Stephen Joseph Theatre Significant Dates: September

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

1 September:
As fans of Alan Ayckbourn may be aware, until the late 1980s he wrote his plays to the latest possible deadline - generally as close to the start of rehearsals as possible. Normally this wasn't an issue, but in 1980 the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round had announced Alan Ayckbourn's new play, the comedy thriller Sight Unseen, which was due to begin rehearsals in the first week of September. Except on Monday 1 September, Alan notified the theatre Sight Unseen was not coming together and that he was going to write a completely different play called Season's Greetings! Rehearsals were pushed back to 4 September, by which time Alan had written the new play and copies obviously made at some pace. Astonishingly the only effect this had on the production was the opening day was pushed back a single day and despite the last minute rewrite, Season's Greetings is regarded as a classic Ayckbourn play.

2 September: There can be fewer surrealistic thoughts than Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party being performed at Scarborough's former Futurist Theatre amongst acts such as the comedian Frankie Howerd, Mollie Sudden (for those with long memories, best known as Mrs Slocombe in the BBC comedy Are You Being Served?), Bill Maynard and Martin Granger’s Puppets amongst others. This happened on 2 September 1959 when a charity night in aid of World Refugee Year was held. Variety acts from many of Scarborough’s theatres such as the Arcadia, the Open-Air Theatre, the Opera House, the Floral Hall, the Futurist and the Spa Theatre were all involved. The Library Theatre also contributed with Alan Ayckbourn, David Campton and Dona Martyn performing the opening scene from Pinter’s play, which Pinter himself had directed with the Scarborough company earlier in the year. Quite what the audience made of it all is unrecorded!

4 September: A notable first in the SJT's history took place on 4 September 1980 when Alan Ayckbourn's Taking Steps became the first production since the company was formed in 1955 to run for 100 performances. The play premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round on 27 September 1979 and its popularity led to it being revived the following summer during which it reached its 100 performance, which was marked by a cake and celebration. The only other play to have reached 100 performances within the venue was Alan Ayckbourn's Things We Do For Love; several shows have also passed the 100 performance mark but as a result of going out on tour following the initial run in Scarborough.

5 September: The world premiere in 2017 of Alan Ayckbourn's 81st play, A Brief History of Women. This also marked the first full-length play by the playwright commissioned by the SJT's Artistic Director Paul Robinson, affirming his commitment to Alan Ayckbourn's legacy and place within the company; the following year saw the announcement that the theatre's Executive Director Steve Freeman was to leave the SJT for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester after two years in Scarborough..

6 September: Between 1967 and 1976, there was a concerted effort to find a permanent new home for the Library Theatre. One of the most interesting was a suggestion to build a striking two-storey in-the-round theatre venue on Scarborough's Esplanade overlooking the South Bay and Scarborough Spa. On 6 September 1973, the architect George Alderson was given permission to draw up plans for a purpose-built 400-seat theatre-in-the-round to be built on land available on The Esplanade at an estimated cost at £150,000.

7 September: In 2001, Alan Ayckbourn debuted his acclaimed trilogy Damsels In Distress at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. The trilogy re-introduced a repertory company into the venue with seven actors appearing in three plays; the plays being unconnected aside from sharing themes and the same set of a Docklands flat. The success of the trilogy saw it transfer to the West End with the entire original Scarborough company, marking the first time a SJT production had transferred directly from Scarborough straight into the West End (the 1984 West End production of Intimate Exchanges featured the original Scarborough company but initially went into Greenwich Theatre before transferring to The Ambassador's Theatre in the West End later). The trilogy opened at the Duchess Theatre on 7 September 2002 and what should have been a cause for celebration became a notorious event when, without Alan Ayckbourn's knowledge, the producers later dropped all but one of the plays. The resulting fall-out led Alan to declare he would never transfer his new work into London and led to a several year moratoirum on his plays being produced in the West End.

8 September: Alan Ayckbourn is known for constantly pushing the boundaries of theatre structure and coming up with inventive new ways of telling his stories. His play Roundelay - which opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on 8 September 2014 - is a good example of this. It is a piece consisting of five interlinked one act plays, the order of which was determined randomly each night. This meant there were a possible 120 combinations of the play, each version offering a different perspective of the play's events depending on the order in which the plays were seen. The order of the plays was decided each evening half an hour before the show when members of the audience were invited to draw coloured balls in the SJT bar.

9 September: The inaugural season of the Library Theatre in Scarborough closed on 9 September 1955. The first season had seen four new plays by four new writers and, despite a shaky start, the company's founder Stephen Joseph judged it a qualified success; the qualification being a loss. The company lost approximately £613 during its first season, much of it due to the cost of converting the Library's Concert Room into a suitable in-the-round venue. The loss, however, was actually less than Stephen had anticipated, as he had prepared his budget for the season based on half-full houses. He was also optimistic and, if nothing else, knew the theatre had lived up to its principals and aims: it had introduced new plays in a new performance format to new audiences and had been generally financially viable. This was enough for Stephen to declare there was a future for The Library Theatre and in his book, Theatre In The Round, he wrote: “To begin with our audiences were thin. Our money soon began to run out. We were saved by the first rainy day of the season when the theatre filled to capacity. At the end of the season we had not lost all our capital, and the directors decided to keep the company going for another season. Economics are important. But we also had our enthusiasm roused.”

10 September: In 1997, a Scarborough student saw his first play come to the stage at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Steve Carley - later the projectionist for the SJT - was a student who as part of his course wrote a short play, The Edge, which was evaluated by the Literary Manager at the SJT, Connal Orton. So impressed was Connal by Steve's effort, that it was passed onto the Artistic Director Alan Ayckbourn and it was staged in the McCarthy Theatre opening on 10 September 1997. Steve would also wrote the play Contacting Laura, which was also staged at the SJT the following year.

11 September: What could be considered the first phase of the Stephen Joseph Theatre's history came to a close on 11 September 1976 when the final performance was held at the Library Theatre in Scarborough. The play was Alan Ayckbourn's Just Between Ourselves and it ended 21 years at the venue which had opened on 14 July 1955. The company then moved to its new home, Theatre In The Round At Westwood (later renamed the Stephen Joseph Theatre) which opened on 26 October 1976.

12 September: The following day work began on covering the former Westwood County Modern School into a theatre venue. Work began immediately as there was just 60 days to complete the conversion staring on 12 September 1976. Still believing this would only be a temporary home for the company, it was decided to keep costs as low as possible and the conversion was budgeted at just £35,000.

13 September: The world premiere of Alan Ayckbourn's Neighbourhood Watch took place on 13 September 2011 and the play subsequently became the first production from the Stephen Joseph Theatre to be performed in Scarborough, New York and London with the original company. The play was first produced at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in September 2011 before transferring to the 59E59 Theaters, New York, for a month as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival. The production then had a short UK tour in 2012 which culminated in a month-long run at the Tricycle Theatre in London.

14 September: One of Stephen Joseph's central tenants when founding the Library Theatre in 1955 was creating a close collaboration between the professional company and the amateur dramatic community. Stephen fervently believed the two could work together and, indeed, for many years many of the people who voluntarily worked front of house at the Library Theatre were drawn from the amateur community. Stephen also founded the UK's first in-the-round amateur drama festival at the Library Theatre, which opened on 14 September 1961 and attracted companies not only from the UK but also from Europe and the USA. During the early years, Stephen himself was the adjudicator (and often quite a harsh one!). The festival initially ran from 1961 to 1968 before Alan Ayckbourn revived it at the company's second home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, between 1978 and 1990.

15 September: The Library Theatre launched its first tour on 15 September 1958 (the date is not 100% certain but seems the most likely candidate). This was the first time the Scarborough company toured out of the Library Theatre and would visit Hemel Hempstead, Leicester and Harlow. Somewhat bizarrely, the company performed in three venues in Leicester due to scheduling issues! The company - which included Alan Ayckbourn - performed four plays which had all been performed at the Library Theatre during the summer season which had directly preceded the tour.

16 September: The Stephen Joseph Theatre has rarely indulged in 'star' casting having always worked on the principle of ensemble companies from the day it was created. However, there have been occasions when higher profile actors have joined the company (Michael Gambon in 1990 and Oliver Ford Davies in 1999, for example). A notable example of 'star' casting also illustrates how the SJT has tended to turn to it only when appropriate with the world premiere of Sarah Woods' Soap in 2004. The play revolves around characters in two fictional television soap operas who find themselves crossing into each other's worlds. The production starred Hannah Waterman - who had been a regular on EastEnders - and Ben Hull - a regular on Brookside - as well as the popular television astrologist Russell Grant.

17 September: In 1986, Alan Ayckbourn took a two-year sabbatical from the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, to become a company director at the National Theatre, London. Although it's not clear at precisely which point Alan stepped back from the SJT to work with the NT (although he remained the Artistic Director of the Scarborough venue alongside Robin Herford during this period), 17 September 1986 marked the start of the first season that Alan was not actively involved in. The first production was Michael Frayn's Benefactors and it was directed by Stephanie Turner, who had acted with the company in 1969 and 1970.

18 September: The first tour launched from the then recently opened Stephen Joseph Theatre began on 18 September 1996 with Alan Ayckbourn's revised version of his play It Could Be Any One Of Us touring to the Old Laundry Theatre, Bowness-on-Windermere and Chichester Festival Theatre. Since 1996, touring has become an essential part of the SJT's programming and has visited venues throughout England as well as Brussels and New York amongst others.

19 September: The first new play to be premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre was Love Me Slender by Vanessa Brooks, which opened on 19 September 1996. The new home for the company had actually opened in April with a new production of Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber's By Jeeves, but this was both a musical and a revision of an existing musical, Jeeves. Love Me Slender was the first new play to be performed at the venue and Vanessa had already premiered new work at the company's previous home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. The same date in 2017 also saw the first new play by a writer commissioned by the theatre's new Artistic Director, Paul Robinson, with Goth Weekend by Ali Taylor; part of the theatre's reaffirmation of its commitment to its founding principles of enocuraging new writing and new playwrights.

20 September: The final season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round opened with Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. The season would also include an adaptation of Charles Dicken's Hard Times, Grimm Tales and a revival of Alan Ayckbourn's Just Between Ourselves. The company would then begin its move to the Stephen Joseph Theatre following the close of the season.

21 September: During the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, there have been several plays which have been performed in all there venues which have housed the company (all Alan Ayckbourn plays - Relatively Speaking, Time & Time Again, Absurd Person Singular and Confusions). But Bedroom Farce is unusual in that it is the only Ayckbourn play to have been staged in both the Stephen Joseph Theatre's spaces: The Round and the end-stage The McCarthy. The playwright revived the play in September 2000, finally producing the play in-the-round as he had hoped to do for its original production in 1975 (but which space restrictions at the Library Theatre had meant it was staged three-sided). The production closed in November before being re-staged in the end-stage McCarthy auditorium during December before going on tour in 2001. This is the only time the same play (and production) has been staged in both The Round and The McCarthy at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

22 September: In 1975, the Library Theatre presented the first of two separate attempts by the company to chronicle the lives of the Brontë sisters in a play. Brontës was written by Bob Eaton and Peter Clough to tie-in with a Brontë festival being held in Scarborough during the autumn; the play opened on 22 September. Ten years later, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round would stage a two part adaptation of Christopher Fry's television drama The Brontës Of Haworth by Kerry Gardner. This production featured one of the largest companies ever to be seen at the theatre and - unfortunately - the cast was apparently larger than the audience on a number of occasions! The theatre was not helped as it hoped the play would prove appealing to school parties but fell during a teacher's strike which meant for several school matinees, no schools attended.

23 September: In 1967, the BBC Home Service broadcast a production of J.B. Priestley's Eden End which had been recorded with the Library Theatre company. It was broadcast on 23 September and directed by Alfred Bradley, who was part of the theatre board and instrumental in helping to revive the theatre that year after Stephen Joseph had closed it in 1965. As a renowned radio producer for the BBC, Alfred apparently tried to help the actors by giving them work such as recording productions staged at the theatre.

24 September: The final performance of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round's revival of Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy took place at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round on 24 September 1983. It is notable for its story of the young actor, Andy Cryer, who played the title role. Thirty boys from local secondary schools were auditioned for the role and Andy, aged 14, from Graham School was picked for the part. In a contemporary interview, Andy said he hoped to go on to a career in professional acting, which he did. He came full circle in 2008, when he was cast in Jack Lear at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and in 2016 was part of Alan Ayckbourn's company at the theatre.

26 September: Twenty-nine years after he began his career as a professional director, Alan Ayckbourn finally directed his first production of a Shakespeare play with Othello at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. It notably starred Michael Gambon as Othello with Ken Stott as Iago and Claire Skinner as Desdemona. The text was cut dramatically and was met with less than favourable reviews by the critics. Alan has never directed a Shakespeare play since.

27 September: In 1984, the Arts Council threatened to substantially cut the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round's budget. This came at a precarious time for the company as North Yorkshire County Council was also threatening not to renew the theatre's lease and it had became apparent the theatre was also in debt - the only figure made public was in January 1986 when a debt of £17,000 was revealed. The threat of the Arts Council cut had the most effect though leading to the SJT announcing it would remove a production from its 1985 programme and cut four weeks from the schedule. These cuts affected the winter season which was launched in 27 September 1985 with Alan Ayckbourn's Family Circles, but did not feature a new production in November as was traditional at the time.

28 September: On 28 September 1990, Alan Ayckbourn announced the deal to convert Scarborough's former Odeon cinema into the new home for the Stephen Joseph Theatre had been clinched. The ADMirable Partnership Ltd (a company consisting of Alan Ayckbourn, Charles McCarthy and Lord Downe) signed a deal with Rank, the owner of the venue, for the remaining 44 years of the lease, which Scarborough Council then extended to 99 years once the deal had been agreed. This began a six year process of fund-raising and extensive construction work to convert the art deco cinema, built in 1936, into a £5.2m state-of-the-art theatre.

29 September: The Rounders youth drama group has been a significant part of the Stephen Joseph Theatre company since 1978 - although it was the a name of the Saturday morning children's show in 1977 - it was only used as the name for the drama group from 1978. Although this lapsed for several years, it was relaunched in 1984 administered and run by Eric Prince. This would lay the foundations for the increasingly successful group which continues to thrive to this day as part of the Stephen Joseph Theatre OutReach department.

30 September: Touring resumed at the Library Theatre on 30 September 1970 following a 12 year period where the company had not toured at all. The company toured Alan Ayckbourn's latest play, Confusions, to Lincoln, Workington, Hull, Warwick, Ulverstone, Kendal, Filey and Whitby.

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.