Stephen Joseph Theatre: Reinventing The Wheel (2015)

This article by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist Simon Murgatroyd, was commissioned by the Stephen Joseph Theatre to mark its 60th anniversary in 2015.

“Stephen Joseph said ‘all theatre should be designed to self-destruct in seven years.’ Most of us took that in the spirit, rather than the letter of the law.”
Alan Ayckbourn


In July 1955, a theatre visionary set up a temporary theatre for the summer on the first floor of Scarborough’s public library.
He regarded it as an experiment to introduce what was perceived as a new theatre form - theatre-in-the-round - with the intention of promoting and championing new writing.
The man was Stephen Joseph and, 60 years on, his creation - then the Library Theatre, now the Stephen Joseph Theatre - lives on. Stephen had fairly radical ideas about theatres and while it’s difficult to predict what he would now have made of his tiny experimental theatre, his protégé Alan Ayckbourn has some ideas.
“I like to think Stephen would be quite proud of it. But I think if he’d lived and still been in charge, he would either have blown it up or we would now be doing the most extraordinary stuff.”
The idea of ‘blowing up’ the theatre - not literally - was one of Stephen’s maxims. He believed theatre needed to constantly reinvent itself to succeed and survive.
Whether by design or accident, the SJT has actually adhered to this maxim and essentially re-invented itself every decade whilst ensuring Stephen’s legacy has continued to be engrained within the fabric of the company.

The first re-invention hewed the most closely to Stephen’s philosophy. In 1965, he announced the permanent closure of the Library Theatre as he felt the company had outgrown the venue.
This was a deliberate moment of self-destruction as the theatre itself was at a peak. Financially, the summer season had been the most profitable yet and there had been artistic success with the premiere of
Relatively Speaking by Alan Ayckbourn as well as new plays by Alan Plater, Mike Stott and David Campton.
But 11 years after opening, Stephen tore it all down.
The Library Theatre re-opened in 1967, largely thanks to the passion of the theatre manager Ken Boden. He persuaded Stephen, now ill with terminal cancer, to let the company continue. It was relaunched with no subsidy, limited finances and restricted to a shortened summer season of four plays. The company went back to the basics, rebuilding and re-inventing itself.

1976 brought a very visible change. The previous year North Yorkshire County Council had told the company in no uncertain terms to leave the Library Theatre and find a new home.
Potentially, a dramatic reinvention might have occurred as the Town Council announced a purpose-built theatre-in-the-road on the former Vernon Road car park. But this plan was abandoned in 1977 before a brick was laid.
In the meantime, the company had moved to the former Westwood County Modern School in October 1976 and in 60 days and at a cost of £38,000, converted the ground floor into a theatre. Intended as a temporary home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round became a base for 20 years and was launched as a year-round performance venue complete with a second smaller space, the Studio.
There, new writers were nurtured with the introduction of lunch-time and late-night shows; those who showed promise often commissioned to write for the main stage.

In 1986, Alan Ayckbourn - Artistic Director of the company since 1972 - announced he was to take a two year sabbatical as a company director at the National Theatre; his intention to take on a new challenge and recharge his creative batteries.
In his absence, long-term collaborator Robin Herford was named as Co-Artistic Director responsible for the day-to-day running of the theatre and who brought a different artistic vision to the venue for two years - including the commissioning of Stephen Mallatratt’s famed adaptation of
The Woman In Black.
Ken Boden also retired, having been the theatre manager since 1955 and the only person who had worked continuously for the company since it was formed.
Alan returned in 1988, re-invigorated and with new ideas. Within two years, he would be planning to ‘blow up’ the theatre.

This single largest re-invention came in 1996 with the opening of the Stephen Joseph Theatre. This £5.2m conversion of Scarborough’s former Odeon cinema gave the company its first permanent home in four decades.
A state-of-the-art theatre-in-the-round and an end-stage space were created and, despite initial funding issues, the company was relaunched with its most ambitious wide-ranging programme.
The theatre welcomed touring productions and links were forged with other companies such as the New Vic and the Northern Broadsides. The artistic programme expanded massively to incorporate music, dance, art, film, talks as well as a diverse range of visiting theatre.
Most significantly, the company’s first official Literary Department was launched and Stephen Joseph’s founding principles were clearly re-established at the centre of the company’s philosophy but on a far larger canvas.

The most recent re-invention was one of necessity and not of planning. In 2006, Alan Ayckbourn suffered a stroke and although he was back directing his latest play within six months, he announced the following year his plans to retire. For the first time since the Library Theatre launched, the company would not have a direct link to its founder.
In April 2009, Alan Ayckbourn stepped down after 37 years as Artistic Director and the baton was passed to Chris Monks. With his appointment, a new re-invention took place - as would be expected - reflecting a new Artistic Director and his vision for the theatre.

Six years on, the SJT is celebrating its diamond anniversary and preparing for a new chapter. Chris Monks is stepping down in December and Executive Director Stephen Wood retired earlier this year after 19 years in the role.
This also comes at a time of enormous challenge facing the arts in the UK. To survive and prosper in an age of austerity and financial uncertainty, many theatres are re-evaluating every aspect of their operation; in many cases, leading to exciting and radical solutions.
Change is inevitable if this or any theatre is to survive. Stephen Joseph knew this, even advocated it. More than ever, theatres have to adapt and reinvent themselves to reassert their relevance and pertinence to the community.
Perhaps we can already see the seeds of the next major change at the SJT: Chief Executive Matthew Russell is looking towards the company’s future and, earlier this year, the OutReach Rooms were unveiled; one of the largest projects ever undertaken by the company and a return to Stephen Joseph’s earnest belief, theatre should embrace the community.
Who knows what the future will hold? No doubt the theatre will constantly re-invent itself if it is to survive another 60 years, possibly beyond recognition. Hopefully, the SJT will prosper and one thing will stay constant.
The commitment to championing new writing that Stephen Joseph founded the company on 60 years ago.

“I think what you always need to do is take Stephen Joseph’s maxim of just reinventing. Keep reinventing.”
Alan Ayckbourn


Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.