Stephen Joseph Theatre Significant Dates: March

A month-by-month guide to significant events and dates at the Stephen Joseph Theatre from 1955 to the present day.

1 March:
Ken Boden is regarded as part of the triumvirate of people who are critical to the early years of the Stephen Joseph Theatre and ensured its survival at a crucial point. When Stephen Joseph founded the company in 1955, Ken - a keen local amateur theatrical - was extensively involved and after Stephen closed the Library Theatre in 1965 (and following Stephen's death in 1967), Ken was essentially the driving force behind keeping the theatre going until Alan Ayckbourn stepped in as Artistic Director in 1972. Working as Theatre Manager for many years, Ken eventually retired on 1 March 1986, stepping down as Alan Ayckbourn embarked on his two year sabbatical at the National Theatre. The Boden Room at the current Stephen Joseph Theatre is named after Ken and his wife Margaret, who was also actively involved with the theatre for many years. You can find out more about Ken Boden and his work at the Library Theatre with Scarborough Theatre Guild here.

2 March: In 1984, BBC television recorded a production at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round for the first time (although the BBC had previously recorded at the theatre - including a specially written short play by Alan Ayckbourn - this was the first time an actual SJT production had been recorded for television). The production was Alan Ayckbourn and Paul Todd's revue The 7 Deadly Virtues and followed a successful studio recording of their revue Men On Women On Men in 1979. The production was recorded at the venue in January with the original company of Lavinia Bertram, Michael Cashman, Russell Dixon, Graeme Eton, Lesley Nicol, Kenneth Price and Liza Sadovy. Due to its half-hour time-slot only four of the seven virtues were recorded for in the programme though! The production was then broadcast on BBC North under the title Deadly Virtues on 2 March 1984. Sadly it has never been repeated nor ever released commercially.

3 March: In 1958, the Library Theatre generated controversy when it became the first regional theatre to stop playing the National Anthem at every performance. This led to a heated and fractious debate over the following year in which a vocal minority made their feelings about the lack of the anthem known (we know it was a minority as the response to a referendum on the issue at the theatre during summer 1958 generated such a negligible response, it was essentially forgotten). One of the most notable moments in the campaign for the anthem's restoration came on 3 March 1958 when the Scarborough Evening News reported that the Mayor of Scarborough had said: "I have received many letters asking me if I could persuade them to play the National Anthem. It just seems ridiculous to me, considering that 75-90 per cent of the population of Scarborough want it." (which brings to mind comedian Vic Reeves saying that "88.2% of statistics are made up on the spot..."). Rather adroitly the newspaper noted it had only received two letters of support for the issue and presumably all the rest had gone to the town hall! Needless to say 90% of the town did not storm the Library Theatre's doors demanding the return of the Anthem and it was never restored.

4 March: On this day in 1955, Stephen Joseph held his first meeting with the Arts Council regarding the possible formation of a professional in-the-round company at Scarborough's Public Library. Stephen had already been in correspondence with the chief librarian William Smettem since 17 February. In subsequent correspondence with Mr Smettem, Stephen noted the Arts Council had been broadly supportive of the proposal and made him aware that funding might be available for his promotion of new writing.

5 March: In 2002, the Stephen Joseph Theatre produced the world premiere of Tim Firth's play The Safari Party to great success. The following year the production was revived with the original SJT company as the opening production of the newly renovated Hampstead Theatre in London on 5 March. Directed by Alan Ayckbourn, both productions starred Amanda Abbington, John Branwell, Daniel Casey, Daniel Crowder, Christine Moore and Helen Ryan. It also marked the final time - as of writing - that Alan Ayckbourn has directed the work of an author other than himself. After The Safari Party, he made a decision to concentrate solely on his own work.

6 March: In a story that the blog will cover in more prominence later in the year, the first indications of a rivalry between two theatre projects in the town began to surface. By 1973, Scarborough Theatre Trust was actively raising money for a new home for the company as its future at the Library Theatre was becoming increasingly tenuous. At the same time, the Opera House Preservation Society was launched in the town with the aim of raising £30,000 to buy the lease for the town's Opera House Theatre. During the following year, 1974, the projects came to a head and generated national media attention in an acrimonious argument. The first indications of which can be found when - on 6 March 1973 - the board of Scarborough Theatre Trust noted in unusually strong language that the Opera House Preservation Society should be regarded as 'opposition' to the theatre and both projects would likely be pursuing similar avenues of fund-raising.

7 March: A notable transfer took place on 7 March 1995 when the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round's highly acclaimed production of Herb Gardner's Conversations With My Father transferred to the Old Vic in London. The production opened in Scarborough in October 1994, directed by Alan Ayckbourn, and was a huge hit. Notably the first row of the auditorium was removed and replaced with bar booths; anyone sat in the 'front' row really was part of the action! The play then transferred in 1995 to the Old Vic, moving from in-the-round to end-stage performance. Judd Hirsch was notably acclaimed for his role of Eddie - he had already won a Tony for the role in the 1992 Broadway production of the play - and the rest of the cast comprised (for both productions) of Bill Bailey, Jane Bertish, Michael Blakeney, Michael Cadman, John Hasler, Colin Higgins, John Guerrasio, Adam Levy, Trevor Martin, Michael Mears and James D White.

9 March: The Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round launched it first official Amateur Season in 1987. Whilst the theatre had played host to amateur companies previously, this was a new initiative by the press officer Russ Allen to group all the amateur performances into one unified period rather than having them piecemeal throughout the year. Unfortunately, Allen had caused a great deal of friction the previous year with many of the town's amateur companies with proposals to increase charges for the theatre and not consulting them on the best time to hold the season. As a result, most of the Scarborough companies which had performed at the venue in the past boycotted the new season.

10 March: Between 1967 and 1976, there was a concerted effort to find a new home for the Library Theatre company which eventually resulted in the move to the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round at the former Westwood County Modern School. Prior to that, several locations were considered as a home to the theatre with the favourite being St Thomas Church, in Scarborough's old town near the Foreshore. Plans and costings were drawn up for the conversion and on 10 March 1975, Scarborough Theatre Trust was granted permission for a change of use for the building from church to theatre. The plans to convert the church were well advanced when a surprise decision by Scarborough Council to support a purpose-built venue led to them being abandoned; ironically the new theatre venue was never built.

11 March: The playwright John Godber has long had an association with the Stephen Joseph Theatre - and often spoken of his fondness for Scarborough. In 2004, the second of his plays to receive their premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre was unveiled with Fly Me To The Moon. This was unusual though as an alternative version of the play had been presented by amateur companies in 2003. The play was commissioned by Amateur Stage magazine as part of its Full House project and from 1 September 2003 for a limited period was available exclusively to amateurs. John then revised the script - most notably reducing the number of characters - and directed its professional premiere at the SJT.

12 March: Another significant day in the history of theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough as it marked the first time Stephen Joseph can be definitely said to have visited the Concert Room at Scarborough Library, where he would open the Library Theatre in July of the same year. Although there is some debate about when Stephen first visited Scarborough - and whether he even saw the Concert Room on that visit - due to differing recollections, it is known that he visited Scarborough and met the Chief Librarian William Smettem on 12 March 1955. In a letter dated 1 March, Stephen confirmed his booking of the venue for the summer season and made arrangements to visit the town on 12 March to meet Mr Smettem and discuss arrangements for the theatre. In his book Theatre In The Round, Stephen says he had "a friendly and helpful talk with W.H. Smettem, the librarian" and the Concert Room was "on the whole, a very good place in which to make experimental first steps."

14 March: On 14 March 1984, one of the Stephen Joseph Theatre's most passionate advocates died. Tom Laughton - brother of the actor Charles and noted Scarborian - had been associated with the Library Theatre since he joined the Scarborough Theatre Trust board in 1967 (although, intriguingly, Stephen Joseph wondered in early correspondence from 1955 whether it might be possible to meet Tom to gauge if he would be interested in supporting the theatre). Tom would go on to become Chairman of the Trust and would hold that role until just a couple of months before his death. He played an instrumental part in the prolonged campaign to find a new home for the Library Theatre before its move in 1976 and was highly committed to the theatre. Following his death, Alan Ayckbourn dedicated his new play, A Chorus Of Disapproval, to Tom.

16 March: Although it is difficult to pin down an exact date for the launch of The Friends of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round organisation, minutes of Scarborough Theatre Trust meetings point towards it being officially launched in March 1977. The Friends was a supporters' organisation whose first fund-raising efforts led to the purchase of a new van for the company. The Friends organisation was closed in 2007 and brought into the company itself, later renamed as the SJT Circle.

17 March: In 1958, Stephen Joseph's company Studio Theatre Ltd launched its first ever tour, although it was considerably different to the tours which would follow. Still actively looking for ways to promote theatre-in-the-round, particularly in the hope of finding a London base, Stephen arranged a tour of Racine's Phèdre. It was a production specifically tailored to the tour and had not originated at the Library Theatre in Scarborough and - to help generate interest - it featured a star name with Margaret Rawlings in the lead role. The tour began in London before visiting Leicester and Birmingham culminating with a week at the Library Theatre in Scarborough. Although well-received, it did not noticeably further the cause of theatre-in-the-round. From the winter of 1958, regular tours would begin with productions from the Library Theatre, Scarborough.

19 March: The acclaimed Lindsay String Quartet began a long association with the Stephen Joseph Theatre with a fund raising concert on 19 March 1995. The concert was in aid of the New Theatre Appeal to convert Scarborough's former Odeon into the new Stephen Joseph Theatre. The concert took place at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round and the Lindsays were regular visitors until the group disbanded in 2005. Since then, members of the group have performed in several different permutations at the theatre including at Alan Ayckbourn's 75th birthday celebration in 2014.

21 March: In 1971, the Library Theatre had its first - and so far only - female Director Of Productions / Artistic Director in Caroline Smith. After Stephen Joseph closed the Library Theatre in 1965 and following its re-opening in 1967, the theatre annually appointed its Director Of Productions (essentially the Artistic Director) each year until Alan Ayckbourn was appointed to the role on a long-term basis in 1972. On 21 March 1971, Caroline was introduced to the board of Scarborough Theatre Trust for the first time and set down some of her plans for the summer season. The venue would produce five plays of which four were chosen and directed by Caroline with Alan Ayckbourn writing and directing the fifth which was the world premiere of Time & Time Again.

22 March: In a clear illustration of the early obstacles faced by the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the theatre faced severe financial difficulties less than a year after opening in April 1996. On 22 March 1997, Alan Ayckbourn reported to Scarborough Theatre Trust that the venue would close at the end of the summer with the loss of 80 jobs if funding was not restored following the cut of an £80,000 grant by North Yorkshire County Council. Further funding was later allocated to the venue, allowing it to stay open, but it did not match what had been originally cut.

27 March: On 27 March 1965, Scarborough Theatre Trust agreed to ask Alan Ayckbourn to join the board. The Trust was still young having only been founded the previous year to run the Library Theatre, Scarborough, after the original company - Studio Theatre Ltd - transferred to Stoke-on-Trent to run the Victoria Theatre in 1962. Although Alan had worked with the Library Theatre since 1959 as stage manager, actor, playwright and director, he had left Scarborough in 1962 and by 1965 was working as a Radio Drama Producer for the BBC in Leeds following the terrible reception to his first West End transfer Mr Whatnot in 1964. Alan agreed to join the board shortly afterwards.

28 March: Although not strictly speaking a piece of Stephen Joseph Theatre history, it is worth noting that on 28 March 1936, Scarborough's Odeon cinema opened for the first time. The state of the art building was opened by Sir Kenelm Cayley with a special guest appearance by the actor Charles Laughton, who was in town visiting his brother Tom Laughton. The cinema opened with the film The Ghost Goes West. The former Odeon is, of course, the current home of the Stephen Joseph Theatre which moved there in 1996 following a £5.2m conversion of the building after the Rank organisation closed it as a cinema in 1988.

29 March: The first major success which originated from the Library Theatre, Scarborough, was Alan Ayckbourn's play Meet My Father. His seventh play had opened at the Library Theatre in 1965 and was a huge success for the venue and about to go on to even more spectacular heights. Although not with that title. On 29 March 1967 at the Duke Of York's Theatre, the play - retitled as Relatively Speaking - opened starring Richard Briers, Celia Johnson, Michael Hordern and Jennifer Hilary. It was a huge success and propelled Alan to overnight fame. The play opened six months prior to the death of Stephen Joseph, who was at least able to see the start of his protege's phenomenal success over the decades to come.

30 March: In the list of playwrights to have been performed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, it is interesting to note who has - and has not - been represented. Since 1955, there has only been one production of a play by the renowned UK playwright David Hare, whose play Skylight closed on 30 March after just a four night run.

31 March: In 2009, a key moment in the Stephen Joseph Theatre's 60 year history took place. After 37 years as Artistic Director of the company, Alan Ayckbourn stepped down. Alan was appointed Artistic Director in 1972 at the Library Theatre - having first joined the company in 1957 - as Stephen Joseph's successor following Stephen's death in 1967. Alan guided the company to two new homes - the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round and the company's first purpose-built home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre; the latter he counts amongst one of the achievements in his life he is most proud of. He also cemented the theatre's national and international reputation with the venue becoming famous for its commitment to new writing and new playwrights - Alan ensuring Stephen Joseph's legacy continued to be the keystone of the company. Following Alan's stroke in 2006, he announced in 2007 he would step down on 31 March 2009.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. All views expressed on this page are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Stephen Joseph Theatre.