The Library Theatre: Beside The Seaside (1972)

This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn for Yorkshire magazine in 1972 and looks at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in the year he was appointed Artistic Director of the venue.

Writing a new play for Scarborough each summer has become an almost incurable habit with me now. This year will see my tenth play to be produced there. Not all of them have gone on to be very successful and many, particularly the earlier ones, were decidedly unsatisfactory. The very fact, though, that such a theatre exists like the Library Theatre, allowing a writer such as myself both to err and develop over twelve years, is both remarkable and unusual.
Scarborough's Theatre-in-the-Round was started nearly fifteen years ago by the late Stephen Joseph. Previously, he had taught at the Central School of Drama in London, worked for a time as a producer in television and, on the side, taken to presenting an occasional series of one night shows in London in an Indian hostel. Here, he mounted little-known or new plays casting usually otherwise unemployed actors.
Plays put on for only one night are seldom very satisfying for anyone and soon Joseph was looking around for a likely place to continue his experiment. After endless enquiries he received an encouraging reply from, on the face of it, that unlikely quarter, the Scarborough Public Library. He took a day off work from his coal round in Chelsea with which he supplemented his uncertain theatrical income, and set off by motor bike, through six foot snow drifts, to investigate further.
Within days, the committee of the Scarborough Library had agreed to allow him the use of the first floor of their building at a nominal rent to rig up a theatre-in-the-round. That summer, after rehearsing in London (paid for by the sale of the same motor bike) he arrived with a company of half a dozen to present, for eight weeks, a season of new or little known plays in repertoire. The experiment was successful enough to encourage him to return and though, subsequently, he modified his playbill to include small cast classics or even the odd commercial play, the emphasis remained on the new and untried writer. Basically, the theatre hasn't varied its policy since then, even after his untimely death in 1967.
We are still committed to present new plays and are still restricted by small casts and shoestring budgets. Some improvements and modifications have been possible with outside assistance, but the company size is much the same as when the theatre was started. This is partly due to finance but there is also an optimum size for a group doing work such as ours, something less than twelve and more than five. For not only does the Round require, in performance, a certain mutual understanding and sympathy between players (preferable in the proscenium theatre but not so noticeable if it's lacking) but the business of tackling a number of untried and often pretty rough scripts demands a frenzied sort of team work.
To some it might seem that this type of theatre and its policy would be unlikely to succeed in a town such as Scarborough with its emphasis on the brasher, more commercial sort of entertainment. Yet the theory behind it can be seen to be sound enough. Firstly, Joseph argued, in-the-round (at that time an almost unheard of medium in this country) was, to a largely television weaned audience, a far more exciting, accessible and immediate experience than that normally viewed through the distant formality of the proscenium arch. For, to all but the critics, the manager's friends or the rich, who sat in the first few rows, those meaningless specks on a conventional stage (which we later identified from our programmes as actual people) were about as dramatic as the television test card. There was a crying need for either much larger actors, or failing this, smaller theatres.
Secondly, that by employing this form of simpler theatre, he could divert his limited finances towards the vital ingredients - his actors and his plays. Such refinements as lighting, sound and settings could remain, for the time being, avoidable luxuries.
The third vital ingredient, his audiences, were yet to be explored.
Scarborough audiences are governed in size by the weather and the choice of play, in that order. Over the first we can do little but hope but, as regards the second, whilst obviously a play by, say, Priestley will be almost sure fire, even a new play can be equally successful, providing it can prove itself to be sufficiently entertaining.
The play-list for a season seldom contains less than 50% new plays. This current year four out of the five plays are receiving, to use that overworked phrase, their World Premieres.
It must be added that probably the majority of our new work sinks with its author, without trace. The long awaited second play never arrives either because he didn't like the way we did his first or maybe he only had one to write, anyway. But any theatre that can boast of launching David Campton, James Saunders, and, after the failure of his first play in London, Harold Pinter, can be proud of something.
Many of our basic problems remain unsolved, certainly. We are still very much tenants in a Public Library which suggests a literary-equals-obscure-and-difficult image that we don't really deserve. We suffer too, like any seasonal theatre, from lack of continuity in company or audience. We have a regular hard core of patrons but thirteen weeks is too brief to build up any real following. Despite the terrifying unemployment figures in their profession, actors are reluctant to return, feeling that going back somewhere is retrograde, preferring to stick it out in London for the lucrative if elusive television part. Each year is a fresh start for us in Scarborough, in many ways.
For every foot we gain, I often feel we have lost eleven inches.
Locally, we are regarded by the authorities with a more or less benign tolerance, bordering on indifference. Whilst happy to see us chugging along under our own steam, with only the slenderest encouragement, there is no indication that they would be prepared to launch the life boat if we seemed to be sinking. Scarborough is, after all, they reason, a holiday town and as such should provide only successful, preferably London-proved entertainment. All we can do at the Library, under the circumstances, is to try and continue providing London with it in the first place.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.