Scarborough rock: Alan Ayckbourn's support for the Steven Joseph Theatre

22 March 2016

by Alice Saville

Bite into Alan Ayckbourn (not literally, we're strictly respectful here) and you'd find him patterned through with Scarborough like a stick of John Bull's rock (and it's much better than Blackpool's rival offering, if you're asking). His 60-year, 80-play career would be formidable if it weren't for the sweetness of his work, cut through with enough acidity to sting but not enough to deter the flocking holiday crowds.

His romantic comedies, farces, dramas, and even sci-fi plays are stalwarts of the West End, Broadway, regional producing houses, and countless amateur touring groups. But these rival claimants have nothing like the gentle ownership that Scarborough has held over him – all but four of his plays have had their first performance at its Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Scarborough has also hosted NSDF for 25 years, so it's a fitting time for a discussion that explores its theatrical heritage, held on the theatre's stage, and assembling a panel of its staff. Alan Ayckbourn described himself as the last living link to Stephen Joseph himself. Joseph started out running a tiny venue on the first floor of Scarborough public library in 1955, and Ayckbourn joined him a couple of years later, as an assistant stage manager with dreams of becoming an actor. He remembers him as “a great teacher. He couldn't act, he couldn't write plays – well, he wrote a few but they were lousy – and he couldn't direct, but by God he could organise. And he taught me everything I knew.”

Joseph crushed Ayckbourn's dreams of acting stardom, in favour of setting him on a much more illustrious career path as a playwright. He took the then hugely rare step of commissioning him to write, and guaranteeing he'd stage whatever Ayckbourn came up with. As Ayckbourn explained, “In those days there was this idea that playwrights were rarified creatures working somewhere in the Shetland Islands. You certainly never met them. But Stephen Joseph had the idea – which was extremely avant-garde at the time – that plays should come from within the building. If you joined his theatre, whether you were a director or the box office manager, one of the first things you did was write a goddamn play.”

It was the free-wheeling ethos of a young theatre: “There were only seven of us, and we were all sleeping together!” One part of the drive for new writing was that in those days, Arts Council grants were handed out for new plays but not old ones. But even more importantly, it was about reflecting the society outside the theatre's walls. Paradoxically, for one of Britain's most widely produced playwrights, Ayckbourn's own relationship with the theatre has been about having “an individual voice for an individual community”. He spoke, modestly, of his work's origins as entertaining “Scarborough holidaymakers coming in from the rain, looking for a bit of a laugh”.

He reminisced about a time where playwrights ensconced themselves in regional theatres, writing for and about the community they served – Willy Russell in Liverpool, for example, or John Godber in Hull. He seemed against the idea of big co-productions, remembering an era where he and the playwright-managers of other local theatres only came togther for press nights. And that doesn't seem quite right – the cross-fertilisation of ideas is exciting. But what still came across was a humming, satisfying thought: the idea as a theatre as a community hub that generates ideas, miles away from and ahead of the empty receiving house that waits for the latest West End offshoot to fill it to the rafters.

There's no space here to chart the 60 years of changes that have swayed regional theatre in Ayckbourn's time, and they were just touched upon in the Stephen Joseph Theatre panel. One incident that got everyone excited, however, was the 1996 move to the theatre's current permanent home, with a gorgeous in-the-round space built to Joseph's exacting mathematical specifications. But it was very nearly a bingo hall instead, or even a much less illustrious kind of public facility. At the time, a Luvvies v. Lavvies debate raged furiously in local papers, who campaigned for council money to be spent on turning seaside toilets from swampy to swanky, rather than pissing it away on local theatre.

There might still be a few people who would have rather spent their pennies there. But what came across from the panel of people involved in the daily life of the Stephen Joseph Theatre is the love and support it has for the community outside. Henry Bell, associate director, feels that the theatre “gives this town confidence – it says we can produce world class theatre.” And executive producer Cheryl Govan spoke of the thousands of Scarborough residents who troop through its doors each week: not just to watch plays, but also to sing in choirs, to write, to perform in its mammoth festival of short plays sourced from all over the town, both in and outside the theatre's walls.

What really stuck with me, however, was production manager Denzil Hebditch's sense that the Stephen Joseph is a place where everyone can belong: “In the theatre you can be the most bizarre-looking person with the craziest ideas and you'll still be accepted and listened to.” Some theatres alienate audiences with exclusive bistros, £2 packets of crisps, and convoluted management structures. But as public libraries such as the one where Stephen Joseph started his theatre are eroded by cuts, a truly open space that reflects the public it serves is more vital than ever.

Photo credit: Giulia Delprato