Small New Theatres Are The Answer Now

by Stephen Joseph, Yorkshire Evening Press, 11 January 1961

Scarborough has a large number of theatres - The Opera House, Arcadia, Futurist, Open Air Theatre, Floral Hall, Spa and the theatre in Galaland.

None of these is open all the year round, and all of them concentrate on the provision of summer entertainment. In each case, the theatre’s policy is to provide holiday fare of the sort likely to attract large crowds if people.

There is no theatre with an all the-year-round resident stock company and a policy of staging plays likely to appeal to those who enjoy drama - as it is enjoyed in towns and cities all over the country where there is a repertory theatre.

Until half-a-dozen years ago, the Opera House used to present plays throughout the year, working in exchange with York Theatre Royal.

This came to an end when audiences, out of the season, grew so small that performances were all but absurd.

Is there any reason to suppose that a year-round repertory theatre might now be more successful?

Yes. There is a revival of interest in drama all over the country. There are new audiences, new young actors, new playwrights in surprising number. New theatres are being planned and talked about by many local authorities, and three new theatres have been built in England, the first for 30 years, for the use of professional actors.
These new theatres are proving that a fresh approach to the drama and its audiences can enable them to flourish where old theatres could not.

The Belgrade and the Mermaid halve set an important example of how new theatres should be run.

Both theatres are unashamedly modern in architectural style and interior decoration. Both of them do more than produce plays.

Excellent refreshments are served at all times of day. Concerts, film shows, lectures, recitals, dances, conferences and exhibitions are presented. The Playhouse has become a social and arts centre.

Both these theatres are unexpectedly small, in a large city the size of Coventry, it is surprising to find that the Belgrade seats only 900. The Mermaid Theatre, in London, seats 499.

The last point has a particular importance to a town such as Scarborough. The Opera House seats 1,200 people, It needs to do so in the summer when holiday plays can attract large holiday audiences; but at other times of year, and for performances of straight plays, this number is too big. A theatre seating 400 people would be more appropriate.

How much would it cost to build a theatre of this size, and could it be economical to run?
Theatre managers with experience of running old theatres are faced with mounting expenses, and they want bigger theatres, not smaller ones. It is a matter of accounting. Whatever is spent on building and running costs must be met by sales at the ticket office. The small theatres must have smaller expenses.

A large proscenium arch theatre is expensive to build. It is doubtful if an efficient theatre, seating about 1,000 people, could be built for less than £300,000. Further, it is expensive to run such a theatre unless a great deal more is spent on the initial building to enable the theatre to be highly mechanised, as most of the big new German theatres are.

A theatre costing over £1m, with a complex repertoire of plays, and opera and ballet, is extremely expensive to run for many reasons - and the Germans have a long tradition of substantial subsidy from local government and State.

The proscenium arch theatre is not the only possible form of playhouse. Many small play-houses have been built in the United States, and on the Continent, with open stages.

The stage is in the same room as the auditorium, There is no need for a separate room for the stage and a tower to carry a scenic grid. Building costs can be cut drastically, and an open stage theatre seating about 400 people might cost £30,000.

The simplicity of the building, and the small staff required to maintain it and to stage the plays, ensure that running costs are also very low. An open stage theatre has a particular relevance to towns such as Scarborough.

It is important to note that, in the case of Scarborough, the most radical experiment in open staging attempted in England, started, and still runs, in the concert room of the Public Library.

Here, for the last six years, a temporary theatre-in-the-round has been set up in the summer, and for a short season each winter, to stage straight plays.

There is seating for 248 people round a small central stage. In spite of the makeshift arrangements, the lack of space for dressing rooms, the difficulty of erecting equipment, and the extreme smallness of the concert room itself, the Studio Theatre Company has gradually established itself.

John English’s travelling Arena Theatre, the Mermaid and the Pembroke Theatre in Croydon are all examples of theatres with open stages.

With the Library Theatre, they have proved that an open stage theatre is capable of presenting almost any sort of play.

It is attractive to most people as a place of entertainment. It is very economical to run. If further evidence were needed, there are dozens of successful open stage theatres in the US.

The differences between the two forms of theatre include the economic advantages of a smaller building, and the fresh conventions of the open stage.

Few people will deny the rightness of the open stage theatre for such places as Scarborough, but a modest project of this sort could easily get lost in debates about schemes costing ten times as much, and it could not be justified in terms of what the majority want.

Scarborough already has half-a-dozen theatres giving the majority what it wants, and there is no need to provide another. Nowhere in the world is there any evidence that the majority of people want to see plays, or ever have done. All the same, play production is among the activities that mark an energetic, lively, and civilised community.

A small number of playgoers, a few actors and writers contribute in every age to a nation’s vitality. New ideas of theatre have brought a high standard of professional drama within the reach of all but the smallest communities.

Copyright of Studio Theatre Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission. Transcribed by Simon Murgatroyd.