New Writing: The 1960s

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: New Writing - The 1960s

Six years after opening, the Library Theatre was firmly established in Scarborough. It was operating both a summer and winter season as well as touring during the early part of the year.
It was also committed to encouraging new playwriting and nurturing new playwrights. Between 1960 and 1965, the Library Theatre premiered 22 new works; not bad for a 250 seat, small regional theatre which operated for less than half a year in the town.
There was also something else special about that theatre - and typified by other regional theatres where new writing was also being encouraged. It wasn't risk-averse.
New writing is - and always has been - a risk. There is no such thing as a surefire success in theatre - particularly when you're dealing with new plays by unfamiliar playwrights.
The chances of failure are great, but history shows that the inability to predict success or failure means that risk on the new can also mean great - and often unexpected - success. One only has to look at the likes of Alan Ayckbourn, Stephen Mallatratt, Tim Firth or Ben Brown for example at Scarborough to see that.
But this policy of taking risks on new writing had another benefit - something which often seems alien in today's environment where it feels regional theatres are actively discouraged from taking risks - and that was the right to fail.
For much of the Stephen Joseph Theatre's existence - certainly for its first first 50 years, this was an accepted part of its legacy and an understanding. No-one sets out to write a play that will fail - either artistically or commercially - but it happens. It's naive to think otherwise. But as many writers who have achieved notable or long-lasting success will testify, the failures are often the greatest learning experiences.
In 1960, Alan Ayckbourn premiered his third play for the Library Theatre following two enormous successes.
Dad's Tale was a Christmas show for children. It failed absolutely. Alan Ayckbourn recalls the cast frequently outnumbering the audience. It was mis-judged by the theatre, mis-advertised (failing to attract any schools as they had all broken up for the holidays) and, arguably, an artistic failure too.
The Library Theatre almost certainly took a very big financial hit on its Christmas play. One wonders in today's environment what that would have done for Alan Ayckbourn's prospects as a playwright.
Back then, Stephen Joseph's response was to commission Alan to write another play for the summer 1961 programme seven months later. Foolhardy? Possibly. Risky? Almost certainly. But Alan was two for one and obviously still worth a punt.
His fourth play was the futuristic comedy
Standing Room Only. It was so successful that extra performances were added at the end of the season to cope with demand.
Which, of course, illustrates something else which is often very difficult today for many theatres. With schedule-planning often one-to-two years ahead, the possibility of making a snap Artistic decisions to slot in extra performances or cancel performances of another play and swap in another are not an option for many theatres.
Alan Ayckbourn, like many other playwrights under Stephen Joseph's tenure and later Alan himself, were given the right to fail. Yes, there was a degree of support from the Arts Council as it supported new work by often guaranteeing against loss during this period or by providing extra subsidy for new work. But there seems to be a tacit understanding that nurturing talent was a risk that might include failure. But look at the number of great writers from the '50s through to the '80s who emerged from the subsidised sector and the impact and influence they had. Do today's writers have that sort of opportunity in regional subsidised theatre?
During the early '60s, the Library Theatre produced new plays by the likes of Richard Gill, William Norfolk, Norman Horner, Stockwell Allen and Joan Macalpine. Some achieved a measure of success in playwriting, but they're not familiar names. Some of these plays lost money for the Library Theatre, some were extremely successful. But if one were being objectively harsh, their lack of long-term impact would likely lead to an argument today about whether the policy of new writing was feasible or even viable.
But if these writers hadn't been encouraged and the theatre allowed to take risks, would the summer season in 1965 have occurred? In that year, the theatre produced five new plays. One by David Campton - the final play to be directed by Stephen Joseph and ending a remarkable run where David had a new play premiered every year since the Library Theatre had opened in 1955. David would go on to become a prolific and popular playwright.
There was also a very early play by Alan Plater,
See The Pretty Lights, who had been nurtured by the Library Theatre's sister venue the Victoria Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent. Alan Plater would become a pre-eminent Northern playwright and screen-writer and a household name during the 1970s and 1980s.
The winter season saw the premiere of
The Play Of Mata Hari, believed to be the first professionally produced play by Mike Stott. Within a couple of years, Mike would have work produced by the Round House in London and be working for the Royal Shakespeare Company. He became a prolific writer for stage, radio and television.
And then, following his disastrous start to the decade with
Dad's Tale and another calamitous Christmas play at the Victoria Theatre in Christmas V Mastermind - which should by rights have killed off his playwriting career! - Alan Ayckbourn produced Meet My Father. It was a considerable success in Scarborough.
You'll probably recognise it by its more familiar name though.
Relatively Speaking, the play which two years later took the West End by storm and launched Alan Ayckbourn as a bona fide playwriting sensation.
Four new plays in one season by playwrights who were not established in the public eye, but who all - in their own ways - had extremely successful playwriting careers. Like the proverbial bus, they all came at once. There's nothing in the previous four years to indicate such a glut of success would take place at such a point.
And to put it in terms that have sway today, the 1965 summer season of nine plays - five of which were new - was also the most financially successful ever produced at the Library Theatre to that point. The success of
Relatively Speaking also, in the long term, secured the future of the Stephen Joseph Theatre after Stephen Joseph died in 1967 and, if we're being honest, also helped a lot of theatres around the UK through rough-patches when an Alan Ayckbourn play was one of the closet guarantees of financial security.
It was a different period of time, circumstances in the arts were different, against that there is no argument. But conversely you can't argue that risk and the right to fail could, as in cases such as 1965 at the Library Theatre - and I'm sure many other long-established theatres could offer equally strong examples - equate to both artistic and financial success.
More people went to that season than any previous season at the Library Theatre; they were an audience which had also been nurtured to experiment and experience new writing. Alan Ayckbourn has said one of the great achievements of the Stephen Joseph Theatre was its nurturing of an audience that expected to see and was willing to experience new writing.
During the 1960s, the Library Theatre was essentially re-launched, had its financial support slashed, was closed for a year and its founder and Artistic Director, Stephen Joseph, died.
Yet despite all this, the Library Theatre not only survived but actually flourished and never lost focus on Stephen Joseph's commitment to new writing, giving new writers a chance and giving audiences the opportunity to experience new writing and make it a success.
Much of what the company did during the 1960s was a huge risk. As it celebrates its 60th birthday this year and looking back on all its considerable achievements, one can't say the risk wasn't worth it.

Click here to go New Writing: The 1970s

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the author.

All opinions and views expressed within this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Stephen Joseph Theatre or Alan Ayckbourn.