New Writing: The 2000s

As part of the Stephen Joseph Theatre's 60th anniversary celebrations in 2015, 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 2000s

The first decade of the new Millennium witnessed one of the most significant changes at the Stephen Joseph Theatre since its founder had died in 1967. It was undoubtedly a decade of transition for several reasons which ended with a question of what party new writing would play in the SJT's future.
The year 2000 was, thankfully, no indication of where the SJT would head with new writing. The company's initial idea was to produce a play from each of the previous century's decades leading up to a new play at the end of the year. The new play was produced but the rest of the year consisted of work entirely by George Bernard Shaw, J.M. Barrie, Noel Coward and Alan Ayckbourn. Possibly not the most exciting retrospective of a century's British playwriting.
The disappointment of the opening year of the decade was counter-balanced though with the development of two notable - if short-lived - experiments into finding new ways to promoting new writers.
Between 2001 and 2002, the theatre launched
First Foot, partly in order to cope with the amount of writers it had commissioned and worked with in recent years. First Foot took place in the theatre's end-stage McCarthy auditorium during what was traditionally the venue's dark period at the start of the year.
It offered the opportunity to stage several new plays by up and coming writers with a professional company but on a lower budget. Over the two years, the initiative debuted five plays by Meredith Oakes, Paul Lucas, Gill Adams, Chris Dunkley and Peter Robert Scott. It was an interesting initiative and also offered a selection of plays whose subject matter might not necessarily have been produced otherwise.
First Foot only lasted two years although it was replaced in 2004 by Micro Musicals, championed by the Associate Director Laurie Sansom. This applied the same low-budget principle to musicals with the theatre accepting submissions for the opportunity to be one of three musicals staged at the venue.
Although the SJT has staged musicals - and indeed opened with Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber's
By Jeeves in 1996 - it has never been truly associated with them. This then was a welcome attempt to try something new and led to three musicals by Toby Davies & Grant Olding, Jane Buckler & Richard Taylor and Laurie Sansom & Loz Kaye. Generally well-received, Micro Musicals sadly never got the opportunity to grow and was a one-off but along with First Foot showed the theatre willing to experiment with ways of producing new writing in the first half of the decade.
The lunchtime shows - either in the Restaurant or the McCarthy - also enjoyed a resurgence between 2001 and 2005, largely embracing new work and highlighting playwrights both new and familiar to the SJT such as Torben Betts, Stuart Fortey, Liz John, Helen Kelly, Sarah Phelps, Eric Prince, Robert Shearman and Nick Warburton.
In the shape of the latter, the theatre formed a particular strong link and Nick had five plays produced by the theatre between 2004 and 2008 and who has gone onto a very successful writer for stage, radio and screen; several of his SJT plays having also been produced on BBC Radio.
The theatre also took steps towards attracting a very new audience, essentially pre-school and primary aged children. A significant number of plays for this audience were produced, often in conjunction with the theatre's Education Department (later relaunched as SJT OutReach in 2008) showcasing plays by writers such as Alan Ayckbourn, Helen Kelly and Lee Threadgold. Utilising a professional company and produced throughout the summer and during Christmas, they marked a distinct attempt to reach a new audience - expanding from the family plays which Alan Ayckbourn had been frequently penning since 1988.
There was a clear change though in 2006 and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was connected to the Artistic Director Alan Ayckbourn. The first part of the decade had mixed fortunes for the playwright's work ranging from
Virtual Reality (produced once never to be seen again) to Private Fears In Public Places, which as a result of an SJT tour to New York in 2005, became the playwright's most notable success in the Big Apple since Absurd Person Singular in the 1970s.
In 2006, Alan Ayckbourn suffered a stroke though and it put into motion enormous changes for the company. Although the playwright was back and working at the SJT within six plays, premiering his new play
If I Were You, he announced in 2007 he was to step down and the search for a new Artistic Director began.
During 2007 and 2008, there was new writing including the return of Nick Warburton as well as new faces such as Dawn King and Ben Benison with an ambitious retelling of
King Lear in Jack Lear with a powerful central performance by Barrie Rutter. But compared to recent years, the scale and variety of new writing was much reduced.
In May 2008, Alan Ayckbourn's successor was named as Chris Monks and Alan Ayckbourn ended his 37 year tenure as Artistic Director with the world premiere of his plays
Life & Beth and a new musical with Denis King called Awaking Beauty.
Chris Monks took over the role on 1 April 2009 and the summer season included no new work for the first time since 2000 (and a relative rarity during the past six decades). The autumn and winter season consisted of Alan Ayckbourn's new play,
My Wonderful Day, and Chris Monks' first new work for the SJT, an adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
What place new writing had within the Stephen Joseph Theatre under a new regime was not yet clear as the theatre headed into a new decade.

Click here to go New Writing: The 2010s

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.

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