Articles: Stephen Joseph, Alan Ayckbourn & Scarborough (1955 / 1957)

This article (a combination of two articles) was first published on 16 July 2014 on the Alan Ayckbourn Blog.

One of the questions frequently asked of the website is, why Scarborough? What were the links between Stephen Joseph and Alan Ayckbourn with the town leading them to become such an essential part of the cultural fabric of it?
The answer is, surprisingly, luck and chance. Which given both elements have played significant parts in several Ayckbourn plays, seems very appropriate.

Neither Stephen Joseph nor Alan Ayckbourn had any pre-existing links or connections with Scarborough. It is actually just a fortunate set of circumstances which brought both men independently to the town creating life-long bonds.

With regard to the British theatre pioneer Stephen Joseph, he arrived in Scarborough almost as a last resort as he struggled to find a home for what would become the UK's first professional theatre-in-the-round company during the 1950s; in context, the vast majority of theatres in England at this point were proscenium arch - theatre-in-the-round was a rarity outside of experimental theatre groups in this country.

Stephen Joseph had been searching for a home for theatre-in-the-round, preferably in London, for a number of months having seen a number of theatre-in-the-round venues in the USA. Unable to find or afford suitable premises in the capital, his attentions led elsewhere as he explained 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.”

But the Library Theatre at Scarborough's Public Library was never intended to be a permanent home for the company. Stephen later noted: "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 Council or, several years later, a perceived lack of support in finding a permanent new home for the company.

So the town which has the longest continual association with theatre-in-the-round in the UK was an accidental choice and certainly never intended to be a permanent home for Stephen Joseph's theatrical experiment.

When the Library Theatre 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 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; what is now the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme is considered the UK's first permanent professional theatre-in-the-round venue.

Stephen was a practical man and, although he liked the town, he had no long-term loyalty to Scarborough. Indeed, as chronicled in his book
Theatre In The Round, in 1965 he decided to close the venue due to a perceived lack of support from the town council. That the theatre survived and flourished was due to the support and commitment from the town itself with an amateur theatrical, Ken Boden, arranging for the theatre to continue and relaunch itself as a professional venue in 1967, the year Stephen Joseph died.

This is the moment the Library Theatre - later the Stephen Joseph Theatre - really became a permanent fixture in Scarborough, further cemented in 1972, when Stephen's protege Alan Ayckbourn committed himself to the theatre and the town by becoming the Artistic Director of the venue for the next 37 years.

As to what Alan's connection with Scarborough was... Like Stephen Joseph before him, there were no existing ties to Scarborough before he first visited the town in 1957.

Born in Hampstead in 1939, Alan Ayckbourn had left school in 1955 to work as an actor. Following a brief stint with Sir Donald Wolfit's company at the Edinburgh Festival, Alan found himself working at the Connaught Theatre, Worthing, followed by the Thorndike Theatre in Leatherhead. There Alan worked as an Acting Stage Manager (a stage manager with occasional acting roles) and met the stage manager Rodney Wood - who would later play an important part in the survival of the Stephen Joseph Theatre (then the Library Theatre) following Stephen Joseph's death in 1967.

At the end of the Leatherhead season, Rodney asked Alan if he'd like to come with him to join the stage management team at the Library Theatre in Scarborough. Alan had never heard of the company, but intrigued by mention of theatre-in-the-round, he agreed to accompany Rodney to see the company perform a production of Sartre's
Huis Clos at the Mahatma Ghandhi Assembly Hall in Fitzroy Square, London. Alan saw the production on either 3 February or 14 April 1957 (he does not remember which, but the company only performed the play twice in London) and it had the most profound effect on the 18 year old.

"[It] sticks out still in my mind as one of the most exciting things I'd ever seen in the theatre.... It was an absolute knockout. It was a pretty racy play, for its time, you know. And I thought, 'This is terrific.' I also liked it because it had no scenery and that meant less work."

Alan agreed to join the company and spent two weeks in London rehearsing for the summer season with Clive Goodwin directing three plays and Rodney directing another; Stephen Joseph did not actually play much part in the 1957 season and Alan would not meet him for many weeks. Alan was predominantly a stage manager, but also had small acting roles in two productions in Priestley's
An Inspector Calls and Catherine Prynne's The Ornamental Hermit.

After two weeks, the company moved up to Scarborough with Alan having no idea where it was other than the vague direction of turn right at York - leading to his first experience of the town he was to become most associated with.

"I remember I got off the train packed with holidaymakers and this bracing air and smell of chips. I said, 'Wow!' Because I was an inland child living in north Sussex, one of the great treats as a child was a trip to the seaside - so, dear reader, I bought the sweet shop. I came to the seaside and stayed. I thought, 'This can't get better'.”

Alan worked the summer season at Scarborough before taking a job at the Oxford Playhouse for the 1957 / 58 winter season. Although he enjoyed his time there and was offered the chance to stay, Stephen Joseph had contacted him about returning to Scarborough for the summer 1958 season - with the opportunity of more acting.

The rest is history, Alan returned to Scarborough in 1958 and that winter was commissioned to write his first professional play,
The Square Cat, which premiered at the Library Theatre on 30 July 1959. Two years laters with Stephen's encouragement, he made his professional directing debut with a production of Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight.

Alan has been wedded to Scarborough ever since he arrived in 1957 and considers it to have been his adopted home ever since. During this time, he has premiered all but four of his plays there, directed more than 200 productions in Scarborough and between 1972 and 2009 was the Artistic Director of what is now the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

All this stemmed from a fortuitous job offer and an early glimpse of the company that was to change his life forever.

"The first question everybody asks me is 'what am I doing here?' My answer is always the same - it was a happy accident that I came here and I am happy I chose to stay. I have stayed here longer than most Scarborians, since 1957!"

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