New Writing: The 1980s

As part of the Stephen Joseph Theatre's 60th anniversary celebrations in 2015, the Scarborough In The Round blog ran a series of articles looking at the history of new writing at the theatre decade-by-decade.
Click on the decade links above to read the articles specific to each decade.

Stephen Joseph's Legacy: New Writing - The 1980s

During the 1980s, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round truly consolidated its position as a significant force in new writing and, arguably, the 1980s through the 1990s were the peak for new writing at the venue.
The company had moved to a new, believed temporary, venue in 1976 but it soon became obvious it was to be a more permanent home for the company and in 1979, improvements were made to the building to reflect its longer term ambitions.
For the first time in its history, the company was not actively looking for a new base and the result can be seen in the success and productivity of the theatre during this decade; there were 97 plays produced during the decade of which 51 were new plays. Alan Ayckbourn's commitment to Stephen Joseph's legacy was as strong as ever.
The new writing was split between the main house in-the-round auditorium and the smaller end-stage Studio theatre, which increasingly became a testing-ground for new writers being nurtured and encouraged by the theatre. The fact that Alan Ayckbourn was producing new work for both spaces did much to give the smaller space a legitimacy and that it was viewed as not a secondary space, but an alternative space at the venue.
Alan Ayckbourn's contribution during this period was both prolific and popular. This is a decade which included plays such as
Way Upstream, Intimate Exchanges, A Chorus Of Disapproval, Woman In Mind, Henceforward..., Man Of The Moment as well as a re-found interest and passion for revues and musicals in collaboration with the composer Paul Todd. Plays such as Way Upstream and Intimate Exchanges pushed the theatre to the very limits of what could be achieved within the space - flooding the auditorium in the case of Way Upstream and presenting a year-long theatre event with Intimate Exchanges, a play with 16 possible variations.
Although there were more famous and successful plays,
The Revengers' Comedies - a two part epic staged to mark the writer's 50th birthday - summed up the decade when the notorious American critic Frank Rich visited Scarborough to review the play for the New York Times, nothing the author and the company's 'theatrical ambitions increasingly seem without limits.'
But it was not all about Alan Ayckbourn as there was a plethora of new writing from people making their first marks upon the playwriting world such as
In 1980, Alan commissioned Stephen Lavell to write
Absolutely Free having been impressed by the young writer's winning the International Students Playscript Competition run in conjunction with the National Student Drama Festival.
The tradition of encouraging writing talent within the company continued with the actor Michael Cashman writing his first two professionally produced plays,
Before Your Very Eyes and Bricks 'n' Mortar; Michael would go on to fame on the BBC soap opera EastEnders before embarking on a distinguished career in politics. The actor Paul Copley also had several plays produced during the decade including the well-received Trailer and Tapster.
The variety of productions - both of revivals and new work - was exceptionally diverse. This was a decade which traversed Shakespeare to Stoppard, Ayckbourn to Neil Simon.
A new stage adaptation of the hit television series
The Brontes Of Haworth by Christopher Fry and Kerry Gardner was premiered as well as a stage adaptation of Chekhov's novel Three Steps with The Parasol by Frank Dunai. The breadth of programming was adventurous and risky but took advantage of an audience which had nurtured to accept new writing and diverse plays and embraced it.
The real home-grown success of the decade was the return of Stephen Mallatratt to the company from 1985 to 1988. He wrote five new plays, one of which was
The Woman In Black in 1987. The story of this adaptation of Susan Hill's ghost story has been told enough times (and can be found here) but this typified the new writing tradition pioneered by Stephen Joseph when he created the Library Theatre.
This was a play borne out of a need for a low budget new play which would appeal to audiences during the winter season. The lack of budget led to extraordinary inventiveness and a play which can rightly be considered a classic of late 20th century theatre. It is also a play which revels in its theatricality from the framing device which tells the story to its use of two actors, light and sound to create a cast of dozens across a variety of atmospheric locales.
It should also be noted this was produced during a two year sabbatical from the theatre by its Artistic Director Alan Ayckbourn. Robin Herford - who directed
The Woman In Black - essentially ran the theatre on a day-to-day basis and also introduced an artistic direction quite different from Alan Ayckbourn's.
By the end of the decade, Alan Ayckbourn had returned to the theatre and a small idea was hatched that would entirely change the Stephen Joseph Theatre and once more reassert the importance of new writing to the theatre.

Click here to go New Writing: The 1990s

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the author.

All opinions and views expressed within this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Stephen Joseph Theatre or Alan Ayckbourn.

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