Alan Ayckbourn on Stephen Joseph

The most significant influence on the playwright Alan Ayckbourn's life is undoubtedly his mentor Stephen Joseph, who encouraged him to both write and direct. Alan first met Stephen in 1957 when he joined Studio Theatre Ltd at the Library Theatre, Scarborough. The relationship between Stephen and Alan which grew from this shaped the course of Alan's life and his contribution to British theatre.
The following article about Stephen Joseph was written by Alan Ayckbourn as part of a 'local heroes' campaign for Scarborough.

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Perhaps the most enduring description I’ve ever given of Stephen was that he was half genius, half madman; so in commenting on him in light of being a local hero, it may seem fitting to expand on this contradiction.
Stephen would appear a shy man when you first met him, always staring at his blotter. But this didn’t stop him doing anything and everything in his power to keep a fledgling theatre company alive. He was often busy delivering coal to pay for the theatres rehearsal salaries.
Stephen was the consummate theatre creature, a pioneer who ran things wholly from within, where he knew you could work it best. At work, habitually dressed in paint-stained overalls, hammer in hand, he looked like some sort of socialist realist poster: a hero of Yorkshire theatre. Whilst on formal occasions, I can remember, in a dinner suit, he didn’t half frighten the mayor!
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His professional mentoring of others was never really for self-serving purposes; he simply believed that anybody could more or less do anything in theatre if they wanted to badly enough, and he had such an ability to teach and mentor that has stood many, myself included, in such good career stead.
Stephen was quite unique in his time in that he made friends with amateurs rather than snubbing them, and involved the local dramatic societies with the professional workings of the early theatre in the round company in various ways. Indeed, he was always urging that theatre be taken into the community, and this is something the theatre named in his memory still endeavours to achieve.
His passion for theatre in the round and new writing has made Scarborough synonymous with both, and that is truly the lasting legacy of this wonderful, mad, genius of a man.

An interview with Alan Ayckbourn about Stephen Joseph

During 1997 and 1998, Stacey Morley - a student at Arden School Of Theatre, Manchester, studying for her BA(hons) in Acting Studies - conducted two extensive interviews with Sir Alan Ayckbourn about his career, writing and background. Within these interviews, Alan Ayckbourn spoke at length about his relationship with Stephen Joseph and his thoughts on the person he considers to be his most influential mentor.
Edited extracts from these interviews focusing on Stephen Joseph are reproduced below. The full interviews between Stacey Morley and Alan Ayckbourn can also be found online at:
http://playwrites.net/playwrights/1999/f_june/AlanAyckbourn1.html.

Stacey Morley: Why did you take on responsibility of Artistic Director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1972?
Alan Ayckbourn:
My two careers - in fact, three careers at one point - developed independently of each other. I came here [to Scarborough] in 1957 as an actor / stage manager. At that stage I had no formal training, couldn't afford one and it was easier to get in through the back door - that was my admission [into theatre]…. When I first came in [to Scarborough], it was not like the other theatres I had worked in - they were conventional reps - this was extraordinary in that it was in-the-round and it was also extraordinary in that it was run by Stephen Joseph. He became a sort of mentor for me. I was just 18 and he was in his 30s; he was so dynamic. He found out that I used to write a bit at school and he was very keen on getting active members of the theatre to write - he believed the writer belonged inside the theatre rather than some guy who wrote a play in the Hebrides; which was quite common because unless you were Noël Coward, you really weren't inside the theatre framework. And Stephen said - quite rightly - from the days of Shakespeare, that a writer was an integral member of The Company. Shakespeare of course was an acting member of The Globe company. So Stephen encouraged me to write and then when he saw my acting abilities he started encouraging me to direct and the two developed. And when he died, very young, in 1967, I was like his second Director. In the few years I'd been there, I'd grown from being an ASM to being a director come stage manager, come leading actor....

Morley: I would like to ask what you see Stephen Joseph's legacy to be?
Ayckbourn:
Several things. He of course was enormously influential in introducing back into this country, if you like, theatre-in-the-round; but more than that he opened up the whole prospect of open staging. There were no 'professional' open stages around when I started in the 1950s, except for temporary ones. There was no Chichester, no Bolton, no Crucible - all of which which had direct influence from Stephen. This all came about, I think, because of Stephen and not just him but a small group of men who formed the ABTT (Association of British Theatre Technicians) which was the first time theatre practitioners had attempted to put together the legacy of theatre building….

Morley: Apart from the theatre building side, did he have a particular vision on the type of theatre that should be performed?
Ayckbourn:
He liked the 'Round'. He was not too fond of what he called the compromises between the round and the proscenium. He didn't like three sided stages very much and I know why, as I don't either! The reason being is that you can finish up with the worst of both worlds. I don't particularly like theatres such as Sheffield where the actors have terrible trouble focusing; they have a small amount of audience at the side so you tend to play to the front and the side audience always feels slightly cheated. The sight lines are all peculiar. Stephen, I think, felt that theatre should begin to address itself to people rather than the 'elite' stalls, the 'slightly elite' dress circle and the 'rather a commoner' upper circle. He was very keen to bring the audience as a whole back into the proximity of the theatre. He felt very strongly about theatre being in-the-round, but that was dictated not just by his passion for architecture, it was also his passion for re-establishing the basics of theatre: actors and audience. He had practically no time at all for directors and he had very little time for designers. Light and sound he liked as ingredients, because they were much more supportive of actors. In the end he had sort of three ingredients and I suppose he would have thrown one of those out if he thought it would help. He had a writer, he had his actors and he had his audience.

Morley: As far as the writing was concerned, was what he was giving the audience in terms of content important to him?
Ayckbourn:
Oh yes. His attitude towards writers was very old fashioned in the idea of bringing a writer into a building and having them working alongside as one of the team; he always stressed that [the writer] was one of the team. He did have time for the writer as part of the building, as part of the structure, a working member who was not someone whom the actors regarded as a sort of alien presence; and that had a direct influence on me. When I arrived he encouraged anyone who looked like he could hold a pen to write.

Morley: What Stephen Joseph taught you - has that influenced you a lot in your career or have you swayed from that teaching and gone your own way?
Ayckbourn:
The teaching is still very strongly there because I think the enigma he set me was to write for a company which was unashamedly an experimental company. A group of people who wanted to move back the barriers of theatre, to be working in new form and yet address a Scarborough audience; at that stage the most conservative audience who had come to see The Black & White Minstrel Show and Val Doonican in his prime and somehow we had to compete with that. You couldn't rely on weird, experimental stuff unless it had an incredible entertainment content. It was a very unfashionable thing to do…. Stephen was very much a popularist in that sense - he was moving very much into the realm of Joan Littlewood. He was closing with her fast with his desire for a 'Fish and Chip Theatre'; he had this idea for a huge long chip frying counter round the back of the theatre and you could sit or walk up like you might do in an American football game, pick up some chips and come back and watch the action. We actors rather resented the feeling that we were competing with six penny worth of chips, but I think he just wanted to get away from all this conformity.*
I think what he did - and what I've inherited from him - is the desire to keep the magic of theatre. I think there is something magic about people coming on and telling us a story and creating things from nothing….

Morley: In terms of writing, did Stephen Joseph state what he wanted you to write about?
Ayckbourn:
…he did suggest it [in the beginning] but in the end I think he saw me going my own way and he was quite content then to be an advisor and editor. He'd talk about writing - but was not a good writer of plays - but he knew more about play writing than anyone I'd ever met. He was like a teacher - he was a great, great teacher - and yet he was more than that in his vision and his concept of theatre which was very original. He wasn't a very good director, but he talked about directing very intelligently and he certainly wasn't a very good actor, but he talked about acting very intelligently. All these subjects he was greatly involved in and you could learn an enormous amount. He simplified play writing to the slightly unfashionable basics.

*Note by Simon Murgatroyd: Although Stephen Joseph is associated with the concept of 'fish and chip' theatre, it was no more than one of many different concepts he considered in making theatre attractive to the wider audiences. Although he advocated the idea, he apparently admitted to Alan Ayckbourn near the end of his life that the idea of 'fish and chip' theatre was not practical for all theatre experiences and would not have served either actor or audience well.

Copyright: Stacey Morley

Alan Ayckbourn on Stephen Joseph: Quotes

"Stephen Joseph started me writing. He was an enormous personality, very generous, and I would call him a great teacher. His quality lay in discovering talent in others - he had this ability to lead people into the right channels, like gently discouraging me as an actor and gently encouraging me as a writer. That was a very shrewd move.
"But he started the Scarborough Theatre Company in the first place as a theatre for new writers. At that time the theatre had very few writing talents, and he set up the company so that it was possible to get new plays put on at an incredibly economic price. Today the economics remain the same - we are in the same job, we carry on that tradition. We have four writers in the [Library Theatre] company.
"He was a man who enjoyed everything in the theatre from the sound effects to the front of house publicity. He was an awful actor and not a good playwright, though he knew a lot about what makes a good play. He was not a good director, though he could have been if he had put his mind to lt. His heart lay in working with young people.
"He was not a conventional man. He always wanted to get another job. He enjoyed the role of being a sort of irritant; he would destroy something that looked like getting a bit too stable. He was very anarchist. He believed that any creative theatre company should reach self-destructlon wlthin ten years.
"He would have blown up Stoke-on-Trent years ago. He was always breaking down to make something new. He would have looked with horror at us planning a permanent theatre in Scarborough. But at the same time someone has to do it'.
(Dartington Hall News, 1976)

"Stephen Joseph was a very big man - he had a very large character. Who else could take an unknown company with unknown plays in an unknown theatre form, to a place like Scarborough, and, eventually, make a go of it? Stephen was a great innovator, a great ideas man, and above all a great teacher. He certainly taught me all the rudiments of playwriting."
(The Stage, 1976)

"Stephen was a great anarchist - he once said to me that all theatres should self-destruct within seven years. I don't know whether he meant the building or the company - but he didn't think that artists had very much to say as a group after that time. He would have enjoyed our latest building [the Stephen Joseph Theatre], but he would also have been appalled by the scale of it. He always believed 'small is beautiful'. And he never stayed with things for very long. He'd probably be thinking: '50 years! What are you still doing there? Move on, move on'"
(Artscene, 2005)

"He was a very eccentric figure. He was also very charismatic - one night, on a civic reception when the Mayor was coming to the theatre, he turned up in a great big jumper and leather trousers - this was in the Fifties! Because of Stephen and because what was happening was so new, we gained this extraordinary reputation. People were saying that we were threatening the status quo - we were even labelled as communists. When you are young it is just what you want - to inspire the disrespect of the establishment. It was very much his company, he was like an absolute hurricane and without him there was a real fear that the theatre would die with him. He had no apparent heir, apart from me. When he was ill I used to sit with him and we would come up with models for the perfect theatre in the round…. For those who knew him, he was dynamic and an inspiration and really affected those around him. It is difficult to calculate his influence, but the fact that he did what he did led directly to the Sheffield Crucible being built the way it was right through to the stages of the National - I think that was all him. On a personal level he had an enormous influence on me. He had the complete, some would say lunatic, disregard in allowing me to write for him."
(Yorkshire Post, 2005)

“Stephen incorporated the writer within the fabric of the company. Shakespeare would not have been unfamiliar with that. But at that time writers were separate people who phoned their stuff in or posted it from the Orkney Islands. You rarely saw them. Stephen was a Renaissance man, very interested in practically everything. He knew more about the art of playwriting than anyone I've met. He knew more about the art of acting than anyone I've met and he knew more about directing. But he wasn't very good at any of them. He was an awful writer but he knew what should be written. He was easily bored but he knew how to delegate, thank goodness, or I would never have got started, and he knew how to inspire."
(The Stage, 2005)

"I met him [Stephen Joseph] at the best stage of my life, the impressionable stage. He was a genuine revolutionary believing in theatre in the round when the establishment pooh-poohed it. In Scarborough, they accused us of being 'communists'. Stephen stripped theatre to the basics. I liked him for his immediacy."
(The Observer, 2005)

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. All research for this page by Simon Murgatroyd.

Article, quotes and photographs copyright of Alan Ayckbourn; interview copyright of Stacey Morley. Please do not reproduce without permission. All research for this page by Simon Murgatroyd.