The Library Theatre

The Library Theatre - now better known as the Stephen Joseph Theatre - began life in 1955 in the seaside town of Scarborough in North Yorkshire. It was not the most obvious home for the country’s first professional theatre-in-the-round company, but its founder rarely opted for the obvious in anything he did.

Stephen Joseph was passionate about new writing and supporting new playwrights. He was also enthused by theatre-in-the-round which he had seen briefly in the UK and more extensively whilst studying in the USA. He believed theatre in the round offered a practical, exciting and financially viable way of presenting new drama. He just needed a venue.

Stephen initially searched for a venue for his idea in London, but found nowhere suitable. It was only while running a weekend playwriting course in Ravenscar, North Yorkshire, that a solution was offered. The Concert Room at Scarborough Library was suggested as a venue and Stephen (apparently riding his motor bike to Scarborough through dangerously heavy snow) came to the town, met the Chief Librarian William Smettem and saw the Concert Room for the first time. A decision was made and Stephen’s recently formed company
Studio Theatre Ltd had found its first home, where it would reside for the first 21 years of its life.

Rehearsals for the first season took place in London, funded by the sale of Stephen’s motorbike, before the company moved to Scarborough for an eight week summer season. The Library Theatre opened on 14 July with a season of four new plays by four new writers - three of whom were women. Obviously every aspect of this was a risk, the theatre was competing against a town replete with theatrical entertainment during the summer months, it was staging unknown plays by unknown writers and it was offering theatre-in-the-round, practically unknown in the UK at a time when the theatres were dominated by the proscenium arch. An early letter to the Scarborough Evening News illustrated the mixed reaction to the new theatre.

“Sir, one factor of utmost importance. Theatre in the Round has no settings. How can a modern audience, conditioned to the detailed scenic sets of film and television, be expected to enjoy a play performed in limbo?…. The directors of the Theatre in the Round have only themselves to blame if the audience, cheated of the spectacle, prefers to spend its shillings on the latest cinema-scope epic.”
Reginald Copper, 17 Lady Edith’s Avenue


Stephen was determined to make theatre-in-the-round work, despite the limitations of his initial venture. The Library Theatre was basic on every level: the single toilet was shared by both company and audience, the dressing room was minuscule and the stage only had two entrances - one of which was also the audience entrance. The seating was built on portable rostra specially designed by Stephen Joseph and which could be assembled and disassembled relatively quickly and easily. While a lighting box was eventually installed, facilities remained limited throughout the company's 21 year tenure at the venue. With little money to fund the venture, Stephen was dependent on all the help he could get and found an enthusiastic supply in the local amateur dramatic scene. Members of
Scarborough Theatre Guild were heavily involved in front of house and behind the scenes work, most prominent of whom was Ken Boden, a local insurance agent, who was involved in the theatre from the start and would go on to play a pivotal part in the theatre’s future.

Within two weeks of opening, the Library Theatre was in trouble. Stephen had calculated he needed to attract 100 people a night to break even - the theatre held 248 seats - but audiences had not risen above 75 and were frequently far fewer. Not helped by a blisteringly hot summer, Stephen made an impassioned plea to the local media for support. The future of the fledgling company was in the balance and just one thing contrived to save it. The weather. The heatwave broke and the rain fell, drawing crowds into the Library Theatre and ensuring the company was able to survive its first season. At the end of the summer, a loss had been made but it was relatively small and enough to encourage Stephen to book the venue for the following year.

It should never be assumed that Scarborough was perceived by Stephen as the permanent home of the company. He had no particular loyalty to the town and over the next few years toured the company to various other towns - largely without municipal theatres - in the hope that a town council might support his desire to have a permanent theatre-in-the-round built.

By 1957, the Library Theatre had become firmly established in Scarborough with good audience numbers leading Stephen to explore the possibility of a winter season. He had also made the decision to incorporate more established work and writers into his season to supplement the new writing - although the emphasis was always on the latter. That same year, a young actor / stage manager by the name of
Alan Ayckbourn also joined the company.

The Library Theatre was not without controversy though, most notably when Stephen Joseph decided in 1958 to stop playing the
National Anthem at every performance; the first regional theatre to do so. An incensed minority - including the Mayor of Scarborough - unleashed a torrent of complaints which caught the attention of the national media and would cause debate and ructions over several years. Of far longer term significance was the fruit of Stephen’s support of new writing. In December 1958, Harold Pinter made his professional directorial debut when he directed the second production of his play The Birthday Party for a Studio Theatre Ltd tour, following the play’s initial mauling in London. The success of the play - which was rehearsed at the Library Theatre, but sadly never performed there - apparently restored Pinter’s faith in both the play and his abilities. Acting in the production was Alan Ayckbourn, who had also just been commissioned by Stephen Joseph to write his first play. In 1959, Alan Ayckbourn's The Square Cat received its world premiere, quickly followed in the winter season by his second play Love After All.

By 1961, the Library Theatre could lay claim to being the country’s first professional and permanent theatre-in-the-round company although its future suddenly looked insecure when Newcastle-under-Lyme expressed interest in supporting Stephen creating a purpose-built theatre-in-the-round in the town. Although this plan fell through, it would eventually lead to the formation of the Victoria Theatre in 1962, a conversion of a former cinema in Stoke-on-Trent which became the country’s first permanent theatre-in-the-round venue and the new home of Studio Theatre Ltd.

To ensure the survival of the Library Theatre in Scarborough, control of it passed to another of Stephen's companies,
Theatre In The Round Ltd, between 1963 and 1964; although the venue's future looked bleak as most of Studio Theatre Ltd’s Arts Council subsidy followed the company to the Victoria Theatre and the Scarborough company had few finances to speak of. The winter seasons in Scarborough were abandoned and the summer seasons drastically shortened from 1962; Stephen was also increasingly convinced the library was not a suitable home for the theatre and in 1963 he sent an ultimatum to the Libraries Committee requesting better support. Despite this, a new company was formed in 1964 to run the theatre called Scarborough Theatre Trust which continues to operate the Stephen Joseph Theatre today.

The theatre continued despite its limitations and in 1965 Alan Ayckbourn premiered his seventh play,
Meet My Father. Directed by Stephen Joseph, the play was quickly picked up by the producer Peter King. It would open two years later in London under the title Relatively Speaking and help establish Alan Ayckbourn as one of the 20th century’s most important playwrights. Ironically, Stephen declared that the 1965 summer season would be the venue's last due to a lack of support from Scarborough Town Council and the Libraries Committee.

The facilities at the Library Theatre had always been limited and Stephen never realistically believed Scarborough’s public library could be a permanent home for the company. As a result, Stephen was constantly looking for new venues for the theatre. By 1963, Stephen had become frustrated by the position of the company; unable to find a new home for it, limited by the Library facilities and feeling Scarborough Town Council was at times unsupportive of the theatre, Stephen delivered the first of several ultimatums for the theatre to be supported. By 1965, Stephen felt his pleas for support had fallen on deaf ears and he announced there would be no season in 1966 (indeed, judging by Stephen’s book
Theatre In The Round, it can be construed Stephen believed the Library Theatre was permanently finished). Scarborough Theatre Trust was retained but with the task of finding a new home for the company, even if it was likely to be outside Scarborough.

At this point Ken Boden stepped in and persuaded Stephen to let him stage an amateur in-the-round season in 1966, hoping to keep the popular venue going. It was a good decision as Scarborough Town Council finally agreed to provide more solid support for the theatre in 1967 and professional theatre was able to resume in 1967, although by then Stephen was too ill to play an active role in the theatre’s life. Stephen tragically died on 5 October 1967 at his Scarborough home, aged just 46, and for the next few years, the theatre was run on a day to day basis by Ken Boden with the aid of people who had been influenced by and worked with Stephen such as Alan Ayckbourn, Alfred Bradley and Rodney Wood. In 1972, Alan Ayckbourn became the Artistic Director of the company (a position he would hold until his retirement in 2009), ensuring Stephen Joseph’s legacy would be preserved. His first years were met by the enormous challenge of trying to ensure the theatre’s immediate survival.

In the wake of Stephen Joseph's death, the search for a new home became even more pronounced. Between 1967 and 1972, Scarborough Theatre Trust considered venues throughout the town to no avail and even faced competition from an effort to restore Scarborough’s
Opera House (further information about alternative considered venues for the theatre can be found here). Everything came to a head in 1974, when North Yorkshire County Council - now in charge of the county's Libraries - refused the company permission to extend its operation to 40 weeks a year. Feeling the Council was not supportive of the theatre, Alan made it clear he would take the company away from the town. With support from Scarborough Town Council, the issue was temporarily resolved but the Libraries Committee announced the company was only being given a 12 month reprieve and would need to find new premises by January 1976. According to Alan Ayckbourn, the Libraries Committee cited to him the Concert Room was -ironically - needed for “cultural purposes”; contemporary correspondence indicates the Libraries Committee's 'official' reason was the space was needed for "administrative purposes" - either way it amounted to the same thing. The Libraries Committee did not want the Library Theatre on its premises.

With its future uncertain, even the fact the theatre had the highest percentage attendance of any provincial theatre in England in 1975 was of little comfort. After numerous attempts to find a suitable new home, Scarborough Town Council made the surprise announcement in 1975 that a new theatre would be built opposite Scarborough Library for the company at a cost of £500,000. In the meantime, a temporary home at the former
Westwood County Modern School beneath Valley Bridge (better known as Westwood) was offered under the belief that the new theatre would be completed within three years. The move to Westwood took place at the end of the summer 1976, with the company knowing they had less than two months to convert a former school into a working theatre for the winter season.

The final performance at the Library Theatre took place on 11 September with Alan Ayckbourn's latest play
Just Between Ourselves. A truncated post-show party - Scarborough Magistrates having refused to extend the theatre's license to 1am for the evening - led immediately into work on dismantling the theatre in preparation for its move to Westwood.

The purpose-built venue never materialised. One temporary home of 21 years was swapped for a second temporary home of 20 years until the company moved to the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1996; a purpose-designed renovation of Scarborough's former Odeon cinema.

The Concert Room and Lecture Room

During its tenure at the Library Theatre, the company performed in two different rooms within Scarborough's public library. The vast majority of performances between 1955 and 1976 took place in the larger Concert Room at the venue, which is what had attracted Stephen to the site originally (and which he wrote extensively about in his book Theatre In The Round).

However, on certain occasions - particularly during the venue's winter seasons in 1974 and 1975 - the Concert Room was not available and a smaller, oblong shaped room in the library was utilised. This was called the Lecture Room and was also frequently used by the town's amateur companies for their productions. The space in the second room was even more limited than the concert room and all performances had to be done three-sided rather than in the round. Of note is the fact two of Alan Ayckbourn's plays received their world premieres in this space,
Confusions in 1974 and Just Between Ourselves in 1976.

Studio Theatre

It should be worth noting that contemporary newspaper reports and articles frequently referred to the Library Theatre as Stephen Joseph's Studio Theatre or just the Studio Theatre. This can cause confusion as it is not immediately obvious that the articles are referring to an organisation rather than a physical place. Studio Theatre was the name of Stephen Joseph's company and newspapers frequently referred to Studio Theatre rather than the name of the actual venue, the Library Theatre. As a result, Studio Theatre - in the context of Stephen Joseph - never refers to a physical location or specific venue, it is only the name of his company.

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