The Stephen Joseph Theatre: The Importance Of The Amateurs

It is no exaggeration to say that without Scarborough's amateur dramatic community during the 1950s and 1960s, there would be no Stephen Joseph Theatre today. The creation and successful running of the Library Theatre during the 1950s was dependent on the involvement of amateurs and, crucially, if an amateur season had not been organised in 1966, it is highly probable the Library Theatre would never have re-opened and there would be no Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough today.

Stephen Joseph was ground-breaking in many ways, but one of his least recognised beliefs was that professionals and amateurs could and should work together. This was not necessarily in production, but in theatre in general. The two should draw on each other's strengths and each encourage the other. He firmly believed theatre was an important part of the community and that the community had to be involved in a theatre to make it successful. Thus he reached out to the obvious link between the two, the amateur dramatic community. As a loss-making venture, the support and enthusiasm of the locals community must have helped immeasurably to convince Stephen Joseph to keep the Library Theatre going in its early days.

"Many Scarborough people are proud that theatre in the round virtually started its career here. From the start the venture had the support of local amateur groups. This extended beyond helping to set up and dismantle the theatre. Front of house help was recruited from volunteers, and prop-hunting, costume-finding, and the distribution of publicity material were all aided by voluntary help, under the supervision of Kenneth Boden. Besides helping us he has, as secretary of the local branch of the British Drama League, organised an amateur theatre in the round festival at Scarborough which looks like becoming an important annual event in the North of England."
Stephen Joseph


In
Ken Boden, an amateur theatrical and insurance salesman by day with no professional theatre experience prior to meeting Stephen, there is the third member of the triumvirate credited with making the Stephen Joseph Theatre what it is today alongside Stephen Joseph and Alan Ayckbourn. Ken was passionate in his support of the Library Theatre from meeting Stephen prior to the theatre's opening in 1955. He would eventually become the theatre manager under Alan Ayckbourn but, essentially, it was he - an amateur theatrical - who kept the theatre going after Stephen Joseph closed the Library Theatre in 1965.

A Theatre Reborn

Feeling the theatre lacked the support of the Library Committee and Scarborough Town Council, Stephen Joseph called notice on the Library Theatre at the end of the 1965 summer season with no intent of re-opening it. In a letter to the Library Director in May 1965 - prior to officially announcing the closure of the Library Theatre - he also made it clear that he believed just a single year of no theatre would mean its end: "If we do not play next year it is unlikely the theatre will return again." This makes Ken Boden's actions all the more important.

With the Library Theatre closed at the end of the summer 1965 season, Ken proposed an amateur season for 1966 featuring four local companies and ending with the annual amateur In The Round Festival. Stephen - apparently reluctantly at first - agreed to support this, although neither he nor
Scarborough Theatre Trust had any active involvement in the season and it was presented under the auspices of the British Drama League. But these actions ensured the Library Theatre kept going in some form for another year, essentially allowing more time to save the venue.

In May 1966, Ken Boden approached the Library Director about reviving the Library Theatre professionally in 1967. Ken's proposal was that the British Drama League would essentially run the theatre and stage a professional season - a radical idea with an amateur company producing professional theatre. He already had support of key figures such as Rodney Wood (a former student of Stephen who had also worked at the Library Theatre) and Alfred Bradley (the influential northern BBC radio drama producer) - who would both be vital in keeping the Library Theatre running in the coming years. He had also contacted the Arts Council for its views and possible support and also investigated setting up a new theatre trust to run the venue. He then approached Stephen Joseph (now aware he had terminal cancer), who offered to sign over the existing company, Scarborough Theatre Trust, to Ken for free; Ken only agreeing to this if there were no associated debts.

Ken's proposals secured the support of Stephen Joseph, the Libraries Committee, Scarborough Town Council and the Arts Council in 1966. Stephen Joseph agreed to sign Scarborough Theatre Trust to Ken without any outstanding debts, the Libraries Committee agreed to further professional summer seasons at the Library, the Arts Council agreed to support the venture and Scarborough Town Council resumed a grant subsidy to the Library Theatre as well as offering to cover any losses in the 1967 season. It was an extraordinary about turn. Ken Boden - with the support of the British Drama League and dedicated supporters of the project - re-launched professional theatre at the Library Theatre in 1967.

It is important to consider that without Ken's impetus and actions, there is no evidence to suggest anyone else would have stepped into the breach and the Library Theatre would likely have closed in 1965 never to re-open. The future of the Library Theatre was ensured by Scarborough's amateur community.

Amateur Drama in the Library Theatre to the Stephen Joseph Theatre

Not only was the amateur and local community heavily involved in running the Library Theatre from the start, amateur companies were also soon performing in it and also adopting theatre-in-the-round for performance. Short amateur seasons were arranged to precede the professional seasons from the late 1950s onwards and in 1960, the first amateur In The Round theatre festival was launched, which would run until the 1980s. The Library Theatre embraced and encouraged amateur performance and Alan Ayckbourn even wrote several plays as a young dramatist for amateur companies in Scarborough and also acted in several amateur productions during his professional career.

Amateur drama was an essential part of the Library Theatre until it closed in 1976. When the company moved to its second home - and became a year-round venue - at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, amateur productions became an equally important part of the theatre and also a way of keeping the venue open throughout the year. During the late '70s and throughout the '80s, extensive amateur seasons were arranged which at their peak ran for more than two months in succession. The annual In The Round Festival - which had ceased in 1968 - was also resumed in 1977 and ran for at least another eleven years. If anything, amateur performance at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round was as integral to the new venue as it was to the Library Theatre; although the venue had moved away from running the theatre with voluntary help from the amateur community.

Sadly, when the company moved in 1996 to its current home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the links with amateur companies to all intents and purposes quickly faded. In the first few years, there were occasional amateur performances, but this became practically non-existent leading to a loss of any active relationship between the venue and the town's amateur community; the theatre's Executive Director between 1996 and 2015 - Stephen Wood - was also not an advocate of amateur productions in the theatre.

Amateur performances at the Stephen Joseph Theatre for the better part of the first 15 years of the new millennium were largely restricted to the National Student Drama Festival, the National Connections Festival (both of which are national events and not unique to the venue) as well as performances by the theatre's own drama groups.

Whilst it would perhaps not be fair to say the Stephen Joseph Theatre actively discouraged links with the amateur community during this period, it would be fair to say it has not actively encouraged links with the amateur community.

With the opening of the new OutReach hub in 2015 and the appointment of a new Artistic Director and Executive Director in 2016, the Stephen Joseph Theatre has reaffirmed its commitment to its founding principles. Through OutReach, the company is reaching out to Scarborough and beyond as it has never done before. Hopefully, this will lead to a restoration of dialogue with the amateur community in the town and surrounding areas.

Hopefully - under new leadership and with a commitment to the community - circumstances will change in the future, for it is sad to note that a company which has preserved so much of Stephen Joseph's legacy and which was founded with the help and enthusiasm of Scarborough's amateur community - and to which it arguably owes its existence - has largely lost an essential element in its foundation.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder. All opinions on this page are the author's own.