Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre takes centre stage on its 60th anniversary

PUBLISHED: 00:00 01 June 2015 | UPDATED: 15:09 16 February 2016

In the spotlight  the Stephen Joseph Theatre (Photograph: James Drawneek)

In the spotlight  the Stephen Joseph Theatre (Photograph: James Drawneek)

© Tony Bartholomew

The SJT has staged more than 350 new productions in its 60-year history

Stephen Joseph went completely off-script when he decided to base his pioneering theatre-in-the-round company in Scarborough. It was a happenstance moment of improvisation that changed the cultural landscape of the town, but it could just as easily have happened somewhere else.

‘The fact that Scarborough has a theatre like this is extraordinary. And it’s quite by accident,’ said artistic director Chris Monks. ‘Stephen Joseph was touring and happened to mention that he was struggling to find a base for his company. Again, someone just happened to mention the concert room in the library but, frankly, it could have been anywhere. We could be having this conversation in the Stephen Joseph Theatre Heckmondwike.’

But we’re not. We’re in Scarborough on a typically crisp coastal morning discussing the 60th anniversary of the town’s theatrical happy accident.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre (SJT) has had three homes in the last six decades; first the concert room in the library then, in 1976, the ground floor of the former Scarborough Boys’ High School under the town’s landmark Valley Bridge and finally, in 1996, the former Odeon cinema, a prominent 1930s corner plot in Westborough.

As we sit in Chris’s office with its damp patches on the ceiling (an inevitable consequence of the 1930s flat roof) and scaffolding visible through the windows as workmen try to fit a quart expansion project into what often feels like a pint pot building, the question naturally arises: is this really the last act for the SJT or could another move be in the offing at some point, perhaps to purpose-built accommodation?

‘Stephen Joseph said “after seven years burn it all down and start again”, so you never know,’ said Chris. ‘This place was designed as a cinema, so it’s by no means perfect. It doesn’t encourage people to linger; instead, it funnels you back out on to the street very quickly. But we’ve learned to use the space very creatively. We’re limited because it’s grade two listed, but we make it work. Just about.’

They’re currently making it work even better by creating a new Outreach centre with additional on-site wardrobe and prop storage facilities at a cost of £350,000. This will enable the company to expand its already impressive work in – and with – the community, and give it even more scope to seek out, mentor and, hopefully, produce work by new writers.

The SJT has staged more than 350 new productions in its 60-year history – a staggeringly impressive number by anyone’s estimation – and continues to be the standard-bearer for new writing. But why take a chance on untested work when they could pack the auditorium every night with safe seat-fillers?

‘It’s the jeopardy and danger that make it worthwhile,’ said Chris. ‘It’s very hard to fail these days; it’s just not allowed anymore. Everything has to be immediately successful and sell-out, otherwise you’re assumed to be struggling. But if you don’t take a chance on new writing, how’s the next Alan Ayckbourn going to emerge?

‘All writing is new writing at some point. Romeo and Juliet was new writing once. The fact is you can’t pick a winner every time, but you can try.’

To celebrate its milestone anniversary, the SJT has invited its original new writer, Alan Ayckbourn, to direct a revival of his 1974 play Confusions and is premiering his 79th play, Hero’s Welcome, on July 14th.

‘Our continuing relationship with Alan is incredibly important,’ said Chris. ‘I’m not convinced we’d be here celebrating our 60th anniversary at all without him.’

Other celebratory events include play readings in the company’s former homes, a retrospective of audience favourites, including The Woman In Black and Tim Firth’s Neville’s Island, and a hugely ambitious project involving 60 one-minute plays: 20 by established writers, 20 by emerging writers and 20 by first-timers from the Scarborough community (the youngest of whom is only 11).

‘I’ve read 146 pieces for the Sixty by Sixty project and have been amazed at the breadth and depth of the writing,’ said Chris. ‘Some are poignant, some hilariously funny and some darkly macabre. The range is truly stunning.

‘All the plays will go on our website and I’m planning on putting together a live version, maybe over 24 hours at our three homes. God, that makes me feel tired just thinking about it. But that’s what theatre should be – exciting and just a little bit dangerous.’ w

To find out more about the celebratory season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, call 01723 370541 or visit sjt.uk.com

Theatre timeline

Acts one, two and three of the Stephen Joseph Theatre story…

1955: Stephen Joseph, son of actress Hermione Gingold and publisher Michael Joseph, sets up the country’s first theatre-in-the-round company on the first floor of Scarborough Public Library.

1957: Alan Ayckbourn begins working with the company as acting stage manager.

1959: Ayckbourn’s first play, The Square Cat, premieres in Scarborough.

1967: Stephen Joseph leaves Scarborough in 1965, unhappy with the library facilities. Ken Boden, a local insurance agent and keen amateur theatrical, re-opens the theatre the two years later. Sadly, Joseph dies in the same year, aged 46.

1972: Ayckbourn is announced as artistic director.

1976: The theatre moves to the former Scarborough Boys’ High School at a conversion cost of £40,000 and, a year later, is renamed The Stephen Joseph Theatre-in-the-Round.

1996: After a three-year, £5.2m conversion, the company moves to its current home in the former Odeon cinema on the corner of Westborough.

2009: Chris Monks succeeds Ayckbourn as artistic director.

2015: The Stephen Joseph Theatre celebrates its 60th anniversary with a typically ambitious programme of work.

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