Library Theatre Vs Opera House (2015)This article was first published in the February 2015 edition of the SJT Circular.
Despite surviving for more than sixty years, it’s worth reflecting how the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s existence has often been precarious over the decades.
Stephen Joseph’s closure of the Library Theatre in 1965 was one such flashpoint as was a decision in 1974 which led to Alan Ayckbourn threatening to leave Scarborough.
Two years after Alan became Artistic Director at the Library Theatre, the venue’s fortunes seemed to be on the ascendent. The summer season had frequently seen the ‘House Full’ board posted on Vernon Road and, having only operated during the summer months since 1961, a winter season was set to be launched.
However, an unlikely series of events unexpectedly threatened to derail the Library Theatre.
Between its opening in 1955 and 1973, Scarborough Town Council licensed the theatre annually to use Scarborough Library’s facilities. In 1974, this responsibility moved to county council level.
Astonishingly, this small administrative move almost led to a county council sub-committee being responsible for the loss of Stephen Joseph’s legacy in Scarborough.
What makes the story even more interesting is the unlikely confluence with a high-profile campaign to restore Scarborough’s Opera House theatre, which had garnered popular support with 13,500 signatures and the backing of several prominent Scarborians in a bid to raise £30,000 by January 1975 to obtain the building’s lease.
In November 1974, Scarborough Theatre Trust applied for a 40 week license to perform at the Library, previously this had largely been a formality and little in the way of opposition was expected.
On 23 November, the Scarborough Evening News reported North Yorkshire County Libraries Committee had turned down the application more than two to one when County Councillor Erkki Lahteela “spearheaded opposition to the Library Theatre proposal” suggesting the theatre’s presence would “take facilities away from organisations” in the town.
Councillor Lahteela also happened to be the chairman of the Opera House Preservation Society and became the figurehead in a very public argument largely fought in the media.
The county council’s decision was unexpected and put both the Theatre Trust and Scarborough Town Council into a difficult position. The Town Council viewed the theatre as an asset to Scarborough, welcoming both the publicity and the money it generated, but which had also made little progress in securing a much needed new home for the company away from the library.
Which was problematic considering the company was now threatened with homelessness.
On 25 November, Alan Ayckbourn was interviewed by the Scarborough Evening News with a prominent story proclaiming “Ayckbourn says he will quit if Library Theatre is refused a longer season.”
There he regretfully noted how if the decision was not overturned it would leave Scarborough without a repertory company and also lead to his “own departure from Scarborough.”
Carefully rebutting all of the committee’s raised objections to the license, he also addressed the Opera House issue for the first time publicly, questioning the veracity of the plans and suggesting the money would be better spent knocking the building down and constructing a more suitable Scarborough theatre - with an in-the-round space - in its place.
It was a provocative statement, never likely to be accepted.
Just to add fuel to the fire, Hull Arts Centre made an offer to house the company - which had unilaterally voted to join Alan in his threat to leave Scarborough; interestingly the Arts Centre would later become the Spring Street Theatre, home of Hull Truck Theatre.
The argument received extensive television and newspaper coverage with both parties going on the record in extensive interviews, which saw Alan at one point note: “I feel hurt, naturally, that our application for a 40-week season was rejected on such flimsy pretexts, and after 17 years I would have thought the town would be more supportive for theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough.”
The following day, the Opera House Preservation Society offered a 50-50 administrative split with Scarborough Theatre Trust if it immediately invested £15,000 to help obtain the lease. The society perversely suggesting there was no necessity for theatre-in-the-round in the development as “Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are performed in the West End in proscenium arch-type theatre not as theatre-in-the-round.” In retrospect, it was probably a desperate play for money by the Society.
As the arguments rolled into December, Scarborough Councillors publicly pushed for a special meeting of the Libraries Committee, which the county council agreed to.
With his dual positions being portrayed in a less then positive light, Councillor Lahteela resigned as chairman of the Preservation Society and went on to make a public statement which was reported nationally due to the rather extraordinary declaration that neither he nor any other county councillors had realised “how famous Alan Ayckbourn was.” It is not recorded what his fellow councillors thought of this sweeping statement, but it was perhaps not a wise comment.
In context, in 1974 alone Alan had equalled the record for the most plays simultaneously playing in the West End, had had his first Broadway success, had been featured in a self-titled documentary on BBC2 and was a constant presence in the region’s newspapers.
All this publicity had not been positive for the Opera House campaign and when the deadline arrived, it was reported less than £500 had been raised. Needless to say the Society did not purchase the lease; the Opera House was later restored and re-opened in 1976 by Scarborough businessman Don Robinson.
On 3 January 1975, the day before the Library Theatre’s winter season closed, a special meeting of the Libraries Committee was held and its decision reversed. The company was given permission to run a season from May until January 1976.
It was not all good news though as, in a additional statement, the committee declared this would be the company’s final season at the library and it would not be extended.
The clock was running. Theatre-in-the-round needed a new home in Scarborough and had just a year to find it.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.