The Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
A friend said to me over Christmas that he couldn't live in Scarborough because there wasn't enough cultural 'stuff' going on. There's two points I'd make in response to that:
1) There's loads of cultural stuff going on.
2) It's not an issue because he lives somewhere else anyway (and it isn't even a place that has the longest running seaside show in the country, that's for sure. But let's not get bitter).
Before attempting to explore the full range of Scarborough's cultural acitivites, you have to start with the Stephen Joseph Theatre, surely one of the best known theatres outside London... or Stratford... or Edinburgh... or Hull... it's quite well known anyway. Being called the Stephen Joseph Theatre is slightly confusing because it is regarded as Alan Ayckbourn's theatre. Ayckbourn retired as Artistic Director of the Theatre a week ago, after holding the position since 1972. During that time he's premiered many of his 72 plays in Scarborough and he still remains as Guest Director. The Theatre in Scarborough has obviously been shaped by Ayckbourn's vision, but in turn he was influenced by Stephen Joseph.
Stephen Joseph was an actor, writer, set designer and producer, from the Cambridge Footlights Review in 1947, to teaching at the Central School of Speech and Drama. He also studied at Iowa University and while he was in America saw performances set 'in the round'. On his return to England he became frustrated with there was a lack of intimacy in large professional theatres and that a change was needed to make theatre attractive to a modern audience. He wanted to start his own theatre, but the expense of doing this made it impossible, he says, "until I recalled that one of my notes on the theatre in the round pointed out its economy. And then it was simply a question of finding a place and forming a company."
That place became Scarborough. Following a lecture in the area he was shown the Concert Room at Scarborough Public Library and that became the Library Theatre. It opened in the summer of 1955 with the unique feature of the audience being sitted on all four sides of the stage. It was the first professional theatre in the round in the UK. Alan Ayckbourn became a stage manager and actor at the theatre, and, after complaining about the quality of the lines he was expected to speak, Stephen Joseph suggested that he wrote a better script himself. Ayckbourn gave it a go and wrote his first play, performed in 1959.
(Information on Stephen Joseph from 'A Profile of Stephen Joseph' by Ren Yaldren.)
Ayckbourn continued Stephen Joseph's vision in the theatre, taking it from the Library to become the Theatre in the Round (at the old Westwood School by Valley Bridge) to it's current form as the Stephen Joseph Theatre - still, characteristically, in the round.
The Theatre dominates the top of the town, especially at night when it's neon lights emphasise the art deco masterpiece of the old Odeon Cinema. As a member of the audience, seeing theatre in the round means that, when compared to the proscenium arch (no culture?) you are always close to the stage. Ayckbourn has said that theatre in the round, "Brings us back to the basic building blocks of theatre, just actors and audience without anything getting in between. It is electrifying: you get so close to the actors. Every time I work on a prescenium arch stage, I come back here saying, 'Now I see why the round is the only way.'"
That's all great, but it overlooks a crucial feature of theatre in the round; that you can see the other members of the audience. This wasn't so good when I went on a school trip to see The Caretaker. A lad from another school far far away had obviously been engaging in the important schoolboy preparation for the theatre by drinking Carling Black Label until it was almost spilling out of him. Then at a crucial point in the performance, possibly an important exchange about Sidcup, it did spill out of him. It was horrible. Even the actors stopped to watch what was going on.
On a more positive note, you might look across the stage and spot one of your old teachers sitting opposite you - with their arm around someone who used to be in your class... maybe. Or you might see John Byrne, the author of Tutti Frutti, the greatest ever TV drama. I'm sure it was him last time I went, and hopefully he was there setting up a performance of Tutti Frutti.
So, ultimately, just how cultural does the Stephen Joseph Theatre make Scarborough. Well, let me tell you this. I went down there a few days ago to buy tickets for John Shuttleworth, only to be faced by a queue a mile long for Othello starring Lenny Henry. Now, if Lenny Henry was peforming at the Futurist on the sea front, there probably wouldn't have been a queue. And if Othello had been announced at the theatre, there probably wouldn't have been a queue. So, why was there a big queue for Othello featuring Lenny Henry? If we can answer that, then we're making strides towards understanding culture.
It's over to you - culture/theatre/Lenny Henry? I'm just going to pose a couple of thoughts.
1) People are keen to see Othello because they think Lenny is going to do it in his Deakus voice.
2) Most people were actually queueing for John Shuttleworth tickets.
3) Pretty much everything you see at the Stephen Joseph Theatre is fantastic.