New Writing: A History

As part of the Stephen Joseph Theatre's 60th anniversary celebrations, the Scarborough In The Round blog ran a series of articles looking at the history of new writing at the theatre decade-by-decade.
Click on the decade links above to read the articles specific to each decade.


Stephen Joseph's Legacy: Setting The Scene - 1955

The Stephen Joseph Theatre has over the past six decades become renowned for its commitment to new writing and developing new writers. This is undoubtedly the bedrock of the company.
Between Stephen Joseph opening the Library Theatre in 1955 and its celebration of its 60th anniversary this year, the company has staged 616 productions, of which 328 were new commissions.
More than half of all the plays staged by the company over the past six decades have been new work. It is an astonishing achievement matched by very venues anywhere in the world - particularly over such a prolonged period of operation.
Its most notable success is Alan Ayckbourn - one of the world's most successful living playwrights - who also ensured Stephen's legacy continued and thrived within the company after he became the Artistic Director in 1972 following Stephen's death in 1967.
But there have been many other successful playwrights whose early steps were taken in Scarborough such as David Campton, Alan Plater, Brian Thompson, Stephen Mallatratt, Tim Firth, Robert Shearman, Ben Brown and Torben Betts to name but a few.
As the Stephen Joseph Theatre celebrates its 60th anniversary, the blog will take a decade-by-decade look at some of the new writing which has emerged from the theatre and celebrate Stephen Joseph's magnificent achievement.
Stephen Joseph launched the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 14 July 1955 with
Circle Of Love, a new play by a new playwright - Eleanor D Glaser. It set the template for all that was to follow and asserted Stephen's intentions for his fledgling company.
The Library Theatre was launched with two prominent ambitions. The first was Stephen's wish to create a theatre dedicated to promoting new writing talent, but in an affordable and sustainable way. At the time, there was very little commitment to new writing within the British theatre establishment - it should be remembered the Royal Court was launched the year after the Library Theatre - and those few attempting to break the status quo, like Stephen, were on the fringes of theatre - such as Joan Littlewood and Ewan McColl with the Theatre Workshop.
The idea of a theatre dedicated to promoting new writing by unknown writers was quite radical, but Stephen was passionate about encouraging new work. The biggest problem - at least at the outset - was how to make this idea financially viable.
By the 1950s, the UK's theatres were predominantly proscenium arch and increasingly expensive to run. It was a period of closure for many municipal theatre venues and staging new work was frequently deemed far too expensive and risky.
Stephen's solution was theatre-in-the-round (or even adaptable theatres, he was interested in a wide variety of new theatre forms). Having seen the form extensively in America, he realised this could be a viable way of presenting new work. Many of the costs of traditional theatre were negated: sets were, by necessity, minimal; the round encouraged small, intimate productions; staffing could be kept to a minimum; it could essentially be staged anywhere with sufficient floor-space.
Thus the Library Theatre was formed and with it the UK's first professional theatre-in-the-round company.

The inaugural season consisted of four plays, all of which were new and all written by people Stephen had worked with on a playwriting course he ran at the Central School of Speech and Drama.
Amongst many remarkable achievements that year, one firmly stands out. Of the four writers, three were women. Eleanor D Glaser, Ruth Dixon and Joan Winch. It is extraordinary to think that a small regional venue was championing new work by women at this time; the Royal Court - long held as the bastion of new writing in the UK - would take years to match that commitment to female writing.
During the first five years of the Library Theatre's operation (1955 - 1959), the company would stage 18 new plays of which eight were written by women. It's an impressive figure even by today's standards let alone the 1950s.
But that was one of Stephen Joseph's strengths; it's debatable whether he was particularly championing female writers or - more likely - just championing writers. Stephen encouraged everyone to write and looked for plays wherever he could find them, age or sex were no barrier. This was an egalitarian philosophy where the youngest playwright during this period was the 18 year old actor Alan Ayckbourn and the oldest was Hilda Valentine, a lady in her 80s making her playwriting debut.
The content of the first season was also very diverse: Eleanor D Glaser's
Circle Of Love was a suburban drama; Ruth Dixon's 'Prentice Pillar was a "poetic costume drama based on a medieval Scottish legend"; David Campton's Dragons Are Dangerous followed a man 'adopting' a juvenile delinquent with issues and a violent Teddy-Boy boyfriend; Joan (or Jurneman as she was credited) Winch's Turn Right At The Crossroads was a verse-drama morality story. No-one can accuse Stephen Joseph of playing it safe!
Although it made a small loss, the first season was successful enough to encourage Stephen there was an audience for new work even in a regional seaside town such as Scarborough where the Library Theatre was competing against numerous other attractions during the summer.
It also set the template for much of what was to follow, a commitment to presenting new writing, encouraging new writers and not patronising audiences by taking risks with the work presented.
Stephen Joseph and the Library Theatre had set out its aims and ambitions, even Stephen could not have imagined just how far they would go.

Click here to go New Writing: The 1950s

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without the permission of the copyright holder.

All opinions expressed on this page are purely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those the Stephen Joseph Theatre or Simon Murgatroyd.