The Stephen Joseph Theatre

A permanent home for the company Stephen Joseph founded in 1955 did not begin to be realised until 1988, when the Rank Organisation closed Scarborough’s Art Deco Odeon cinema. The building had been built by the architect Harry Weedon and used as a cinema until it closed; apparently at the time, the only single screen Odeon still operating in the UK aside from the Odeon Leicester Square.

Alan Ayckbourn, Artistic Director of the company, suggested the idea of converting the former cinema into a state-of-the-art home for theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough in 1989; the only other serious suggestion for the building being to turn it into a bingo hall. His enquiries into the possibility of acquiring the empty Grade II listed building led to the discovery the Rank company wanted £300,000 for the remaining 48 years of the lease. However, confident he had found the perfect home for the company and after much negotiation, Alan formed the ADMirable partnership in 1990 with Lord Downe and Charles ‘Mac’ McCarthy. They each put £50,000 of their own money together with a bank loan for £50,000 and managed to secure the lease of the building; Scarborough Borough Council subsequently increased the lease to 99 years. With the lease for the building secured, work began on raising the funds needed for the extensive conversion of the building.

The initial aim was to open the theatre in 1994 although serious fund-raising did not begin until 1993 with the launch of a major financial appeal which included sponsoring the name of the venue for £800,000; although it was never really in doubt the eventual sponsor would name it after its founder. The Grade II listing of the building meant a complex series of negotiations with English Heritage, which eventually led to the agreement that the exterior of the building and the Front Of House areas would be restored and reflect the building's Art Deco origins when it opened in 1936. The rest of the building - particularly the Round auditorium - would be redeveloped from the ground up in order to create a state-of-the-art venue and facilities.

The conversion and move to the new building eventually cost £5.2m and involved refitting the top of the cinema’s circle to create the 165 seat McCarthy Theatre and cinema; the ground floor of the cinema was gutted and the supporting proscenium arch removed to create the space for the 404-seat Round auditorium with a stage-lift and trampoline mesh beneath the lighting rig (apparently the first of its kind in the UK and a clever solution to offering easy and quick access to lighting grids above in-the-round venues).

A hole was also punched through the roof, sinking from it a glass shaft - the ‘atrium’ - to allow natural light to reach the offices in the centre of the building. The building also incorporated a shop, conference room, full backstage and front of house facilities and a bar and restaurant retaining as far as possible the listed building’s 1930’s features. Even the carpet was a replica of the original carpet taken from a piece that had been found in the old cinema before the conversion. Using Harry Osborne of Henry Osborne Christmas Associates of Tunbridge Wells as the concept architect and Shepherd Design and Build of York, the conversion was finally completed just in time for the first performance on 24th of April 1996; the theatre's official opening night took place on 30 April.

To launch the theatre, Alan Ayckbourn turned - unexpectedly - to one of his biggest flops, the 1975 musical
Jeeves which he had written with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Reuniting with the composer, the pair completely revised the musical and opened the Stephen Joseph Theatre with By Jeeves; which despite the doubters and naysayers proved to be an enormous success, later transferring to London before touring the UK and - several years later - opening on Broadway.

Alan Ayckbourn was keen that the entire venue was used to its maximum potential and that the smaller end-stage McCarthy Theatre would not be seen as a second or studio theatre, but as an equally important performing space as The Round. Unfortunately, within six months of opening there was a funding crisis due to the three-way funding deal between Scarborough Council, North Yorkshire County Council and the Arts Council - just one pulling out could jeopardise the entire subsidy agreement with first Scarborough Town Council and then North Yorkshire County Council threatening to cut its funding. Alan Ayckbourn found himself fighting to secure the future of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in a story which received national media coverage, even going so far as to state the theatre would close its doors in September 1997 if the subsidies was not restored. The funding was eventually secured but Alan Ayckbourn later revealed the venue was being run on essentially the same sized subsidy as for the company's previous home, which was less than half the size of the new building. Sadly, the insecurity of funding would constantly dog the venue over the coming years and it was never able to run year-round to its maximum potential as Alan Ayckbourn had hoped and envisaged.

Despite this, the theatre continued to place Stephen Joseph and his legacy of embracing new writing as the keystone of the theatre's vision throughout Alan Ayckbourn's tenure as Artistic Director. The lunchtime plays - so popular at Westwood - continued in The Restaurant and occasionally expanded into The McCarthy. The visiting programme was massively increased with popular companies such as the Northern Broadsides and Hull Truck Theatre becoming regular visitors alongside popular concert events such as the Hammonds Saltaire Band and Music In The Round concert series. Certainly during it first decade, every effort was to make the venue as vibrant and as a busy a venue as possible within the restrictions of funding and budget.

In 2005, the contribution of Stephen Joseph to Scarborough saw a blue plaque attached outside Scarborough Library to mark the 50th anniversary of Stephen Joseph opening the Library Theatre. An important milestone had been reached for the company in the town - with another unexpected one soon to follow.

In February 2006, Alan Ayckbourn suffered a stroke and was away from the theatre for six months. Although he returned to work in September 2006 to direct the world premiere of his new play
If I Were You, it marked a period of transition for the theatre. The playwright and Artistic Director had previously announced a lightening of his workload in 1999, but in May 2007 he confirmed he would retire as Artistic Director in 2009. The playwright has since remained connected to the theatre as a guest director and premiered all his new plays since 2009 at the venue. He has frequently said subsequently he considers one of his greatest achievements to have been the move of the Scarborough company into its first purpose built home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, in 1996.

Alan's successor as Artistic Director was Chris Monks, who stayed with the company until 2015 when both he and the Executive Director since 1996, Stephen Wood, stepped down. The same year saw the Stephen Joseph Theatre celebrate its 60th anniversary with the completion of its largest capital project since the building was open. The SJT OutReach Rooms expanded the facilities and resources available to the company's OutReach department offering new spaces such as a multi-purpose studio, reception and new offices as well as brand new prop and costume storage facilities. The project was funded by a £275,000 Arts Council Capital Grant via the National Lottery plus additional funds from donors, sponsors and donations.

On 29 February 2016, the new Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre was announced as Paul Robinson, former Artistic Director of the award-winning new writing company, Theatre503. He was joined later in the year by a new Chief Executive Steve Freeman, both of whom pledging a commitment to the core founding principles of the company in promoting and encouraging new writing; Steve left the SJT in December 2018 having made a considerable impact on the theatre during his time with the company.

In 2017, it was announced the company had received major capital grant funding to make major and essential alterations to the future including addressing structural issues in the building, revamping the entire front of house spaces and transferring The Round's lighting grid to entirely LED lighting; it is believed the SJT will become the first venue in the UK to go completely LED in its primary theatre-space (the press release can be found
here). Completed in 2018, this completely transformed the front of house areas of the SJT.

For details about the Odeon building in which the Stephen Joseph Theatre is based, click

Further details about the Stephen Joseph Theatre can be found at the theatre's own website

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.

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