Why Scarborough?

When considering the history of theatre-in-the-round in the UK, it's not unreasonable to ask the obvious question. Why Scarborough? Why did Stephen Joseph choose Scarborough to launch the UK's first professional theatre-in-the-round company in the UK?
It is curious that in modern theatre, the single longest surviving theatre in the round company in the UK is in Scarborough - a town whose prior theatre history is tied directly into its position as a seaside resort and popular and populist entertainment. Whilst the company may have moved venues several times, there has been professional theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough since 1955 (with the exception of 1966, but even that year featured an amateur in-the-round season). The second oldest continually running in-the-round company in the UK is the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme formed in 1962, initially as The Victoria.

So why Scarborough?

The answer is, not for any obvious reason and not with any intention of it being a permanent home. Stephen Joseph had been searching for a home for theatre-in-the-round, preferably in London, during the early 1950s without success. Unable to find or afford suitable premises, his attentions led elsewhere as he explains in his book
Theatre In The Round.

“For several years, John Wood, education officer for the North Riding Education Committee, 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 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.... On the whole, a very good place in which to make experimental first steps.”

That is the gist of how Stephen came to Scarborough - it's probably not entirely accurate as documentation held in Scarborough Library shows Stephen initially wrote to William Smettem at the urging of John Wood before his first meeting with the Chief Librarian. Also, there is strong anecdotal evidence that on Stephen's first visit to Scarborough, he first went to the Town Hall before being redirected to the Library.

Stephen Joseph launched
Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre on 14 July 1955, initially with 13 week summer seasons playing mostly new works in repertory. However, Scarborough's Public Library was never intended to be a permanent home for the company. Stephen later noted in his book: "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."

One of the main reasons for this was the lack of guaranteed financial backing from Scarborough Town Council or, several years later, a perceived lack of support in finding a permanent new home for the company in the town.

When the Theatre in the Round company began
touring in 1957, Stephen did not hide the fact he was essentially selling his product to towns without a civic theatre, hoping theatre in the round would catch someone's attention and they would offer to build a permanent home for his company. This eventually resulted in the Victoria Theatre being built in an old cinema conversion in 1962 in Stoke-on-Trent.

Stephen was a practical man and though fond of the town, he had no long-term loyalty to Scarborough. However, he knew the town had embraced the form and it was that enthusiasm of the people who had supported theatre in the round in Scarborough that led him to form Scarborough Theatre Trust in 1964 to allow the company to continue performing in Scarborough after the Victoria Theatre opened. Later, it was these same people who led the move to save Theatre in the Round at the
Library Theatre after Stephen decided to close it and end professional theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough in 1965.

Theatre in the round in Scarborough proved far more resilient than Stephen could ever have imagined. And there, perhaps, is the true answer.

Why Scarborough?

Because the community supported it and wanted it. Whilst theatre in the round has always drawn differing and often contentious reactions in the town, it must never be forgotten that professional theatre in the round in Scarborough has stood on the precipice several times during its long history and yet is still going strong because people in the town - both inside and outside of the theatre community - wanted the theatre to stay and succeed, believed it was important to the town and its cultural heritage and this inarguably helped ensure its survival.

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