Theatre In The Round In Scarborough: Myths

This section of the website features articles by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd concerning historical myths about the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

The Myth: A year after moving to its new home in a converted Odeon cinema, the Stephen Joseph Theatre was nearly closed when Scarborough Council was faced with a decision to fund either the SJT or 20 public toilets.

True or False: Mostly false. The SJT was under financial threat but the funding of the SJT and public toilets were entirely unrelated issues and did not affect each other.

The Explanation: In 1996, the Stephen Joseph Theatre was opened. This was £5.2m conversion of Scarborough's former Odeon building and the first purpose-built home for the company which Stephen Joseph had found at the Library Theatre in the town in 1955.

It was beset by funding difficulties almost from the start though as - a common issue of the period - whilst there was capital funding for arts projects, there was frequently not the financial support to run the projects once built. In the case of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the company moved into a venue more than twice the size of the its previous home, but its subsidy stayed at the same size as for the previous venue with no allowance made for the vast increase in expenditure needed to successfully run the new building.

At the end of its first year at the new venue, Artistic Director Alan Ayckbourn predicted the company would run a loss of £200,00 during the coming year and, subsequently, asked Scarborough Council to contribute an extra £50,000 subsidy in addition the £141,000 it already gave (and which had not been increased following the move from the smaller venue, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round). The £50,000 request was also part of a tripartite agreement with the National Lottery and North Yorkshire County Council which would cover the shortfall providing each of the three bodies contributed. If one dropped out, the entire funding was lost.

At the same time, Scarborough Council was discussing means of trying to save £566,000 in its annual budget and was considering cutting 20 public toilets which, coincidentally, amounted to approximately the same figure of £50,000. Despite these being entirely separate issues, they were conflated by the local media with the suggestion it was a choice between funding the SJT or having public toilets.

Added to this was a figurehead in Councillor Jane Kenyon, who became the public face of opposition to the theatre, who featured in newspapers and televisions, arguing against further subsidy for the theatre and issuing quotes such as the theatre was like a "train without brakes" and "It's time the theatre learned to stand on its own two feet."

When another councillor noted the subsidies were being "wasted on luvvies", it generated an unfortunate headline of 'Luvvies Vs Lavvies. It's unclear who first generated this phrase as although the Scarborough Evening News has claimed credit previously, it appears as though the phrase was first used in the BBC current affairs programme Newsnight - and that is certainly where it found the most traction. The issue generated massive national - even international - coverage, not casting Scarborough in the best light and generating ridicule, particularly after Artistic Director Alan Ayckbourn voiced his own opinions on the matter whilst noting just how much money the SJT generated from the town - quoting Scarborough Council's own figures.

The matter came to a head on 6 January 1997 when Scarborough Council voted by 35 to 9 (Councillor Kenyon being one of the nine voting against) that the theatre should be granted the extra £50,000. The Mayor of Scarborough, Mavis Don, noted "The luvvies vs lavvies debate has been demeaning" as well as pointedly noting that there was never any possibility of it being the theatre versus toilets as they were funded by entirely separate budgets.

So whilst both the theatre and the toilets faced a funding crisis, there was never a case that the choice of one remotely affected the other. In the end, both the theatre and the toilets were funded - although as Alan Ayckbourn noted, the SJT did have some lovely toilets anyway which the public were more than welcome to use!

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