Scarborough & Theatre In The Round

Scarborough is a coastal town in North Yorkshire, which is regarded as the United Kingdom's first seaside resort.
The town has several notable claims to fame including: Scarborough Castle, which dates back to the 12th century but on which site archeological finds date back to the late Bronze Age; the fair which was permitted by Royal Charter in 1253 and continued for 500 years, later commemorated in the famous song, Scarborough Fair; a strong connection with King Richard III; the Spa waters discovered in 1626, whose restorative properties helped launched the town's popularity; the Rotunda Museum, built in 1829, designed by the 'father of English geology' William Smith and regarded as one of the country's earliest purpose-built museums.

Famous people associated with the town's cultural heritage include:
Writers Alan Ayckbourn, Anne Brontë, Susan Hill, Edith Sitwell, Christopher York Artists John Atkinson Grimshaw, Henry Charles Fehr, Frank Henry Mason, Actors Ian Carmichael, Ben Kingsley, Charles Laughton, Penelope Wilton Musicians Eliza Carthy, Robert Palmer Architects Cuthbert Brodrick, Edwin Cooper Journalists Mary Nightingale, David Sillito.

And, of course, the town is famous for it being the founding-place of the UK's first professional theatre in the round company in 1955 by the theatre pioneer
Stephen Joseph on the first floor of Scarborough's public library and which later launched the playwriting career of Sir Alan Ayckbourn; he would succeed Stephen Joseph the Artistic Director of the company from 1972 to 2009 following Stephen's death in 1967.

Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre

There is no obvious reason why modern theatre-in-the-round found its first professional foothold in Scarborough other than being the right place at the right time. Although the town during the 1950s supported many theatres, these were primarily tourist destinations supporting revue and variety shows as well as touring and amateur productions. Like the vast majority of British theatres at the time, they were also all proscenium arch or end-stage. It just happened that when Stephen Joseph was looking for somewhere to house his first theatre-in-the-round company, Scarborough was suggested as a possible location by a friend. The rest is history.

The company was initially based in
Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre (often inaccurately referred to as The Library Theatre), a temporary space built in the Concert Room on the first floor of the public library. Stephen designed and had built portable rostra for in-the-round seating and which could be easily and quickly installed, which was also useful for touring. Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre operated from 1955 to 1976, when the company moved on to a new home.

Due to the demands on the Library for use of the Concert Room, there were occasions (predominantly during the shorter winter seasons) when an alternative room in the building was used by the theatre, the Lecture Room; the smaller size of which was not able to accommodate theatre in the round, so productions were staged three-sided instead.

Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre today: The Concert Room at Scarborough Public Library is still operating today and open to the public. The room itself has changed remarkably little since 1955 and is still easily identifiable as the place where professional theatre-in-the-round began in the UK and well worth visiting. The library also holds a significant collection of material relating to the theatre including correspondence from Stephen Joseph, designs and early programmes including mint condition programmes for some of Alan Ayckbourn's earliest work and successes. The Lecture Room is now part of the administrative part of the building and not open to the public.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round

In 1976, the company moved to what was intended to be a temporary home on the ground floor of the former Westwood County Modern School, which was completed in 1900 and is a grade II listed building. Located on Valley Bridge Parade beneath the town's famous Valley Bridge, the temporary venue became home to the company for 20 years and is most associated with Alan Ayckbourn, who was appointed Artistic Director of Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre in 1972 and who oversaw the move to its new home and premiered many notable works at the venue. Known colloquially as Westwood (and originally opened as Theatre In The Round At Westwood), the theatre initially shared the building with the town's technical college. In 1978, it was renamed the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round.

The design of the round auditorium - actually closer to a square - with its three vomitorium / entrance design was first used here and copied intact when the theatre moved to a permanent home in 1996. The building also housed a small studio space, which was first used in 1977, in which small end-stage productions were staged. Notably, it was where the world premiere of Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation of Susan Hill's
The Woman In Black opened in 1987.

Largely seen as the golden age of the company, the company during this period was prolific in the amount of plays produced each year and the quantity of new plays commissioned and produced.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round today: After leaving the venue in 1996, the ground floor of Westwood was reclaimed by Yorkshire Coast College and adapted back into a space suitable for the college. The theatre-in-the-round was incorporated into the School of Creative Arts based at Westwood Campus, where the round and studio theatres were both used for student performances. The building is currently - since 2022 - being converted into flats with the facade of the building alone being retained.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre

More than 40 years after being created, the company finally found a permanent home at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Built in a conversion of the town's grade II listed former Odeon building, the theatre restored the exterior and front of house areas to reflect the building when it first opened in 1936, whilst creating state-of-the-art, purpose built facilities for The Round and back-stage. The Round's acting space mirrors that of the former space at Westwood, but the seating area is one row larger (increasing capacity by more than 100 seats to 404) including wheelchair access. The theatre also has a purpose-built second space (housed in what was the circle of the former Odeon), The McCarthy, which is a 165 seater end-stage space with digital cinema facilities.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre today: The Stephen Joseph Theatre is open all-year round with its own repertory season traditionally running from July through to October alongside a spring and Christmas show; the SJT is currently producing between five and six in-house or co-productions a year, approximately half of which are new work.

In recent years, the significance and volume of visiting productions have become an increasingly important and visible aspect of the theatre's repertoire.

Although Alan Ayckbourn stepped down as Artistic Director of the company in 2009, he still premieres new work at the venue, although the revivals of his plays have not resumed since 2019.

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