Why Scarborough?When considering the history of theatre-in-the-round in the UK, it's not unreasonable to ask the obvious question. Why Scarborough? Why did Stephen Joseph choose Scarborough to launch the UK's first professional theatre-in-the-round company in the UK?
It is curious that in modern theatre, the single longest surviving theatre-in-the-round in the UK is in Scarborough - a town with no obvious theatre history. It may have moved venues several times, but there has been professional theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough since 1955 (with the exception of 1966, but even that year featured an amateur in-the-round season). The second oldest continually running venue in the UK is the New Vic in Newcastle-under-Lyme formed in 1962.
So why Scarborough?
The answer is not for any obvious reason and not with any intention of it being a permanent home. Stephen Joseph had been searching for a home for theatre-in-the-round, preferably in London. Unable to find or afford suitable premises, his attentions led elsewhere as he explains 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 notes: "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 Town Council or, several years later, a perceived lack of support in finding a permanent new home for the company in the town.
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.
Stephen was a practical man and though fond of the town, he had no long-term loyalty to Scarborough, it was the enthusiasm of the people who had supported the theatre in the town that led him to form Scarborough Theatre Trust in 1964 to continue theatre-in-the-round after the Victoria Theatre opened. Later, it was these same people who led the move to save the Library Theatre after Stephen decided to close it and end professional theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough in 1965. Theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough proved far more resilient than Stephen could ever have imagined. And there, perhaps, is the true answer.
Because the community supported it and wanted it. Whilst the Stephen Joseph Theatre has always drawn differing and often contentious reactions in the town, it can never be forgotten that professional theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough has stood on the precipice several times in its six decades of history and yet is still going because people in the town - both inside and outside of the theatre - wanted the theatre to stay, believed it was important to the town and helped ensure its survival.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.