Theatre in the Round: The Importance Of The Amateurs

It is no exaggeration to say that without Scarborough's amateur dramatic community during the 1950s and 1960s, there would be no Stephen Joseph Theatre today. The creation and successful running of Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre during the 1950s was dependent on the involvement of amateurs and, crucially, if an amateur season had not been organised in 1966, it is highly probable Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre would never have re-opened and there would be no professional theatre in the round company in Scarborough today.
Stephen Joseph was ground-breaking in many ways, but one of his least recognised beliefs was that professionals and amateurs could and should work together. This was not necessarily in production, but in theatre in general. The two should draw on each other's strengths and each encourage the other. He firmly believed theatre played an important part in the community and that the community had to be involved in a theatre to make it successful. Thus he reached out to the obvious link between the two, the amateur dramatic community. As a loss-making venture, the support and enthusiasm of the locals community must have helped immeasurably to convince Stephen Joseph to keep Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre going in its early days.

"Many Scarborough people are proud that theatre in the round virtually started its career here. From the start the venture had the support of local amateur groups. This extended beyond helping to set up and dismantle the theatre. Front of house help was recruited from volunteers, and prop-hunting, costume-finding, and the distribution of publicity material were all aided by voluntary help, under the supervision of Kenneth Boden. Besides helping us he has, as secretary of the local branch of the British Drama League, organised an amateur theatre in the round festival at Scarborough which looks like becoming an important annual event in the North of England."
Stephen Joseph

Ken Boden, an insurance salesman, amateur theatrical and leading member of Scarborough Theatre Guild with no professional theatre experience prior to meeting Stephen, there is the third member of the triumvirate credited with establishing theatre in the round as such a vital part of Scarborough's cultural heritage alongside Stephen Joseph and Alan Ayckbourn.

Ken was, objectively, a polarising figure but undoubtedly passionate in his support of Theatre in the Round at the
Library Theatre. He would eventually become the theatre manager from 1967 but, essentially, it was the commitment of an amateur theatrical which kept the theatre going after Stephen Joseph closed Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre in 1965.

A Theatre Reborn

Feeling the theatre lacked the support of the Library Committee and Scarborough Town Council, Stephen Joseph called notice on Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre at the end of the 1965 summer season with no intent of re-opening it. In a letter to the Library Director, Mervyn Edwards, in May 1965 - prior to officially announcing the closure of Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre - he also made it clear that he believed just a single year of no theatre would mean its end: "If we do not play next year it is unlikely the theatre will return again." This makes Ken Boden's subsequent actions all the more important.

With Theatre in the Round at the
Library Theatre closed at the end of the summer 1965 season and Stephen Joseph aware he was terminally ill, Ken proposed an amateur season for 1966 featuring four local companies and ending with the annual amateur In The Round Festival. Stephen - apparently reluctantly at first - agreed to support this, although neither he nor Scarborough Theatre Trust had any active involvement in the season and it was presented under the auspices of the British Drama League. But these actions ensured Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre kept going in some form for another year, essentially allowing more time to save the venue.

Full details about the 1966 amateur season and the productions can be found

In May 1966, Ken Boden approached Mervyn Edwards about reviving Theatre in the Round at the
Library Theatre professionally in 1967. Ken's proposal was that the British Drama League would essentially run the theatre and stage a professional season - a radical idea with an amateur company producing professional theatre. He already had the support of key figures such as Rodney Wood (a former student of Stephen who had also worked at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre) and Alfred Bradley (the influential northern BBC radio drama producer) - who would both be vital in keeping Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre running in the coming years. He had also contacted the Arts Council for its views and possible support and also investigated setting up a new theatre trust to run the venue. He then approached Stephen Joseph (increasingly ill with cancer), who offered to sign over the existing company, Scarborough Theatre Trust, to Ken for free; Ken only agreeing to this if there were no associated debts.

This does illustrate one of the problems with Ken, surviving correspondence shows he was committed if abrasive and his lack of professional experience often showed itself. Stephen Joseph and Mervyn Edwards had a demonstrably warm relationship over the years working together, but it was altogether different with Ken and by the late 1960s, Mervyn had written to every member of Scarborough Council criticising Ken's methods and lack of professionalism and doubting whether he could actually work with him in the future; given the theatre was at that point dependent upon the good graces of Scarborough Library for their performance space, it indicates a certain brash naivety, even arrogance on Ken's part.

Ken's proposals secured the support of Stephen Joseph, the Libraries Committee, Scarborough Town Council and the Arts Council in 1966. Stephen Joseph agreed to sign Scarborough Theatre Trust to Ken without any outstanding debts, the Libraries Committee agreed to further professional summer seasons at the library, the Arts Council agreed to support the venture and Scarborough Town Council resumed a grant subsidy to Theatre in the Round at the
Library Theatre as well as offering to cover box office losses in the 1967 season. It was an extraordinary about turn. Ken Boden - with the support of the British Drama League and dedicated supporters of the project - re-launched professional theatre at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre in 1967.

It is important to consider that without Ken's impetus and actions, there is no evidence to suggest anyone else would have stepped into the breach and Theatre in the Round at the
Library Theatre would likely have closed in 1965 never to re-open. The future of Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre was ensured by the efforts of Scarborough's amateur community.

Amateur Drama From the Library Theatre to the Stephen Joseph Theatre

Not only was the amateur and local community heavily involved in running Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre from the start, amateur companies were also soon performing in the same space (known as just The Library Theatre in these cases) and also adopting theatre-in-the-round for performance.

There is every reason to believe that Scarborough had the first thriving amateur theatre in the round community in the UK with
short amateur seasons arranged to precede the professional seasons from the late 1950s onwards. In 1960, the first amateur
In The Round theatre festival was launched and would run until 1968, before being relaunched by Alan Ayckbourn between 1977 and 1987. Stephen Joseph and the Theatre in the Round company embraced and encouraged amateur performance and Alan Ayckbourn even wrote several plays as a young dramatist for amateur companies in Scarborough and also acted in several amateur productions during his professional career; all of which it is believed were produced in-the-round.

When the theatre in the round company moved to its second home in 1976 - and became a year-round venue - at Theatre in the Round at Westwood (later renamed the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round), amateur productions became an important part of the theatre and also a way of keeping the venue open throughout the year.

During the late '70s and throughout the '80s, extensive amateur seasons were arranged which at their peak ran for more than two months in succession. The annual
In The Round Festival - which had ceased in 1968 - was also resumed in 1977 and ran for at least another eleven years. If anything, amateur performance at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round was even integral to the new venue than it had been at The Library Theatre; although the company had moved away from running the theatre with voluntary help from the amateur community.

Sadly, when the company moved in 1996 to its current home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, the links with amateur companies to all intents and purposes quickly faded. In the first few years, there were occasional amateur performances, but this became practically non-existent leading to a loss of any active relationship between the venue and the town's amateur community; the theatre's Executive Director between 1996 and 2015 - Stephen Wood - was also not an advocate of amateur productions in the theatre.

Amateur performances at the Stephen Joseph Theatre for the better part of the first 15 years of the new millennium were largely restricted to the National Student Drama Festival, the National Connections Festival (both of which were national events and not unique to the venue) as well as performances by the theatre's own drama groups.

Whilst it would perhaps not be fair to say the Stephen Joseph Theatre actively discouraged links with the amateur community during this period, it would be fair to say it did not actively encourage links with the amateur community.

Arguably, this meant a vital aspect of Stephen Joseph's legacy had been, objectively, lost. It is sad to note that a company which had preserved so much of Stephen Joseph's legacy and which was founded with the help and enthusiasm of Scarborough's amateur community - and to which it arguably owes its existence - largely lost an essential element of its foundation when it failed to stay engaged with the town's amateur community.

Article by and copyright of Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.