New Writing: The 1990s

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 1990s

And so to the '90s, a decade which saw the single largest change in the Stephen Joseph Theatre's history coinciding with the development of and nurturing of a new wave of writers.
Whilst the company had always been predicated on developing new writing talent, a more structured policy had begun to emerge during the 1980s at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. In 1988, Gordon Townsend was appointed the company's first script-reader - although he had essentially been doing the job for several years previously - which was arguably the precursor to the creation of the Literary Manager role in 1996.
Script submissions were handled by a team of script readers, overseen by Gordon, which were needed to deal with the volume of script submissions received by the theatre.
By the early 1990s, writers of promise were, to all intents and purposes, teamed off with a director allowing for a consistency and development: Artistic Director Alan Ayckbourn, Associate Director Malcolm Hebden and staff director Connal Orton, all had playwrights they became particularly associated with during this period.
The key figure as the decade progressed was Connal Orton, who took over literary responsibilities from Gordon Townsend and would be later appointed the Literary Manager - the first time the position was specifically appointed.
Connal's great find was Tim Firth, who he worked extensively with during the 1990s. His first play,
A Man Of Letters, was produced as a lunchtime show at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round and proved to be a hit with audiences. The play itself later reworked into a full-length piece which was also premiered at the SJT as Absolutely Frank, before being renamed Sign Of The Times when it went into the West End.
The success of
A Man Of Letters immediately led to the commission of Tim's first full-length play, Neville's Island, which again was a huge success. Although there were comparisons to Alan Ayckbourn, of whom Tim has frequently cited as a positive influence and support, there was an individual voice already developing and Neville's Island would transfer to the West End and later be adapted for television. Its position as a hugely significant SJT play will also be marked this year with a revival as part of the venue's 60th anniversary celebrations.
That same year, Tim also had another play in the Studio -
A Bigger Slice Of The Pie - making him the only person other than Alan Ayckbourn to have a play in both spaces during the same season. Tim would premiere five plays with the company during the 1990s and, of course, has gone onto international success particularly with his film, later play, later musical Calendar Girls.
Other writers of note from the period who worked with Connal included Vanessa Brooks and Robert Shearman, the latter having considerable success on stage, television, radio and in prose - for the latter he was won several major awards.
This was also a decade in which new writing at the venue arguably most resembled Stephen Joseph's original remit when he found the Library Theatre in 1955; to encourage writing talent wherever it might be found.
Established playwrights such as Alan Ayckbourn and Peter Tinniswood were produced alongside first time playwrights such as Tim Firth. Local talent was encouraged through Connal's work with the community and educational establishments in Scarborough, which led to local student Steve Carley having two plays produced. The record for the oldest playwright to be produced at the theatre was also broken with the world premiere of
Prince On A White Bike by 84 year old Charles Thomas.
In 1996, there was an immense change when, after 40 years searching for a permanent home, the company moved into Scarborough's former Odeon cinema converted into a £5.2m, state of the art venue, the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
With massively expanded potential and facilities, the theatre appointed Connal Orton as Literary Manager of the newly developed Literary Department with the intention of taking Stephen Joseph's aim of encouraging, nurturing and producing new playwriting talent to a new level.
One of the first successes was the extraordinary debut
All Things Considered by Ben Brown, directed by Alan Strachan for the end-stage McCarthy theatre. It starred Christopher Godwin, returning to the company at which he had been a mainstay during the '70s for the first time in 19 years, and its tale of a suicidal philosophy teacher was a massive success with audiences and critics.
Ben would return to the SJT three years later with
Larkin With Women, an even more successful play about the live and loves of the poet Philip Larkin. Featuring a bravura performance by Oliver Ford Davis as Larkin - and again directed by Alan Strachan - the play easily deserves a place amongst the most notable work produced by the company during its 60 year history.
Meanwhile, other writers were beginning to emerge - joining the continued output of more recent discoveries - such as Neil Monaghan, Helen Kelly and Stuart Fortey amongst others.
And what of Alan Ayckbourn? During the first half of the decade, he was largely concerned with the work making the theatre's new home possible - although still producing notable plays such as
Haunting Julia, Communicating Doors and Wildest Dreams. It was in the new building though that he excelled with a number of hugely successful and notable works. Things We Do For Love was a rare excursion away from in-the-round with a play which can only produced end-stage - and the only play at the company's new home to have had more than 100 performances; Comic Potential saw an extraordinary performance from Janie Dee, who would go on to star in the play in London and New York as well as winning the Olivier, Evening Standard and Critic's Circle awards for best actor. To top it all, on his 60th birthday in 1999, he produced House & Garden. A theatrical epic, he genuinely believed would never be produced again.
House & Garden consisted of two plays performed simultaneously in The Round and The McCarthy sharing the same acting company and characters. When a character left the house (in The McCarthy), they would appear in the garden (in The Round) a minute later and vice versa. The play took full advantage of the potential and possibilities of the new venue creating a theatrical spectacle that was extraordinarily popular - and would later replicate it success at the National Theatre before becoming popular with both professional and amateur companies looking for a theatrical challenge.
The decade ended on a triumphant note with an extraordinary event celebrating new writing which has not been surpassed at the theatre since. The 10x10 took place in 1998 and saw 10 world or British premieres performed by a company of 10 actors. The Round theatre hosted new plays by Alan Ayckbourn, John Godber and Tim Firth, whilst the Studio and The McCarthy hosted new work by Robert Shearman, Stuart Fortey, Michael Fosbrook, Steve Carley and Neil Monaghan. It was a a huge risk predicating an entire season on new writing but also an incredible celebration of new writing and re-affirmation of just how important new writing was to the company and how exciting and successful it could be.
And whilst new writing would continue to flourish at the SJT, the new decade - the new millennium - would see a momentous change in the company's history.

Click here to go New Writing: The 2000s

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.