Stephen Joseph's Achievements

Stephen Joseph is undoubtedly best known for his advocacy of theatre-in-the-round and his championing of new writing, both epitomised by the Stephen Joseph Theatre today.

He achieved an extraordinary amount within his life though and was once described as a 'renaissance man' by his protégé Alan Ayckbourn due to his passion and knowledge about so many different aspects of the theatre from playwriting to directing to design. Those he taught have also spoke highly of what a passionate teacher he was - and it was this passion which led to his influential and pioneering work in the drama department at the University of Manchester.

Stephen Joseph also found himself, perhaps unwittingly, fighting against the British theatre establishment of the '50s and '60s. His radical ideas for new theatre forms, promoting new writing and supporting theatre in the regions - all deeply unfashionable at a time when theatre was regarded as London-centric, even though much of the important, interesting and - ultimately - influential work in theatre was being done in the regions.

This website is concentrated on the Stephen Joseph Theatre - and Stephen Joseph's connection to it - but this page offers a brief guide to some of his other achievements. A more detailed look at Stephen's life, work and achievements can be found in Dr Paul Elsam's book
Stephen Joseph: Theatre Pioneer and Provocateur.

Theatre Design

One of Stephen Joseph's major contributions to British theatre was his work in new theatre forms. At the time, the proscenium arch was totally prevalent in British theatre. Stephen was passionate about introducing new forms such as in-the-round into the UK, partially inspired by his experiences touring theatres in the USA.
As well as writing numerous articles and several books about theatre, Stephen was practically involved in founding two theatres (the Library Theatre, Scarborough, and the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent) as well as being involved in designing several other theatres such as the adaptable auditorium for Leeds Grammar School. Details about Stephen's in-the-round theatre designs can be found
here.

Playwrights & Playwriting

Stephen Joseph was a passionate advocate of new playwriting and encouraging new writers. Among the many playwrights he encouraged are notably Alan Ayckbourn, Harold Pinter, Peter Terson and David Campton amongst many others.
The Library Theatre, Scarborough, was essentially created to promote two of Stephen's passions: theatre-in-the-round and new playwriting. He would often rail against the lack of new writing in the commercial theatre in London - or the poor quality of the new writing that he perceived was presented in the West End at the time.
In this extract by Stephen Joseph from his book
Theatre In The Round, he touches on why he believes new writing was both important and exciting.

"In our day and age the play is the beginning of each theatrical venture, and to start off with something new rather than something second-hand is obviously more exciting. Now many managers and directors want to find good new plays, and are prepared to present them when they find them; this seems to me to be needle in the hay-stack philosophy, for good new plays are just about this rare. I like to find a new play of promise merely, in the hope that the playwright will develop and write good plays eventually. Playwriting is a difficult job, and it is wrong to expect a first play to be good; if it is, the playwright will probably be a one-off merchant who will never write a better. It may seem a bit heartless to present an audience with a new play that I know is not good, is no more than promising merely.
It would be so if most of the secondhand plays that have already been done in London were better. They are not. Most of the plays that are staged in London’s West End are poor stuff, and many of the new plays that I put on are nothing like so poor. This is, of course, one man’s judgement. But who else’s judgement has one got? A critic who had given a series of very harsh reviews to our new plays was asked if he really thought they were all that bad; and he replied that they couldn’t be any good as they hadn’t been done in London! I asked how many plays he had seen in London, and he replied: none. So I’ll trust my judgement.
It is not just the director who is excited about a new play. Certainly the author is; and he may even get so excited as to be a nuisance at rehearsals; as is usually expected of him. But I have seldom found him so. His excitement helps the actors, who usually enjoy creating roles that are quite new."

The ABTT / SOTC

Stephen Joseph was an enthusiastic and talented theatre architect who was passionate about pushing theatre into different directions and exploring new theatre forms.
In 1961 he helped found the
Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT), which would contribute much work, ideas and research to new theatre spaces in the UK - particularly with regard to schools and universities. This would lead to the formation of the Society Of Theatre Consultants in 1964, which Stephen also helped found and was a leading member of.

Manchester University

In 1962, Stephen Joseph was appointed as the first fellow of the Department of Drama at Manchester University; this was intended to be a year-long sabbatical for study and teaching, but at the end of the year Stephen decided he did not want to leave the university. In the same year, he was also appointed to a lectureship at the university and in the following year created and ran a postgraduate diploma in drama. He was instrumental in helping to establish the department of drama, which now bears a studio theatre with his name.

Studio Theatre Club

Stephen Joseph formed Studio Theatre Ltd with the intent of promoting new writing and theatre-in-the-round, it was always his hope he would be able to find a suitable base in London for his company. However, this proved impractical due to the expense and lack of suitable venues leading Stephen to set up his first company in Scarborough. This was never intended as a long-term base though and Stephen was continually looking for a permanent home with an eye on London. Towards this end, he formed the Studio Theatre Club in 1955 which would perform in London on Sunday with the Scarborough company. The club was designed to promote some of the new writing Stephen was presenting in Scarborough and to draw attention to the company. Further details about the Studio Theatre Club can be found here.

Writing

Stephen was a prolific writer and authored several books as well as nurmoerus articles about a wife variety of subjects relating to British theatre. He was also a prolific letter writer to newspapers and other publications - often writing under different pen names in order to pursue arguments against himself!
His most significant works are his books Theatre In The Round, New Theatre Forms and The Story Of The Playhouse In England. Further details can be found in the
Publications and Articles pages.

Versus The Establishment (by Dr Paul Elsam)

The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus defines ‘The Establishment’ as ‘a group in society who have power and influence in matters of policy or opinion, and who are seen as being opposed to change’. Over time, I will be using this section of the website to try to build a nuanced and detailed discussion of Stephen’s relationship with those in the Establishment. To be clear, I’ll be referring in particular to England’s post-war cultural Establishment - a small, influential group located within English theatre, broadcasting, government and printed media. Key figures included critics Kenneth Tynan, Harold Hobson, and W. A. Darlington; BBC Head of Drama Michael Barry; and Arts Council Drama Director Jo Hodgkinson. As time and fresh research emerges, the list will grow.
Stephen generally picked fights with these and other people, because he found their actions or their views intolerable. It seems he felt he had no choice but to challenge them - sometimes privately, though often publicly.
The backdrop to all this is I think pretty interesting. Then, as now, we tend the think of the English cultural establishment as being drawn from a particular background: typically members are male, privately-educated, attended ‘Oxbridge’, and were sufficiently well-connected on graduation to secure work opportunities denied to others. I teach at Britain’s Teesside University, based in the industrial city of Middlesbrough. Here we recruit smart and talented performing arts students from a pretty wide demographic. This can bring with it challenges - including working to enhance students’ levels of confidence, discipline and self-belief, and deepening their sometimes patchy knowledge of ‘important’ theatre people and movements. It doesn’t help here that there’s no local professional repertory theatre, and that there’s often no family tradition of theatergoing. Live professional theatre these days is often costly; new plays, especially by new playwrights, bring no guarantee of satisfaction; the ‘classics’ often hold up a mirror to quite a limited section of society; and if you want to see current ‘star’ actors, you will only really find them on TV, in London’s West End, or (increasingly) as pixels on a cinema screen, beamed from a stage in London.
“’Twas ever thus” - at least, it was, once popular melodrama had been replaced by naturalism, and by cinema. In the post WW2 years, British theatres were shutting at an alarming rate. Perhaps the solution was to seek out genuinely new audiences? Much of Stephen Joseph’s energy went into opening up access to the many who felt that live theatre was ‘not for the likes of us’. His mission must have seemed straightforward: welcome back to the theatre those who had come to feel disenfranchised; entertain them cheaply, with exciting new work staged in inclusive new spaces; and the theatre will thrive once more.
But to what extent was Joseph’s democratizing agenda, his drive to open up culture for all, shared by the cultural Establishment? This question is one of several to be examined within these pages.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd with the exception of 'Versus The Establishment' which is copyright of Dr Paul Elsam. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.