The Legacy of Theatre in the Round

It's easy to say that Theatre in the Round has had a significant impact on Scarborough's cultural heritage, but what precisely does that mean?
It means the town can claim to as number of significant theatrical achievements and contributions as well being associated with key figures in British theatre history. These are some of the legacy highlights of theatre in the round in Scarborough.

The UK's first professional theatre-in-the-round company: Although arguably the world's oldest form of theatrical staging, theatre in the round was a largely unknown quantity in the UK by the mid 20th century, limited to experimental, academic and amateur productions. The predominant form of theatre was proscenium arch. In 1955, Stephen Joseph founded the first professional theatre in the round company in the UK in Scarborough - which is a a significant piece of British theatre history.

Note, it was the first company not venue as
Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre was a seasonal operation in an existing space. The UK's first professional theatre in the round venue was created by Stephen Joseph at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1962.

The UK's Oldest New Writing Company? Interesting fact, it's generally assumed the Royal Court Theatre (originally the English Stage Company) is the UK's oldest playwriting company and it's certainly the most prolific. But the Royal Court opened in 1956, the year after Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre ,which was founded on the principles of promoting new theatre forms and new plays and playwrights. In the first season, four plays were presented, all new with three written by women. Subsequently, more than half of the company's productions over its life have been new works. During Alan Ayckbourn's tenure as Artistic Director, Scarborough became renowned nationally for its new writing. There is a strong argument the company is the oldest new writing company in the UK and, at the very least, one of the oldest and most prolific new writing companies in the UK.

Alan Ayckbourn: The person most associated with theatre in the round in Scarborough is the playwright and director, Alan Ayckbourn. He acknowledges he owes his success to the town, Stephen Joseph and theatre in the round, which he joined at the age of 18 in 1957. Stephen Joseph was Alan's most significant mentor and he encouraged Alan to both write and direct - his professional debuts as writer and director were in Scarborough in 1959 and 1961 respectively.

Despite national and international acclaim and success, the playwright has remained fiercely loyal to Scarborough and regional theatre and was Artistic Director of the company between 1972 and 2009. Alan has premiered the vast majority of his plays in Scarborough in-the-round in the town and has directed more than 300 productions with the company. He has brought success and international attention to the town over the decades and is one of the most significant cultural figures in the town during the second half of the 20th century.

Stephen Joseph: The founder of the Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre was a controversial but significant British theatre pioneer. He championed new theatre forms and new writing at a time when it was neither encouraged nor popular. His ideas were extremely influential and he helped found the Association of British Theatre Technicians and the Society of Theatre Consultants. His ideas about new theatre forms such as the round proved to be highly influential in the years after his death in 1967. Although he has strong connections with Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent and Scarborough, his legacy is permanently enshrined in the Stephen Joseph Theatre which continues to promote his founding aims by championing theatre in the round and new writing.

The Writers: Between 1955 and 2009, the Stephen Joseph Theatre debuted new work by more than 100 writers - not least Alan Ayckbourn. Some highly significant writers made first or early steps in Scarborough before going onto greater success. These writers include: Tim Firth, Sarah Phelps, Torben Betts, Vanessa Brooks, David Campton, John Godber, Stephen Mallatratt, Marks & Gran; Alan Plater, Robert Shearman, Alison Skilbeck, Mike Stott, Brian Thompson, Peter Tinniswood, Nick Warburton and Sarah Woods.

The Actors: Scarborough has played host to many significant actors over the course of its life, many of whom would go on to great success. Jodie Comer made her professional stage debut in Scarborough as did John Nettles. Between 1955 and 2009, some of the actors who made early career appearances in Scarborough include Amanda Abbington, Mark Addy, Annette Badland, Tom Baker, Emma Chambers, Janie Dee, Peter Forbes, Anna Francollini, Martin Freeman, Adam Godley, Christopher Goodwin, David Harewood, Jane Hollowood, Sarah Doyle, Lesley Nicol, Tamzin Outhwaite, Liza Savoy, Michael Simkins, Claire Skinner, Stephen Tompkinson, Stephanie Turner and Lia Williams. Whilst actors such as Jame Norton and Bill Howell have credited their theatre in the round experiences in Scarborough as being hugely influential formative experiences.

An International Reputation: Perhaps not as much now, but during the late 1970s to the late 1990s the Stephen Joseph Theatre had an international reputation as a new writing venue. One of the most memorable Scarborough theatre stories is when then most famous critic of the time, Frank Rich of the New York Times - 'the Butcher of Broadway' - came to Scarborough to review The Revengers' Comedies in 1989 and heaped praise on the theatre and town. During the 1990s, Judd Hirsch reprised his Tony Award winning role in Conversations with My Father in Scarborough, Michael Gambon headlined a season in 1990 and the extraordinarily ambitious House & Garden attracted international coverage with its two plays running simultaneously. In 2005, the company toured to New York to the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theatres with Alan Ayckbourn's Private Fears in Public Places and it received some of the best reviews of Alan's entire career being favourably compared with the very best of what was on Broadway. The name of the Scarborough theatre was featured in many high profile publications such as Time magazine, the New York Times and the Washington Post amongst other.s

Much of this was due to Alan Ayckbourn who - at the peak of his popularity - became synonymous with Scarborough around the world. During the '70s and '80s, there was a number of television documentaries about Alan, all primarily filmed in Scarborough bringing interest and attention to the town. So much so that - from personal experience as a journalist - when the Holbeck Hall Hotel famously fell into the sea in 1993, there was international media interest and the most frequently posed question the theatre and the local newspaper received was, what did Alan Ayckbourn think? Despite the fact he had nothing to do with the hotel, he had become singularly identified with the town.

The Economic Legacy: Whilst this website concentrates on the cultural legacy of theatre in the round in Scarborough, there is undoubtedly an economic legacy which has had a significant impact on the town. Ever since the late 1970s, theatre in the round has drawn substantial numbers of people to Scarborough - largely on the basis of its connection to Alan Ayckbourn and the world premiere of plays which, throughout the '70s to '90s, were practically guaranteed to transfer to the West End. It is impossible to estimate just how much theatre in the round has contributed to the economy since 1955 but, inarguably, it is significant and far exceeds any subsidy it has received. In 2019, it was reported the Stephen Joseph Theatre contributed £4.6m over the course of a year to the local economy with more than 90,000 people visiting the theatre over the previous 12 months, 40% of whom lived more than an hour away and utilising facilities such as hotels and restaurants.

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