Interview: The Stage (28 July 2005)

This interview was published in The Stage on 28 July 2005

Round Half Century

by Kevin Berry

Half a century ago, theatre in the round came to Scarborough. What was to follow makes that event something worth celebrating. Back then a small company of actors opened a short summer season with the play Circle of Love by Eleanor D Glaser. It was staged in a room above the town library. The audience sat round the performance space and the director was Stephen Joseph. Reactions were mixed.
"It caused quite a fuss," recalls retired teacher Chris Woodland, who was at that first performance. "There were letters in the Scarborough Evening News. People were saying that they didn't want to look at other people opening their chocolates. I enjoyed it because I felt I was on stage with the actors. I enjoyed the intimacy of it and so did many others."
Stephen Joseph's theatre company gradually became established in the town. Playing in the round was its distinguishing feature. When Joseph died, the Library Theatre was rechristened the Stephen Joseph Theatre. It moved locations until getting a permanent home in 1988.
[1] For 48 of those years Sir Alan Ayckbourn, a playwright renowned the world over, has been the Stephen Joseph Theatre's artistic director. [2]
"Stephen Joseph's maxim is still ringing in my ears," Ayckbourn tells me. "He said every theatre should self-destruct in seven years. That sums him up. I don't think he meant literally put dynamite in the building on the very last day. I try to take the spirit of that if not the letter. I think what he means is - reinvent yourself. And I like to think we do. Actors who come to work here do remark on how friendly the atmosphere here is. That is something we've retained." The anniversary of that first production, at what was the UK's first in the round theatre, has been celebrated with the unveiling of a blue plaque at the library. From August 9-13, Ayckbourn will be at the SJT hosting
Fifty Years New, five evenings of reminiscences with each evening covering a different decade.
"I thought of digging into my own personal memories for the first half," he explains. "And link with the current company by having them read from some of the plays we presented at that time. Trying to avoid mine. There'll be enough of me for one evening. We'll put the emphasis on the new work we have used, the early James Saunders and David Campton.
"Then for the second half I've invited various guests from that period. I've got Elizabeth Bell, who was in that first company as a very young school girl. We'll reminisce and we'll ask people in the audience to contribute."
Stephen Joseph, son of Hermione Gingold and the publisher Michael Joseph, had seen theatre in the round in the United States and he came back determined to change British theatres. "He thought that all proscenium arches should be knocked down and destroyed," Ayckbourn recalls. "Theatre in the round was the way forward."
Having been tipped off that Scarborough's chief librarian liked drama, Joseph travelled up north on his motorbike and took over the second floor of the library. When Joseph died in 1967, Ayckbourn, who was just beginning to enjoy a new career as a writer, was asked to take over. He was hesitant but he agreed out of loyalty for Stephen Joseph and admiration for Joseph's policy of staging new writing.
“Stephen incorporated the writer within the fabric of the company," recalls Ayckbourn. "Shakespeare would not have been unfamiliar with that. But at that time writers were separate people who phoned their stuff in or posted it from the Orkney Islands. You rarely saw them.
"Stephen was a Renaissance man, very interested in practically everything. He knew more about the art of playwriting than anyone I've met. He knew more about the art of acting than anyone I've met and he knew more about directing. But he wasn't very good at any of them. He was an awful writer but he knew what should be written. He was easily bored but he knew how to delegate, thank goodness, or I would never have got started, and he knew how to inspire."
The Stephen Joseph Theatre eventually outgrew the library. Putting a Morris Minor on stage and flooding the reading room
[4], Ayckbourn cheerily admits, did not help. The theatre moved to the Westwood building, a former secondary school.
"It was always slightly impermanent. North Yorkshire would never give a long contract, just one, two or three years at a time. The Yorkshire Coast College had taken over the rest of the building and they were looking ambitiously at our floor. Nobody actually said, "get out". But they were saying 'are you thinking of leaving?' repeatedly. And then this place, the former Odeon cinema, had closed so we moved here. That was in 1988.
[5] We have a 99-year lease so as far as I'm concerned, it's our last home."
The SJT's actors have just returned from New York. They collected rave reviews for
Private Fears in Public Places, Ayckbourn's 67th play. The New York Times critic is now determined to make a pilgrimage to Scarborough. Another critic called the production the best ensemble acting seen on both sides of the Atlantic.
"A wonderful vote of confidence for the company," Ayckbourn enthuses. "It vindicated, for me, the whole company system we have been running. We did 101% business every night. Someone said, 'Kevin Bacon is in the audience. Lauren Bacall's trying to get to see it and she can't get a seat'. I had this image - of course it would never happen - of seeing Lauren Bacall in the returns queue."
Fifty years on and 50 years flourishing. American critics make pilgrimages. What would those letter writers have made of it?

Website Notes:
[1] The Library Theatre's name was not changed whilst the company was at this location between 1955 and 1976. In 1976, the company moved to an 'apparently' temporary new home at a former school which was initially named Theatre In The Round At Westwood. On 1 April 1978, by which time it had become obvious this was to become a slightly more permanent home than previously thought, the venue's named was changed to the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. The company stayed here for 20 years until 1996 - not 1988 as the article implies - when the company moved to its first permanent home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
[2] Alan Ayckbourn had been with the company for 48 years by 2005, but had been Artistic Director for only 33 years having been appointed to that role in 1972.
[3] Whilst Stephen Joseph died in 1967, Alan Ayckbourn did not take over the theatre as Artistic Director until 1972. During the interim years, a Director Of Productions was appointed on an annual basis which included Rodney Wood, Caroline Smith and Alan Ayckbourn.
[4] This refers to the world premiere productions of
Time & Time Again (1971) - during which an ornamental pond sprung a leak dripping into the reading room below - and Just Between Ourselves (1976) in which the company managed to get a Morris Minor up to the first floor of the library as part of the play's set.
[5] See previous note [1] when the company moved to the SJT in 1996, not 1988.

Copyright: The Stage. 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.