitive, a form of theatre no longer valid because we have improved on it. Other people expressed great interest and demanded action. Among those who thought favourably about the idea was J. B. Priestley who, in his book The Art of the Dramatist, wrote:

If I were beginning again, I would move in the opposite direction, towards more elaborate construction and even greater intimacy, taking a few characters through an intricate and ironic dance of relationships. In order to concentrate on ideas, words, subtly intimate acting, I would make a clean break with our picture-frame stage and all its clutter of canvas, paint, carpets and curtains, leaving designers and sets to the movies. I would write for a theatre-in-the-round, the opposite of the movies both in its cost and its art, the theatre where everything visual, except the close and vivid faces and figures of the players, is left to the imagination. For - and I say it for the last time - we cannot have everything at once, and too often when we think we are adding we are subtracting. To pretend about something, to use the imagination somewhere, heightens and deepens what I have called dramatic experience. And I feel we stand in bitter need of this experience at its best, enlarged, ennobled. As it flashes between those two levels of the mind, often evoking strange and haunting undertones and overtones whispering that all this life of ours may be a shadow show with a deeper reality behind it, I believe it can refresh and even inspire men and women now lost in bewilderment and frustration.

For several years John Wood, education officer for the North Riding EducationCommittee, had asked me to take part in weekend courses and summer schools in Yorkshire, and it was on a weekend course in acting at Wrea Head that he challenged me to put theatre in the round to the test of professional performance to the public. I told him of the difficulties in finding a suitable hall, in London. So he took me to see the concert room in the Central Library at Scarborough; and after a friendly and helpful talk with W. H .Smettem, the librarian, our first booking was made.

The concert room was reasonably suitable for conversion into a theatre in the round; in plan nearly square, 40 ft x 5o ft approximately. Perhaps a bit on the small side. Ceiling height about 24 ft, with a good deal of complicated plasterwork above a heavy cornice. The room was on the first floor and its main disadvantage was that of its three doors one was an emergency exit leading directly to an outside escape way, and the other two were both in the same wall, 12ft apart. Thus all the entrances would have to be made from one side of the acting area. Two adjacent rooms were to be made available to us; one for a dressing room (big enough to be simply partitioned of as two rooms) and the other for an exhibition and refreshment room.On the whole, a very good place in which to make experimental first steps.

Studio Theatre Company was formed, an educational and charitable company for the purpose of presenting new plays. We chose four plays with reasonably small casts and decided to present each play in repertoire for two separate weeks during an eight-week season. We drew up conversion plans using scaffolding and builders’ boards to make raised rows that would take the 248 seats already available in the concert room, and obtained an occasional stage play license from the magistrates. There had been doubts about the license.We were warned by several knowledgeable theatre managers and others with administrative experience that a theatre in the round might not be allowed. It would necessarily contravene the fire regulations. But the Chief Fire Officer and the Chief Constable examined our drawings and production schemes with sympathy. They found no special hazards (and, I suspect, fewer risks to public safety than in most theatres) and gave their approval in court before the licensing magistrates. We got our license.

During rehearsals the whole company worked with enthusiasm, but not without misgivings. Was it sensible to try presenting not only new plays but also a new form of theatre? Why Scarborough? Wouldn’t London be more sensible? What special techniques of acting are required for theatre in the round? We endured the sort of set-backs that fall to most small theatre ventures; our leading actress fell ill and had to be replaced in the middle of rehearsal period; half the money that we had budgeted on to launch the season was to have come from someone who, owing to unexpected events, could no longer give it.

We opened in the middle of a splendidly warm July. Scarborough is a holiday town, spreading along two delightful bays, one of which has a promenade flanked by shops, cafes and amusement arcades. There were then half a dozen theatres presenting variety shows and other light entertainments, an open air theatre seating about 7,000 people, a theatre where the York Repertory Company presented a summer season of plays, and a number of good cinemas. With a resident population of about 50,000, Scarborough was already well served with entertainment. To begin with our audiences were thin. Our money soon began to run out. We were saved by the first rainy day when the theatre filled to capacity. At the end of the
first season we had not lost all our capital, and the directors decided to keep the company going for another season. Economics are important. But we had also had our enthusiasms roused.

And so each year another and another season was planned. But still on a very ad hoc basis. No sureness about the future; each season likely to be the last. No financial security, no proper theatrical facilities, considerable competition, dependence on the weather. I believe the quality of work improved and we certainly learned about the central stage. Soon the temporary fit-up began to impose frustrating restrictions on us. The company kept going, thanks to the generous tolerance of the Libraries Committee, thanks to the support of the Arts Council, thanks to the adventurous spirit of so many young artists. Audiences grew steadily, if only because summer is an unreliable season, landladies don’t like holidaymakers cluttering up the digs and Scarborough is reasonably short of public shelters. And when you think about it, what an audience! Many of them people who would not normally be seen inside a theatre, the very people that Wesker or Littlewood might rejoice to win over; and from all over the country, people who would go home with an exciting experience to talk about and who might even develop a taste for theatre-going.

Some people who have come to the theatre are clearly knowledgeable theatre-goers. Often enough they ask where the stage is? And may go on to ask what about scenery, and surely, then, the actors have to turn their backs on the audience? These are serious questions, and I deal with them seriously. But it is surprising how many people actually come to the theatre and take the central stage for granted; among those that do so are, of course, a number who actually live in Scarborough and come with the same anticipation of pleasure as supporters of repertory theatres all over the country. Occasionally extremists come, devotees of theatre in the round who believe it to be the only valid form of theatre for the twentieth century; on the other hand, such a one as the lady with whom I had, approximately, the following conversation in the foyer:

SHE: It says outside that this is a theatre in the round.
ME: Yes, madam, there is a matinee performance going on now.
SHE: What play are you doing?
ME: Alas, Poor Fred by James Saunders.
SHE: I've never heard of it.
ME: It's a new play, having its first production here.
SHE: Young man, you are pulling my leg. I read The Observer and if you were doing a new play I should have been told about it.
ME: If you doubt me, come and see the play tonight.
SHE:I know perfectly well that there isn't a theatre in the round in this country. Tonight I am going to the cinema.
Exit the pragmatic lady.

The directors of the Studio Theatre Company always tried to approach theatrical problems from a rational and businesslike point of view. They tried to understand traditions but did not necessarily accept them. Following the American example, programmes in Scarborough were always given away free. Although so small a theatre cannot expect to pay for the programmes from advertising, this was a cost willingly budgeted for. And it is interesting to see that other and bigger theatres have also followed this policy. During the first season all seats were unnumbered and tickets the same price; in subsequent years, though, two ticket prices have been instituted, if only because some people are only satisfied if they are getting the cheaper tickets while others insist on having the more expensive. And it was resolved that refreshments, as good as possible, should be served at virtually cost price, and after the performance. We always wanted there to be an opportunity for the audience to discuss the performance at leisure.

Many Scarborough people are proud that theatre in the round virtually started its career here. From the start the venture had the support of local
amateur groups. This extended beyond helping to set up and dismantle the theatre. Front of house help was recruited from volunteers, and prop-hunting, costume-finding and the distribution of publicity material were all aided by voluntary help, under the supervision of Kenneth Boden. Besides helping us he has, as secretary of the local branch of the British Drama League, organised an amateur theatre in the round festival at Scarborough which looks like becoming an important annual event in the North of England.

At the end of the first season a limited objective had been achieved. No great success; no real proof of either artistic or commercial viability. But acting on a central stage was exciting from every point of view, and there seemed all sorts of opportunities yet to explore.

Article by and copyright of Stephen Joseph.