Articles: Happy Birthday! (1955)

This article was first published in the May 2015 edition of the SJT Circular.

On 14th July 2015, the Stephen Joseph Theatre celebrated its 60th anniversary. But what was it like to be there on that day six decades earlier?
The Library Theatre officially opened on Thursday 14 July 1955 with the first performance of a new play
Circle Of Love by Eleanor D Glaser. It was presented, obviously, in-the-round which was a huge novelty at that time. In-the-round was at this point an obscure form of staging in the UK and largely associated with experimental theatre.
Attendance at the first night was predominantly by invitation. The theatre’s founder Stephen Joseph invited a number of civic guests with the majority of the other seats being offered to members of Scarborough Theatre Guild; members of whom were also responsible for the front of house. The theatre held 240 seats at the time and tickets were priced at five shillings (25p).
Amongst the notable first night guests were the playwright Eleanor D Glaser and Stephen Joseph’s mother, the actress Hermione Gingold, who later compared Scarborough favourably to the Mediterranean!
Upon entering the Concert Room in Scarborough Library - the home of the Library Theatre for the next 20 years - the audience would have seen five rows of seats raised on basic wooden rostra surrounding the acting space. All the seats were unreserved as would be the case for much of the theatre’s first two decades
In each corner of the ‘stage’ was a pylon supporting two arc lights each - the sole extent of the lighting for performance. There were just two entrances for the actors, both from the same side of the room; one being the audience entrance and the other the door to the dressing rooms.
The play performed was advertised as “a romantic drama, with a great emotional theme. A university teacher gives up his own chances of happiness to help his son escape from an over-obsessing mother.” Prior to the play, the playwright was interviewed by the Scarborough Evening News, although the reporter seemed more interested in how a housewife could possibly write and still do her housework!
Not only was theatre-in-the-round a new experience for the audience but also for all of the six actors, none of whom had ever performed in-the-round previously. Within the front row was also a prompter for the actors, who was later removed from performances.
The play commenced at 8pm and was presented without an interval - although the programme noted there would be a break of two minutes between scenes to change the set.
After the show, the evening’s guests were invited to attend the opening of the ‘Theatre In The Round’ exhibition in the large lecture room, which Stephen had arranged with the support of the Arts Council Of Great Britain.
The newspaper coverage of the event was broadly favourable, although there was much comparison of the playing space to a boxing ring!
From these inauspicious beginnings, the theatre thrived and one wonders if anyone attending that night would realise what the theatre would achieve in the next 60 years?

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