Closing The Library TheatreIn 1965, the future of the Library Theatre in Scarborough effectively drew to a close. Unable to secure consistent or long-term support for the venue from either Scarborough Town Council or the Library Committee, Stephen Joseph announced the Library Theatre was to close after the 1965 season, 11 years after it had opened in 1955.
It was not an idle threat nor a surprise. As early as 1963, Stephen Joseph had written a comprehensive and forthright document stating that the future of the Library Theatre would be in jeopardy if the Library did not upgrade the facilities or offer better support. It was a source of some discontentment and disappointment to Stephen that these issues were neither acknowledged nor properly addressed.
By the start of the 1965 season, Stephen was aware that not only was there no support in improving the Library Theatre but that he had also successfully launched the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent in 1962, to where the original Scarborough company - Studio Theatre Ltd - had moved. In his book, Theatre In The Round, Stephen suggests he believes if theatre-in-the-round had any future, it was probably from the Victoria Theatre rather than Scarborough.
As a result, the UK's first professional theatre-in-the-round company gave its notice on the Library Theatre and on 9 July Stephen Joseph announced to the Scarborough Theatre Trust board (see Board Announcement) that the theatre would not be performing at the Library Theatre in 1966 and that unless alternative premises were found, the company would not perform again in Scarborough.
As far as Stephen Joseph was concerned, the Scarborough project had ended. In his seminal book Theatre In The Round, published in 1966, he discussed the decision to close the Library Theatre and the reasons leading to it.
"The new company in Scarborough immediately tried to put the summer seasons on a firmer footing, by negotiating a regular booking at the Library, by making improvements to the theatre and its facilities, and by seeking co-operation with the local authority in the shape of a regular financial grant, of help with publicity, ticket sales and drawing attention to the existence and place of the theatre. The corporation were prepared to give a grant, but only on an annual basis, without any undertaking to repeat it; and they blew hot and cold on each and every other proposal. The odd thing about Scarborough is that the corporation runs its own theatres and puts on its own entertainments, and they have never decided if we are a rival company that should be driven out of town, or a good addition to the wide range of attractions that a seaside town wants to boast of Somewhere between these two extremes is the position from which no action is taken. And, after another two seasons, it became clear that a place that was admirable for the first steps, had been outgrown entirely; and just as there is discomfort in wearing clothes that are too small, and embarrassment in wearing fashions that have just gone out, so the company felt increasingly uncomfortable and unhappy at the Library. We wanted to develop in every way, and, if this was not possible, the sensible alternative seemed to be to abandon Scarborough altogether."
Stephen publicly announced his intentions in the 27 August 1965 edition of the Scarborough Evening News, criticising the lack of support for the Library Theatre.
"In 1955, as a pioneer company of in-the-round plays, we had out first summer season in Scarborough Public Library's Concert Room. This theatre is now totally inadequate for our company's needs. It has no storage space, no proper dressing rooms, no kitchen for making refreshments and washing up crockery etc. For several years, we have repeatedly asked for help from Scarborough Council, but they have done nothing to improve facilities at the Library Theatre. And, they have been unable to provide us with wither a purpose-built in-the-round theatre or suitable premises for conversion to such a theatre. Therefore, it seems we have no choice but to find our own theatre, even if it means - as it most probably will - that we must move from Scarborough at the end of this season."
The news that the Library Theatre was to close at the end of the 1965 season was also reported by The Stage newspaper on 2 September 1965.
"It seems probable that this year's 11th season by Stephen Joseph's 'in the round' company at the Library, Scarborough, will be the last. Frustrated by lack of facilities at the Corporation owned Library and the improbability of improvement, Mr Joseph has decided to give up production there."
In November, Stephen Joseph published a lengthy document in which the reasons for the closure of the Library Theatre were made clear and what, if any, future was open to the Scarborough Theatre Trust. Unsurprisingly, any potential future for theatre-in-the-round and the company were not perceived to involve Scarborough (see Reasons For Closure). This decision was confirmed to the theatre's board on 17 December when it was made clear there would not only be no professional season in Scarborough in 1966, but the board would now only be concerned with finding a new home for the company.
Relaunching The Library TheatreExcept, of course, the Stephen Joseph Theatre is still operating today - the theatre which grew out of the Library Theatre and which bears its founder's name continues to thrive in the town. So what happened?
The Library Theatre did close in 1965 and Stephen Joseph did not play any further significant role at the Library Theatre. There was no professional season in 1966 and Scarborough Town Council withdrew funding for the company in 1965; this alone ensured there was no practical way a professional season could be staged at the Library in 1966.
But an amateur one?
Ken Boden, who had been managing the running of the theatre practically since it opened, decided the Library Theatre was too important not to save and immediately began plans to revive it. In late 1965, he approached Stephen Joseph about running an amateur summer season in 1966 under the auspices of the Library Theatre. Stephen reluctantly agreed and Ken was able to arrange an eight week season involving four local companies in repertory which would culminate in the annual In The Round festival. Stephen himself played no part of it and - initially at least - appeared to have no idea of Ken's long term ambitions.
As Stephen had pointed out, if the Library Theatre were to close for a year, it seemed unlikely it would ever be revived. By staging an amateur season in 1966, this gave Ken Boden time to work on a plan to revive professional theatre at the Library.
A key piece of correspondence held at Scarborough Library shows that by May 1966, Ken Boden had been making serious in-roads into re-establishing the Library Theatre professionally in 1967. The initial plan was to form a new theatre company to present professional plays, but administered by the British Drama League; in essence an amateur company presenting professional plays. To this end, he had brought on board Rodney Wood - who had worked closely with Stephen Joseph - and also contacted the Arts Council Of Great Britain to ascertain its support and any potential difficulties.
With the support of the Scarborough branch of the British Drama League and Rodney Wood, Ken Boden took his plans to Stephen Joseph who offered to hand over Scarborough Theatre Trust to a new board. This was agreed - on the understanding that any debt held by the Trust would not be transferred with it - and work began on transferring the Trust to new ownership.
The amateur season, meanwhile, ran from 7 July to 10 September 1966 whilst work continued on securing a professional season for 1967. Scarborough Town Council agreed to resume its previous grant to the theatre as well as offering to cover any losses in the season and the Library Committee agreed to support the plan for a summer season during 1967. In October 1966, Stephen Joseph stepped down as Chairman of Scarborough Theatre Trust and Rodney Wood was appointed Director Of Productions and responsible for artistic decisions for the 1967 season. He programmed two world premieres by Alan Plater and Alan Ayckbourn alongside plays by J.B. Priestley and Anouilh. Although Stephen Joseph supported the endeavour, he played no active role in the season, although by this point he was confined to his bed by illness having been diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1966.
It was a tentative start and for the next several years, the Library Theatre was confined to short summer seasons as it began rebuilding; whilst also dealing with precisely the same issues which Stephen had raised in previous years. However, in 1972 a large step was taken to secure its long term future when Alan Ayckbourn - by now a highly successful and recognised playwright - was appointed the Library Theatre's Artistic Director.
Under Alan, not only was Stephen's legacy ensured - a commitment both to theatre-in-the-round but also supporting new writing - but the search for a new home began in earnest, resulting in a move to the former Westwood County Modern School in 1976 and then, finally, a permanent home at Scarborough's former Odeon cinema in 1996.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without the permission of the copyright holder.