Interview: The Independent (1988)

This interview was published in The Independent on 1 June 1988.

Prodigal's Love For The Last Resort

by Sheila Johnston

"I sell magic," pronounces Russ Allen, Marketing Director of the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough. He is, however, surrounded by a thicket of maps and calculi charting catchment areas and cost effectiveness, or publicising Raffle Rotas and Friends' Super Savers. It all suggests intensive, even aggressive management.

The Theatre receives approximately £132,000 from the Arts Council, but is labouring in the shadow of 'incentive funding' directly linked to box-office revenue and business sponsorship. And so the profit and loss of 'magic' must needs be nicely calibrated.

Scarborough embraces a potential public of some five million, but over 60 per cent of its actual audience travels over 40 miles to catch its repertoire. Since 1986, box-office income has increased by nearly 10 per cent per year. But, in the absence of tax benefits for business sponsors, there is little prospect of the 303-seat theatre becoming self-supporting.

The Theatre in the Round was first bought to Scarborough by
Stephen Joseph in 1955, fired by work he had seen in America. "He started operating in London, which was very expensive," says Alan Ayckbourn, playwright-in-residence and Artistic Director. "Then he was introduced to our Chief Librarian, who had a spare room on the first floor, and the Theatre in the Round was shunted in there in about 1955."

And thus it came about that, on the first floor of the local
public library, amid the smell of musty books, floor polish and wet umbrellas, some of the country's most innovative theatre was mounted before suspicious - and sometimes grievously small - local audiences.

"It sounds ridiculous now, but then there wasn't another theatre like it," Ayckbourn recalls. "British theatre was all proscenium arch, full stop. No fringe. The audience assumed we couldn't afford a curtain."

The other chief feature of the Stephen Joseph Theatre was its policy of promoting untried playwrights. "The work was extraordinary - everybody was writing. A lot of it was dreadful, but it didn't matter in the end."

Though the Company moved to smart new premises in 1976, its policy remains unchanged. This year's season includes seven world premieres. The play originally intended to launch the season, Peter Tinniswood's
State Of The Union, was not ready, and has been replaced by J B Priestley's Eden End, which opens tomorrow.

However, two of the four plays in the main auditorium are new.
The Parasol is based on the Chekhov novel, Three Years, and is that "very rare bird, a good unsolicited script," says Ayckbourn, adding a little self-consciously, "the other new play is a traditional feast, or something." This is Man Of The Moment, the eagerly-awaited annual Ayckbourn premiere.

He is, of course, Scarborough's most celebrated alumnus. Some 30 years ago,
[1] he first arrived there as a humble stage manager, intending to stay only for the summer season. Encouraged by Joseph, he penned his first play at the age of 19, The Square Cat: although Ayckbourn is a noted cat-lover, it was - being written in 1959 - of the "hey, man" variety, he says, snapping his fingers. The Theatre's restaurant is named in its memory.

Having disappeared South on a two-year sabbatical at the
National Theatre, Ayckbourn has just come home to roost, to everyone's general relief and the considerable surprise of some.

"Scarborough is probably the toughest town for theatre. It's unenthusiastic, un-impressible. Scarborough says to itself: 'If you're that good, what are you doing here?' I came back because nobody expected me to. But I need Scarborough at least as much as it needs me."

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn joined the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1957.

Copyright: The Independent. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.