Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre: The First YearIn 1955, Stephen Joseph founded Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre in Scarborough, marking the birth of the modern theatre-in-the-round movement in the UK. Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre was home to Studio Theatre Ltd, the first professional in-the-round company, and a company also dedicated to promoting new writing.
This in-depth article by Alan Ayckbourn's archivist Simon Murgatroyd explores the creation of Studio Theatre Ltd, Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre and the venue's first year in 1955 as well as the response to it.
Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre: The First Year (1955)
Stephen Joseph first encountered theatre-in-the-round early in his professional career when, in 1949, he saw a touring amateur company performing A Phoenix Too Frequent, under the direction of Jack Mitchley. Stephen said he left the play so excited, he had “a bee beginning to buzz at the back of my mind.” [i] His passion for this form of staging grew when he went to America to study for a Degree in Drama, majoring in playwriting, at the University of Iowa in 1951. Stephen had been given a grant by the Elmgrant Foundation to record new theatre-buildings in the United States through which he was exposed to several purpose-built theatre-in-the-round venues. [ii] He returned to England excited by this alternative form of staging and extremely passionate about new writing. Both were to heavily inform his future.
What Stephen saw in theatre-in-the-round was a form of theatre that was intimate, exciting, economical and relatively easy to run and set up. Arguably the polar opposite of what theatre had become; during the 1950s, theatre was struggling against the popularity of cinema and the emergence of television as a mass audience entertainment. The dominant proscenium arch was, certainly to Stephen’s mind, not terribly exciting. It was also expensive and thus did not encourage risk-taking. Stephen wanted to encourage and produce new writing, which by necessity involved risk - particularly financial risk. In-the-round offered a financially sound way of presenting new plays. It also offered an exciting environment where the audience were, by design, far more intimately involved with the play. Theatre-in-the-round at its most basic level is about the audience and the actors; there can be no extravagant sets or special effects, the format does not allow them or suit them. The essential element is the audience totally surrounding the stage and the actors. It involves the audience and invites them into the action in a way the fourth wall viewing of the proscenium arch can never allow.
“The most important feature of theatre-in-the-round is that it brings the emphasis of the presentation onto the actors, and that it restores to the actor the dignity of being a person in three dimensions. People who are worried because the audience must see the actor’s backs are under the delusion that the actor only works with his front or that he is flat.” [iii]
Although we may consider theatre-in-the-round to be a relatively new form of theatre staging, what Stephen was attempting to create in England was arguably the oldest form of theatre in existence and also the most natural form of staging. [iv] Theatre-in-the-round has been compared to sports arenas such as boxing rings or football pitches; these represent a natural way of viewing live events where the natural instinct is to surround the action - everyone will see something. It is an obvious statement, but in life we do not see everything. Only in proscenium arch theatres do we ever get the impression that everyone is facing us in everything they do; it is an artificial form of acting and presentation. Theatre-in-the-round accepts there is no front or back to the stage, the audience will see both faces and backs, as we do in life.
Theatre-in-the-round was ideal for Stephen’s ambitions, although he never seriously argued it was the ideal form of theatre. He spent much of his life arguing for diversity in theatre and wrote many articles and a book on the various forms of theatre and their advantages. He was passionate about theatre-in-the-round though and believed it had many advantages. He believed theatre was a diverse and exciting art-form that should not be restricted to just fourth wall performances. Theatre-in-the-round was the diametrical opposite of that and Stephen Joseph championed it, partly to prove theatre could exist in many different spaces.
In 1955 in the seaside resort of Scarborough, Stephen Joseph was about to prove this point and to demonstrate how theatre-in-the-round was particularly exciting and ripe with potential.
Founding Theatre in the Round at the Library TheatreStephen returned from America in 1952 and resumed his job as a lecturer at the Central School of Speech and Drama, London. He returned with a real passion for promoting and encouraging new writing and towards that end set up a playwriting course at the college. He came across several talented new writers, including David Campton, and soon became aware of how difficult it was to get new work staged.
“In 1955 the young playwright seemed to be having a particularly difficult time; not only because managers were unwilling to take risks, but because the widely held and limited concept of what a play should be had a constricting effect on what might even be considered a performance.” [v]
Stephen knew he faced a major obstacle in the economics of forming a theatre for new writing: he had no money of his own to invest, nor was there money available for creating a theatre based entirely on the proposition of performing new work by new writers. This was not the most enticing of projects for any prospective investor with little chance of any return being made. Any theatre he formed would have to be created and run with what little money he had, any grants that were available and any money it generated itself. Yet Stephen had seen a viable solution in America that excited him and which offered immediate and practicable benefits. Theatre-in-the-round was a cheap method of staging plays and to Stephen was the only “practicable proposition.” [vi] Stephen thus set out to create a venue that he could use to showcase new writing by new writers. Except it wasn’t quite as simple as that.
Stephen initially hoped to set up a venue in London, as he hoped there was an established audience willing to experience new work. Stephen also wanted exposure for his new venture and the new plays and believed the best way of achieving this was to be based in the capital; far easier to persuade a theatre critic to visit something in his own city than in the provinces. Stephen would later discover these views on audiences and critics were not necessarily accurate when he set up the short-lived Studio Theatre Club. [vii]
Stephen searched for a suitable venue in London with a vengeance and apparently visited more than 500 venues in the city, none of which he considered adequate. Depressed by his lack of success, Stephen was at a loss as to what to do.
The solution came from an unexpected place; while Stephen was lecturing in North Yorkshire, he had a fortuitous encounter.
“For several years, John Wood, education officer for the North Riding Education Committee, had asked me to take part in weekend courses and summer schools in Yorkshire, and it was on a weekend course in acting at Wrea Head that he challenged me to put theatre in the round to the test of professional performance to the public, I told him of the difficulties in finding a suitable hall, in London. So he took me to the concert room in the Central Library at Scarborough; and after a friendly and helpful talk with W.H. Smettem, the librarian, our first booking was made.” [viii]
As Alan Ayckbourn points out, this was also a case of good timing. William Smettem was on the verge of retirement, he seems to have had the imagination to understand what Stephen was proposing and realised he had little to lose. It was a fortuitous meeting for both Stephen and Scarborough. [ix]
Sadly no record exists as to when Stephen first came to Scarborough. It seems almost certain he did not formally meet William Smettem until 1955, although Ken Boden recalled meeting Stephen the year before the first summer season. Taking both Ken and Stephen’s recollections into account, it is probable John Wood brought Stephen to Scarborough in 1954, where he saw the Library for the first time and was introduced to potentially useful contacts.
With regard to Ken Boden, here we have the third member of the triumvirate responsible for establishing the Stephen Joseph Theatre and making it what it is today. After Stephen’s death and before Alan Ayckbourn took over the reins of the theatre in 1972, it was Ken who kept the Library Theatre going. When he first met Stephen, Ken was an insurance salesman and a prominent member of the Scarborough Theatre Guild, the local arm of the British Drama League. Stephen, who always felt links between professional and amateur theatre should be far stronger than they generally were, was keen to bring in the town’s amateur theatre enthusiasts as he knew they would contribute essential help to any plans he had for no cost. Ken’s initial impression of Stephen also highlights his appeal: “Stephen was a striking character - about 6ft 2 in. He was very likeable, everyone who met him, loved him.” [x]
Whether Stephen visited Scarborough before 1955 is debatable, what is not debatable is the date the wheels of the Library Theatre were put firmly into motion.
The Birth Of Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre17 February ‘55
Dear Mr. Smettem,
I wonder if you will be able to help with a scheme that I am hoping to launch this summer? Briefly, I have for some years been concerned with various theatre productions, but most of my interest has gone into new plays. I now feel that the theatre is badly in need of an organisation concerned with putting on new plays - particularly plays that do not comply with the formulae of West-end comedy. I have been sent a large number of plays and [many of them] are plenty worth staging. I hope shortly to form a company to carry out this project. It is our particular wish to present the plays arena style – a stage is not required: this is a particularly exciting production technique suited to the plays and likely to be of interest to people used to the powerful intimacy of the cinema. The company will be a non-profit distributing one, and it is being formed in consultation with the Arts Council who may give their support - moral or financial!
In particular, the sort of place required for the enterprise would be the Harrison Room; if this were available from mid July to early September, a festival of new plays might be a good holiday attraction besides a real service to the theatre.
I should be most grateful for your comments, yours sincerely,
Stephen Joseph [xi]
This is the first official contact between Stephen Joseph and William Smettem, the director of Scarborough Library, which laid the foundations of Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre (forthwith referred to as the Library Theatre). Mr Smettem replied to Stephen four days later, tentatively welcoming the proposal for the use of the Concert Room (formerly the Harrison Room), and providing a first detailed description of the venue.
“I would point out the seating capacity is 248 only, platform is 21’ x 9’6” and 2’ high; access to the platform is from the adjoining room which I presume could be used as a dressing room. The Concert Room has certainly got an intimate atmosphere which no doubt suit your purpose, how strongly such a festival would attract the holiday crowds is a matter which it is difficult to say, but given a good send off and properly publicised I think it would be successful.” [xii]
Mr Smettem goes on to say the cost of hiring the venue is £9 per day and £1 per day for the smaller room. From this description, it does not seem the ideal venue - although Stephen patently saw potential. Obviously sensing a little doubt from Mr Smettem, Stephen replied two days later offering a fuller explanation of the seating arrangements of theatre-in-the-round and offering reassurance this would be “no big task.” His main concern was the cost of hiring the venue and he noted the most optimistic figure he could afford would be £20 a week for an eight-week season. He conceded the company was likely to make a loss even at this rate and suggested a sliding scale of payment based on any profits made. The letter is also of note as it contains a hand-drawn sketch of Stephen’s initial plans for the Concert Room.
The plan [xiii] (see Designs) - held by Scarborough Library - is actually a fair representation of how the Library Theatre would look in its first season, only the increased amount of seating was overly optimistic.
With the formalities in place, Stephen arranged to meet Mr Smettem on 12 March; this afforded Stephen the opportunity to examine the Concert Room in detail and to discuss the project, particularly with regard to lighting, seat arrangements, local licensing, fire regulations, box office, publicity and staff.
Prior to this, Stephen visited the Arts Council on 4 March to discuss his plans for theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough. It is worth noting that Stephen had already done much of the ground-work for his company. Earlier in the year, he had formed Studio Theatre Ltd; an educational trust created to present new plays in-the-round with the board of directors drawn from friends, many of whom invested £50 in shares to help the fledgling company. Stephen had a presumably successful meeting as he reported to Mr Smettem it had been positive and there seemed a good possibility of financial aid. On the subject of finance, Stephen was writing to anyone he could think of to help finance the inaugural season of the theatre: friends, relatives and any interested parties. [xiv] An uncle gave him £200 and his estranged father gave him a final settlement of £500, in lieu of receiving anything in his will.
Stephen’s initial meeting with Mr Smettem raised several immediate issues, not least the Library currently only had a license for singing and dancing, not for plays. The other major issue was the raising of seats in the auditorium, so they were not just on one level. Mr Smettem had, at Stephen’s suggestion, already contacted the City Engineer about the problem and had on 29 March laid out the seats as per Stephen’s plans and noted that while the layout was fine, the raising of the seats was essential. However the City Engineer proved unequal to the task and suggested Stephen should contact H.B. Raylor and Co., of York, to create and hire a tubular steel frame. This would suffice at the Library Theatre until it obtained portable rostra several years later.
A final preliminary meeting between Stephen and Mr Smettem was held on 16 April to discuss the exact dates of the season, the possibility of refreshment and general booking and publicity.
Throughout this period, Stephen continued to work in London at the Central School while rehearsing his first company in the four new plays by four new writers. The first Studio Theatre company comprised of seven actors: Ralph Nossek, Helen Towers, Morris Perry, Karen Aldridge, Joan Cibber, John Sherlock and Shirley Jacobs. The majority of the actors and company were postgraduates from Central School. Apparently midway during the rehearsal period, a different actress fell ill and was replaced, but the exact details have been lost. During this period, Stephen also lost half the budget for the season when a friend, Dorothy Alison, was unable to fulfil a promise of £500.
“A kind of play production new to the town is coming to Scarborough this summer - “theatre in the round”. During an eight-week season the Theatre Studio Company will present four plays on a stage in the centre of the audience....
“The centre stage is a practical innovation and not a stunt, he [Stephen Joseph] said. Three reasons are given for the attempt to find a new method - economy, realism and a desire to find a link between the intimate realism of cinema and Tv. Acting and that of legitimate theatre....
“The stage will be lit in the fashion of a boxing arena. Thus the actors’ entrances and exits will be masked by the surrounding shade.
“What about seeing the front row of the audience behind the stage? “You shouldn’t notice them,” said Mr. Joseph. “Just like a football match, all your attention should be concentrated on the players. If we cannot manage that, we shall know we have failed.” [xv]
This introduction to theatre-in-the-round makes the comparison to a boxing ring or sports arena, a comparison that will frequently recur throughout the early years of the Library Theatre. In all his early interviews, Stephen attempts not just to promote the new season, but to explain the concept of this theatre form to a public largely ignorant to it. The story was repeated in some form in most of Yorkshire’s major papers, The Stage and Plays And Players. If the Scarborough Evening News’ report made the initial comparisons to a boxing ring, it was the Yorkshire Evening News that drew the link between theatre-in- the-round and another famous Scarborough landmark - the Rotunda Museum. [xvi] This was soon picked up by other newspapers, which carried forward the idea of Scarborough having a “round movement” with the famed geological museum and the theatre.
Stephen confirmed to Mr Smettem on 30 April the company would arrive in Scarborough for final rehearsals on 11 July. The season would begin on Thursday 14 July and end on Saturday 10 September [xvii] with daily performances - except Sundays - at 8pm and a Wednesday matinee at 2.30pm. Rehearsals would initially take place daily from 10am to 5pm with this diminishing as the season progressed. Stephen had also arranged for an exhibition of photographs and drawings of theatre-in-the-round in America and Europe, funded by the Arts Council. The organisation of the exhibition and the conversion of the Concert Room’s facilities into the Library Theatre was undertaken largely by Stephen’s friend Stephen Garrett, who would go on to become a director at the John Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. He described himself as an “unpaid architect” and although he did not altogether understand Stephen’s plans for theatre, he was enthusiastically supportive of the work. This letter also states for the first time the project will be called the Library Theatre.
Stephen also inquired about meeting Tom Laughton and whether he would be interested in supporting the project. While no record has currently come to light as to whether Stephen met Tom in the first season, Tom - the brother of the acclaimed Scarborough-born actor Charles Laughton - became a firm advocate and supporter of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in later years.
Stephen had also brought Ken Boden on board, who became an enthusiastic and unflagging supporter of the theatre. Ken’s contribution to the creation of the Stephen Joseph Theatre was an immediate and very visible one. He brought with him a retinue of enthusiastic volunteers drawn from the Scarborough amateur dramatic scene. Stephen was keen that amateurs should be involved closely with professionals in theatre, recognising not only that there was enthusiasm, but often talent. He would use these volunteers anywhere they could be useful.
“This [help] 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.”
This integration of Ken Boden and the amateur talent would have also have unpredicted long-term implications, which would ensure the survival of the theatre in 1966 after Stephen - to all intents and purposes - closed the theatre in 1965.
Ken’s contribution also emphasises a crucial point of the first season; everything was managed on a shoestring budget and, until early August, there was no point when the Library Theatre could be said to have had a viable and secure future. Ken was also a seeming treasure-trove of props as he apparently would cajole his clients into lending whatever was necessary for productions. However, this paucity of money and materials was another aspect of theatre-in-the-round’s advantages Stephen hoped to emphasise. There was no need for expensive props, give the right actor the right material and the right direction and you needed nothing more, as he argued in the pamphlet Planning For New Forms Of Theatre.
“A common criticism of the theatre-in-the-round is that there is no scenery. This is true. But what is scenery for? It supplies a background to the actors, it suggests locale, it gives atmosphere. All of these functions can be done by the actor with the help of lighting.... Most plays are not about scenery but about actors, and the audience comes to see actors acting.” [xviii]
A stage license was granted on 11 June for the Library, despite other theatre managers warning Stephen the licensing laws and fire regulations were likely to be too harsh for his innovative theatre staging; although the Chief Fire Officer and Police Officer seem to have been supportive of the project.
With the seating now also in place, the theatre was complete if quite basic. However, Stephen saw potential in the space.
“The concert room was reasonably suitable for conversion into a theatre in the round; in plan nearly square, 40 ft X 50 ft approximately. Perhaps a bit on the small side. Ceiling height about 24 ft, with a good deal of complicated plaster work above a heavy cornice. The room was on the first floor and its main disadvantage was that of its three doors one was an emergency exit leading directly to an outside fire escape, and the other two were both in the same wall, 12 ft apart. Thus all the entrances would have to be made from one side of the acting area. Two adjacent rooms were to be made available to us; one for a dressing room (big enough to be simply partitioned off as two rooms and the other for an exhibition and refreshment room. On the whole, a very good place in which to make experimental first steps.” xix
The reality of the 248 seat venue though was slightly less enticing if Alan Ayckbourn’s early memories of the space are to be believed.
“It was a makeshift auditorium. Borrowed seats on a rickety rostra in a small airless room of the public library. On hot evenings, senior citizens would be supported from the theatre gasping for fresh sea air. Small children would, when carried away by the action, occasionally slip through the gaps in the seating and require rescuing. The stage floor was parquet and treacherously polished; the walls covered in untouchable, light green flock wallpaper. All in all an unpromising venue to present - as we saw at the time - new work in new ways to new audiences.” [xx]
Still, the rent was only £10 a week and the only thing as expensive as that were the actors. While Stephen was frugal with practically every other aspect of the operation, he did not skimp on the acting company. During the first summer the acting company was paid £10 a week. The Equity minimum rate at the time was £7, however Stephen recognised the leap of faith these actors had made by coming to a town at the literal end of the railway line and realistically, for employment purposes, knew they had to keep a place in London as well as Scarborough.
The First SeasonAdvertising for the theatre had also begun with “Studio Theatre Limited presents Theatre In The Round”, advertised as “A new form of entertainment.” A season of four new plays was announced that would commence from 14 July with all seats priced at 5/- with under 18s eligible for a concession price of 2/6. Then, as now, the programme changed every Thursday - a clever marketing ploy by Stephen as in theory it meant anyone staying in Scarborough for a week (Saturday to Saturday was traditional then) would have the opportunity to see two different productions.
The first Library Theatre pamphlet flyer contained details of the season and two pages explaining theatre-in-the-round and the aims of Studio Theatre Ltd. For a description of the staging, the analogy of a sports arena was used again and the performances are described as demanding: “fast action, movement and sincere performances from the actors. It is exciting and real. It is theatre in 3D.”
One of the obvious highlights of this first season was the opportunity to see four new plays and while it was undoubtedly a risk presenting new plays by unknown writers, it was no more risky than presenting them in an unfamiliar stage space. These plays were written by students Stephen had taught at the Central School of Speech and Drama. All the writers would feature again in subsequent seasons, not least David Campton who was one of Stephen’s protégés and - at least for a time - looked like the theatre’s certain bet for writing success. Stephen would direct all the plays in the first season, co-directing Dragons Are Dangerous with John Sherlock.
The first play of the season was Circle Of Love, “a romantic tale” [xxi] by Eleanor D Glaser. The press made much of the fact she was a housewife from the Midlands writing plays. What was conveniently overlooked was she was a qualified teacher who worked with boys with special needs, an experience which the play drew on.
The opening night on 14 July was attended by critics from the Scarborough Evening News, Yorkshire Evening News, Northern Echo, Manchester Guardian and The Stage among others.
There was also a famous guest present in the shape of Stephen’s mother, the actress Hermione Gingold, whose reaction to Scarborough was reported as: “Oh, but it’s just like the Mediterranean.... It’s perfectly wonderful. I think I shall stay a day or two.”
The reviews were largely complementary, although most critics were obviously still struggling with the conventions of the theatre form and seemed to treat it as little more than a fad. However, the local and national press continued to show a healthy interest in the Library Theatre throughout the season.
The rest of the season comprised of ‘Prentice Pillar by Ruth Dixon, who The Stage commented as being “a playwright of ability, using words with beauty and power.” David Campton’s comedy Dragons Are Dangerous was the third play; the first of many to be premiered in Scarborough by the writer. The fourth play was Jurneman Winch’s Turn Right At The Crossroads; Jurneman being the pen name of Joan Winch. It is remarkable to consider now that of the four plays in the season, three were written by women - it would be many years before new writing by women was given this kind of exposure by any producing house in the UK, not least the Royal Court in London.
The season also featured a number of innovations largely new to British venues, many of which Stephen had encountered during his visit to America. All tickets were the same price and were unnumbered - a practise which continued in Scarborough until the '70s. Programmes were free and refreshments were served at close to cost price. There was also a heavy emphasis on broadening the audience’s minds and experiences: Stephen welcomed the post-show discussion and he and the actors would often be available post-show to discuss the evening’s production with any interested members of the audience. One element which did not survive the first season though was the use of a prompt for the actors, something which Margaret Boden noted was a short-lived experiment: “In the first season, we had a prompt - in the first row - because the actors were nervous about their proximity to the audience. Stephen didn’t like this because it killed some of the magic and he dispensed with it.” [xxii]
With the season underway, Stephen now had not only to make sure the company was running well, but also to carefully look at the financial situation of the theatre. Stephen had based his budgets on an average audience of 100 people per performance; during the first two weeks the audiences ranged from 15 to 75 and one matinee was reportedly performed in front of just four people. The summer was blisteringly hot - apparently the hottest for 50 years [xxiii] - and it appeared no-one wanted to spend the summer evenings watching new plays in a stuffy room. Within a fortnight of opening, it seemed as though Stephen’s dream was going to collapse.
It can have been of little comfort too when Stephen was told on the day his second play, ‘Prentice Pillar, was due to open that the Arts Council would not financially support the play. Traditionally, the Arts Council would guarantee plays against loss - particularly those presented in regional venues and companies bringing plays to areas under-served by theatres. For Studio Theatre Ltd this was an invaluable safety net guaranteeing the theatre would not be heavily in debt by the end of the season. Stephen had secured this guarantee for Circle Of Love, but the Daily Express reported the Arts Council had found ‘Prentice Pillar “too obscure”. This must have been a bitter blow for Stephen, particularly as he was the sole guarantor of the season and would have to cover any losses himself, and it cannot have helped the financial worries threatening the nascent venture. Just four days later, the Scarborough Evening News reported the town’s newest artistic venture was now “Theatre In The Red”. [xxiv]
“Theatre in the Round is in the red. The largest audience the company has had in the Library Theatre (the converted room of the Public Library) is 75. The lowest is about 15. Yet for this little band of innovators to complete their scheduled season (till 10 September) they need 100 people each nightly performance. To pay their way an audience of 170 is needed.
“So unless by next Thursday an audience of 100 a night is reached regularly, the company will give a fortnight’s notice of departure.”
In an article in The Times on 28 July, Stephen reported the cast were well sun-tanned but “the brilliant weather has kept audiences away.” On the same day, the Scarborough Evening News ran an editorial; the first article to raise doubts about the project and an apparent lack of support.
“The company’s literature makes the point that theatre in the round, being less costly than conventional theatre presentation, makes practicable the trying out of new plays by new playwrights. That may be all well and good when theatre in the round is established. But the Scarborough company have tried to establish theatre in the round and to present four new plays by authors no-one has heard of. Maybe they are good plays, but on a poster they hold no appeal for the general public. Surely the company would have been wiser to have presented plays many people might reasonably have been expected to want to see, which means something they have heard of.” [xxv]
One cannot help but feel a sense of tabloid opportunism and conservatism with this and that the newspaper was already preparing the obituary of the theatre (something which would become practically a regular turn of events over the decades which followed). Fortunately the tide was about to turn and the newspaper’s ill-conceived editorial proven dramatically wrong.
On 29 July, Stephen Joseph announced the Library Theatre’s audiences had increased sufficiently to reprieve it for another three weeks at least. The previous night, David Campton’s Dragons Are Dangerous had received its premiere - to generally good press - and had played to an audience of approximately 100 people. The theatre had reached a figure where it could sustain itself, but more was needed to ensure the theatre’s long-term future….
On Tuesday 2 August, Scarborough’s weather - the British summer - reverted to form. There was a torrential downpour and all 248 seats in the Library Theatre were sold out. From that point onwards, audiences stayed above 100 and progressively increased across the season. It may not have been good for the tourists, but the weather certainly helped the Library Theatre to survive its first year.
Although Stephen now had an audience, he was still struggling to sell the concept of theatre-in-the-round to the public. Midway through the season, his programme notes still seek to justify and explain the staging in a language that explained its advantages in the clearest possible way: “The story is told like a film story, and in staging the play we shall take the lights swiftly up and down and act the drama through without a break. Just like a film.”
In a season of unexpected events, none was more so than a strange request from Wallis Holiday Camp at Cayton Bay, on the outskirts of Scarborough. The camp’s proprietor Mr Wallis contacted Stephen with a small crisis. The circus they had booked for an afternoon’s entertainment had cried off, would the Library Theatre company perform instead? Stephen pointed out the plays “were no substitute for a circus and would probably have little appeal to a holiday camp crowd.” [xxvi] It was, Mr Wallis insisted, an emergency and the play was just an insurance against rain, if it didn’t rain no-one would go to see them anyway! Stephen agreed and was surprised at the response the company received. The first play received a good audience and a standing ovation. Encouraged by this, although still dubious whether this was the ideal venue for his company, Stephen came to an agreement with Mr Wallis to perform once a week at the camp. The company did this for three seasons and later Stephen would say this was the company’s first steps into touring.
There is some discussion about the success of the first season at the Library Theatre and whether Stephen was merely persevering with the project in the hope it would eventually be successful within the first three years. There is no concrete evidence to support this argument though, as Stephen seems to have been optimistic and realistic about the future of the venture from the start. In fact, Stephen’s long-term commitment to the Library Theatre can be found in a letter to the new Library Director, Mervyn Edwards, barely three weeks after Scarborough Evening News predicted the demise of the theatre. Stephen contacted Mr Edwards to make a booking for the next summer from 9 July to 7 September and was clearly optimistic for the success of the Library Theatre in the future. [xxvii]
“It is almost certain that the company will lose all its capital and it may or may not finish with a certain amount of debt. However, we believe that the losses are due to a great extent to the fine weather which has been notable this summer; on the only evening of rain so far we have had a full house. Further, the type of entertainment being so new, we have had difficulty in becoming known. I believe that this difficulty is being overcome slowly and that it will not be any considerable obstacle next year....
“A number of people have advised me that Scarborough is incapable of supporting more than the lightest of entertainment and that we are wasting our efforts here - I do not agree and have a considerable amount of local opinion to back my view. In the end, the only way of finding out is to try and see what happens over a number of years, and this seems to be the thing to try and do.” [xxviii]
The season ended on 9 September and the experiment appears to have been a qualified success - the qualification being a loss. According to a report in The Stage [xxix], the Library Theatre lost £400 in its first season. The company’s’ accounts were kept by D’Arcy Orders & Co, London and they calculated a net loss on the summer of £513, excluding the cost of the hire of the Library. In January 1956, the town clerk wrote to Stephen Joseph confirming the cost of hiring the Library in 1956 would be the same as 1955; £100. So the net loss for 1955 was in the region of £613, much of it due to the cost of converting the Concert Room to a suitable in-the-round venue. It should be noted this rent was exceptionally generous as the advertised rate for booking the season would have been £600. The loss was actually less than Stephen had anticipated, as he had prepared his budget for the season based on half-full houses.
On the other hand, Margaret Boden recalled: “The first year - 1955 - was a flop, and I can remember Stephen going out and selling coal from door-to-door to pay the actors’ wages.” [xxx]
Stephen was pragmatic though and knew the first season would likely make a loss; he undoubtedly did sell coal and even his motorbike to help cover costs. He was also optimistic and, if nothing else, knew the theatre had lived up to its principals and aims: it had introduced new plays in a new performance format to new audiences and had been generally financially viable. This was enough for Stephen to declare there was a future for The Library Theatre.
“To begin with our audiences were thin. Our money soon began to run out. We were saved by the first rainy day of the season when the theatre filled to capacity. At the end of the season we had not lost all our capital, and the directors decided to keep the company going for another season. Economics are important. But we also had our enthusiasm roused.” [xxxi]
Reaction To The First SeasonFor a fledgling theatre company offering new plays by obscure playwrights, the Library Theatre managed to generate an impressive amount of press in its first year. The Library Theatre also polarised opinions and not because of the plays, which were generally well-received and given a fair reception by the critics. The controversy was sparked by the staging and, arguably, that Stephen was someone who could argue the case for theatre-in-the-round and new writing both passionately and eloquently. For too many people, the thought of removing the proscenium arch and the props of theatre caused nothing less than apoplectic rage.
The company’s first production Circle Of Love, by Eleanor D Glaser, offers a good spectrum of reaction to the theatre.
“Something new for all British theatregoers was the opening in the Library Theatre, Scarborough, of the country’s first professional season of Theatre in the Round. This is theatre with nearly all the conventions thrown aside.
“The play is presented in an arena, completely encircled by the audience - the result is an atmosphere of delightful intimacy. The audience is made to feel very much a part of their proceedings and, judging by their response, they liked it that way....
“None of the cast had previous experience of this type of acting.... Nevertheless the performance was smooth and polished. The play - it has a “possessive mother” theme - makes good theatre in the new medium.
“One feels like an eavesdropper at an intense domestic drama.” [xxxii]
However not all reviewers were as impressed by theatre-in-the-round and some saw problems where others saw challenges.
“The chief virtue [of theatre-in-the-round] is also the chief danger. Not a gesture of insincerity in the writing or acting can get by. In the hands of anything much short of genius on both sides, this will surely mean a great deal of “realistic” triviality on Mrs Dale lines; far from the three-dimensional depths that the promoters hope to plumb, it is more likely to lead to a flatness unequalled even in the ordinary theatre of our time.” [xxxiii]
By the premiere of the second play ‘Prentice Pillar, the critics seem more accepting of the format of in-the-round - the majority of the reviews were extremely positive - but there were still some aspects that obviously irritated newcomers.
“And in this less realistic type of drama the arena style of presentation firmly grasps the watcher’s imagination, giving one the impression of really being with the players upon the bare hilltop where the tracks cross.
“In reality, there are merely four painted cloths upon the floor, but one of the strengths of theatre in the round is that the only moulding of the watcher’s imagination is performed by the actors....
“But good as they are, interesting as the play is, one normal theatre convention we found it irksome to be denied was an interval, for such is the intimacy of theatre in the round that changing one’ sitting position is an operation fraught, one feels with danger to both the actors’ and one’s fellow-watcher’s concentration.” [xxxiv]
The Library Theatre had, as yet, not made much of an impact on the newspaper letters pages; which would change very quickly. An early letter from Elizabeth Rimington, of Newby in Scarborough, indicates early support for the theatre.
“If the group will put on more plays of this calibre, ignoring popular clamour for domestic drama, they will assuredly win a select but devoted audience. They will have an uphill fight, but it will be one worth winning.” [xxxv]
Spurred on by the Scarborough Evening News’ negative stance on theatre-in-the-round on 28 July, the letters page was suddenly awash with people expressing their opinions on the theatre - with an emphasis on the vocal minority.
“The mistake made by this young company is not their choice of new plays rather than old, nor young actors rather than stars. It is in their theatre. Not only is the Library a stern and forbidding edifice hidden in a side street, but it has no proper stage, and the seats are arranged like at a boxing ring. We are not used to this sort of thing.
“The Theatre in the Round company would find no difficulty in filling their auditorium to capacity if, with their company of actors and their repertoire of plays, they were to go into the Opera House.” [xxxvi]
While that letter writer obviously struggled with the concept of theatre-in-the-round, the next writer seemed to have a struggle with imagination – or perhaps the economics of theatre - and for him, at least, the play is obviously not the thing.
“When, as in the current production, I note from my theatre programme that the action of a play is to take place in living room, I expect to see a living room, with doors and windows that open and shut. If the social status of the residents is sufficiently high, wallpaper does not come amiss. Yet here we are presented with a miscellany of furniture and expected to use our imaginations!
“To enter a theatre and to be told to create the décor for ourselves is equivalent to entering a restaurant, being presented with a dish of raw vegetables, and being told to imagine the cooking.” xxxvii
However, among the criticism there was some hope and in the case of one letter, a remarkable amount of prescience – arguably what is written can be applied to attitudes still found today.
“I am surprised by your correspondents have felt it necessary to criticise Theatre in the Round as they have. There is nothing wrong with the choice of plays, or of actors, or of theatre – and certainly not with the idea of Theatre in the Round (which has happily been accepted in every country in Europe, and in America). Indeed, outside Scarborough an extraordinarily (sic) amount of attention is being paid to this little theatre, It is being talked about in London, in Paris, and in New York. Scarborough alone seems to be unaware of the importance to the theatre world of what is happening at the Library Theatre.” [xxxviii]
With the controversy waning the Scarborough Evening News declared “This correspondence is now closed.”
The season’s final play Turn Right At The Crossroads saw a far more positive response to the entire Library Theatre experience by both critics and audience alike. The Yorkshire Post called it a “thought provoking play”, The Stage an “unusual theatre experience” and the Scarborough Evening News “a remarkable play”. None of them drew particular attention to the round staging, unlike previous plays at the theatre; a small hurdle seems to have been cleared by that point.
By the end of the season, Stephen Joseph felt confident enough to declare in the programme: “If all goes well the Studio Theatre will return again to Scarborough next season with another new programme of plays.” [xxxix]
Article by and copyright of Simon Murgatroyd. Illustration held by North Yorkshire County Council (Scarborough Library) and copyright of Studio Theatre Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
Footnotesi Article by Stephen Joseph Theatre held in the John Rylands University Library Of Manchester
ii Stephen discusses and also provides illustrations of many of these buildings in his books Theatre In The Round and New Theatre Forms.
iii Stephen Joseph, “Planning For New Forms Of Theatre”, pp.30
iv For those wanting a broad overview of the history of theatre-in-the-round, I can give no better recommendation than Stephen Joseph’s book Theatre In The Round (Barrie & Rockcliffe, 1967)
v Stephen Joseph, “Theatre In The Round”, pp.34
vi “Theatre In The Round”, pp.34
vii The Studio Theatre Club was launched on 11 September, 1955, at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hall, Fitzroy Square, London. It ran on Sundays during the winter until early 1958 with the intent of generating interest in theatre-in-the-round and Stephen’s new writers. The enterprise closed in early 1958, having failed to attract sufficient audiences to cover the expensive hire and running costs of the venue.
viii Theatre In The Round, pp. 36
ix There are several different versions of the story of how Stephen came to be in Scarborough, mostly variations on the same theme. Ian Watson in Conversations With Ayckbourn (first edition, pp.25) relates a different tale, told to him by Smettem’s widow: “[Smettem] saw this dejected young man sitting in the Library, and stopped to talk to him. “I’ve never been so miserable in my life,” said Stephen. He had just spent a fruitless week looking round Scarborough for premises, and was filling in time waiting for a train back to London.” Smettem then introduced Stephen to the Library. While it is an interesting story, it doesn’t explain what Stephen was doing in Scarborough in the first place and seems problematic because of that.
x Scarborough Evening News, “Triumvirate behind a story of success”, 29 September 1987
xi Letter from Stephen Joseph, 17 February 1955, held by Scarborough Public Library
xii Letter from William Smettem, 21 February 1955, held by Scarborough Public Library
xiii Letter from Stephen Joseph, 23 February 1955, held by Scarborough Public Library
xiv The Stephen Joseph Papers collection at John Rylands University Library of Manchester holds a good deal of correspondence relating to Stephen’s initial appeal for finances.
xv Scarborough Evening News, “New Kind Of Theatre For Scarborough”, 26 April, 1955
xvi Yorkshire Evening News, “Theatre in the round comes to Yorkshire”, 4 July 1955
￼xvii The season would actually end on 9 September due to the necessity of setting up a performance in London at the end of the summer.
xviii Stephen Joseph, “Planning For New Forms Of Theatre”, pp.32
xix Theatre In The Round, pp.36
xx Albert-Reiner Glaap, Ayckbourn Country, pp.33
xxi The Library Theatre publicity brochure 1955
xxii Scarborough Evening News, “Triumvirate Behind A Success Story”, 29 September 1987
xxiii News Chronicle, “Sunniest July For 50 Years...”, 28 July 1955
xxiv Scarborough Evening News, “Theatre In The Red”, 25 July 1955
xxv Scarborough Evening News, “Theatre in the Round”, 28 July 1955
xxvi Theatre In The Round, pp.46
xxvii This is further backed up by a letter in 1956 (dated 4 September) in which Stephen makes a booking for the next summer and says a third season will be “well worth attempting.”
xxviii Letter from Stephen Joseph, dated 16 August 1955, held by Scarborough Public Library
xxix A report in the Leicester Mercury (4 September 1957) puts the loss at £750, but is obviously less reliable than the accountant’s report.
xxx Scarborough Evening News, “Triumvirate Behind A Success Story”, 29 September 1987
xxxi Theatre In The Round, pp.37
xxxii Yorkshire Evening News, “Theatre In Round” Opens At Scarboro’”, 15 July 1955
xxxiii Manchester Guardian, “Theatre In The Round – Difficult New Medium”, 15 July 1955
xxxiv Scarborough Evening News, “New Imaginative Play Based On Scottish Legend”, 22 July 1955 xxxv Scarborough Evening News (Letters To The Editor), “Theatre In The Round”, date unknown but between 21 – 27 July 1955
xxxvi Scarborough Evening News, “Theatre in the Round”, 30 July 1955
xxxvii Scarborough Evening News, “Theatre in the Round”, 1 August 1955
xxxviii Scarborough Evening News, “Theatre in the Round”, 2 August 1955
xxxix Dragons Are Dangerous (1955) programme