Tuesday, 14 July this year marks the 60th anniversary of a new theatre venture in Scarborough when the Yorkshire seaside resort’s town-centre Library became home, in 1955, to a professional company playing ‘in-the-round’ – that is with the audience seated on all sides of what was more a square.
Behind this was a man with both literature and theatre in his background. Son of a publisher and a stage performer, Stephen Joseph determined to promote a form of theatre that was used everywhere except in theatre buildings.
From medieval plays to modern street hucksters, theatre in-the-round was a natural form. If you’ve something to show, people want to look, to get close. Nobody says ‘form straight lines and all face the same way’ to eager crowds.
Yet it was unimaginable to a theatre tradition steeped in the idea of stratified audiences being emoted at by lead actors from a distance. Some of the great names of mid-20th century theatre inveighed against Joseph’s ideas. But he persisted, ever-practical, finding an early home in London’s Mahatma Gandhi Centre, and subsequently sawing wooden rostra to create a suitable auditorium where one did not exist.
Pioneering Around the Country.
He was one of a small number of pioneers who took their work to drama-bereft places – Hull, Stoke-on-Trent were permanent gainers from such projects, the second directly through Joseph’s enterprise.
The Scarborough project struggled through some financially torrid times, turning amateur one season when cash dried-up and means were needed to keep the Library Company afloat.
Then the Library authorities decided they needed the space for “cultural” purposes, so the theatre-in-the-round moved to Further Education premises behind the railway station, until the education authorities decided they wanted their space back – it had, as actor and associate director Malcolm Hebden said in one of his hilarious pre-performance fund-raising speeches at the time, something of a blessing as local authority bureaucracy apparently meant ringing an office 30 miles away to get the heating turned up or down.
That second home had been dubbed ‘The Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round’ in memory of the project’s founder (Joseph had died of cancer in 1967, still in his mid-forties). The name of the third and final (to date) home, a former Odeon cinema standing boldly across the road from the rail-station’s forecourt, is shorter, the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
There, the main performance space has taken on ‘The Round’ as its name, for it is indeed a square with banks of seat on all sides, while a smaller studio theatre (even further) upstairs, The McCarthy, with several fixed rows pointing at a stage in traditional manner, is used for plays and films.
Teacher and Pupil.
Joseph was, according to his best-known follower, “a great teacher” (he became a Lecturer in Drama at Manchester University, where the drama studio was also named after him). His method seems to have been to shove people off in the right direction so they could find their own way forward. The director’s job – simple: to create an atmosphere in rehearsals where actors can try things out.
Writing a play? Easy – you have a central character who wants something. They search for it and get it; result- Comedy. Or, search for it and don’t get it; result – Tragedy. As for operating an antiquated lighting system – nothing easier; though on one occasion his enthusiastic demonstration plunged an entire show into darkness mid-performance.
That definition of Comedy and Tragedy is memorable and provocative. It would destroy classical French classic comedy, for its major writer, Molière, repeatedly wrote about leading characters who did not get what they wanted.
But it was entirely apt advice to give to the young actor who famously greeted an invitation to join the stage management team at Scarborough with the southerner’s riposte “Where’s Scarborough?”
As was his advice when answering the same actor’s grumbles about the plays he had to act in, that he should write his own.
It seems Joseph knew not only how, but who, to provoke. The actor was Alan Ayckbourn, who admits to having been an inveterate scribbler from around the age of ten – if someone can be inveterate at such a tender age.
Experience Brought into Play.
It was not long after that the young Alan, moving to London, was placed by a concerned mother with his aunt for safe keeping. She had a firm way of telling her own, much younger, children what to do and her nephew was still near enough childhood to jump with alarm at the instructions issued to his young cousins.
Years later, the experience was distilled into ‘Mother Figure’, in which a woman stuck at home looking after her offspring starts treating everyone like children. It was his contribution to an evening of one act plays which lasted little beyond an evening.
Freed of its constraining companions, the piece became the opening for a set of five short plays, linked by one character from each scene recurring in the next, reaching a hectic farce, before events quieten in a final amused consideration of how talking can be less conversation than an expression of isolation.
Confusions is ingenious – Ayckbourn is the lead example of a rare playwriting breed who can combine popularity with experiment in the form of a play. In being simultaneously funny and sad, he is an heir to Molière. What can be funnier than the penultimate season of a slightly later play, Just Between Ourselves? What more sombre than the final scene?
Stephen Joseph kick-started the theatre eventually named after him as a communal achievement of actors and audience; its continued success confirms his belief in the Round. But it has been sustained thanks to Ayckbourn’s work as playwright and director. Ironically, that success led Ayckbourn’s plays back to the proscenium arch in West End productions which have produced a share of travesties.
Ayckbourn was particularly interested in giving actors scope by letting them appear in several roles during one evening when he wrote the play he’s just revived. Confusions in 2015 will cast its five actors pretty much as the roles were allocated at Scarborough in 1974.
Yet when the play went to the West End its starring husband and wife actors were allocated the leading roles in all five sections. A long way from the attempt, 41 years ago, to establish a presence out of holiday season with five actors who, for want of a regular home, played the premiere production weekly across three Yorkshire resorts in three different shapes of stage (thrust, the Round, end-stage).
The sixty years on celebration includes an exhibition at Scarborough Art Gallery (to 13 September) and, on anniversary day, 14 July, looks back over the six decades with play extracts re-created in the buildings where they were originally performed before the official opening of Confusions in the Stephen Joseph’s Round auditorium. During the afternoon, at 4pm, slices of plays seen originally at the Westwood site are being read by actors connected with the Stephen Joseph’s history.
The day starts back at the Library at 2pm, including part of the company’s first production, Circle of Love by Eleanor D Glaser. Whether this forgotten piece will prove a jewel worth revival or serve to point-up how fortunate it was young Ayckbourn took the train to Scarborough (wherever that was) will be discovered today.
(Information in this piece includes material from Alan Ayckbourn’s question-and-answer session at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on 12 July 2015.
As always, www.alanayckbourn.net is invaluable as a source of well-organised information on the playwright and his works).