Stephen Joseph: Newcastle-under-Lyme Civic Theatre

This article by Stephen Joseph was published in Plays and Players magazine in March 1962 discussing his plans for a purpose-built theatre-in-the-round in Newcastle-under-Lyme; later that year the actual theatre - the Victoria Theatre, a converted former cinema - would open in Stoke-on-Trent.
The Studio Theatre Company, which has presented theatre in the round during the summer for the last eight years at Scarborough, included Newcastle-under-Lyme in its touring schedule of theatre-less towns four winters ago. Since then the company has slowly and steadily built up an audience, gained the support of the council, and has now been promised a new theatre that will, all things going to plan, be the first permanent theatre in the round to be built for this form of presentation in the country.

What is the story behind the Newcastle success, and what is the company's policy?

First, it is worth remembering that Newcastle-under-Lyme used to have a theatre - in the eighteenth century. The building served for 50 years as a theatre and then failed, and entertainment was subsequently provided by bigger theatres in the neighbouring towns of Stoke and Hanley. The old Theatre Royal in Newcastle became, in due course, the Roxy cinema and, when this failed some years ago, the building fell into disuse. It has now been sold for demolition and a motor car show room is planned to replace it. The derelict building is labelled and known as the Roxy, in spite of the bust of Shakespeare (reputedly by Flaxman) that adorns its facade, and from almost every point of view it would be useless today as a theatre.

In Stoke-on-Trent the Gordon Theatre, built proudly at the turn of the century, also became a cinema, but the name of Gaumont has been removed from its front and a battered head of Gordon stares out alongside a notice offering the building for sale. A condition of sale is that the building shall not be used as a cinema or as a theatre; it is owned by one of our foremost theatre businesses, whose directors must clearly know their business.

In Hanley the Theatre Royal closed less than a year ago and succumbed to bingo; bingo has now succumbed in turn to horsey-horsey - and there is probably no lower level to which the inanity of the entertainment industry can sink before this building also becomes derelict.

There is a strong amateur movement in North Staffordshire. I do not think this is the cause of the failure of professional theatre in the area - though it may be the cause of the failure of bad professional theatre; but I doubt it. The fact is that here, as over all England, the provincial theatre is having to fight for its life. In some places it loses the battle. It loses the battle, perhaps, because it is fighting with out-of-date weapons. Although there will always be a long list of names appended to an appeal to preserve an old theatre, the very fact that it is old makes the appeal seem to have one foot in the grave. Many of the people who sign are probably too old to go out to the theatre in question anyway.

The Studio Theatre company brought something fresh to Newcastle in the form of theatre-in-the-round. The enthusiasts for this form of presentation, and their opponents, have still many manifestoes to write and statements to make.

Perhaps a certain amount of controversy is a good thing in itself, but theatre-in-the-round tends to alienate many people who have had a long experience of the theatre. This helps to explain why the audience at Newcastle for theatre in the round is so young, and this, in turn, may explain why the company is able to offer an unusual repertoire of plays.

The company, at present, visits Newcastle for two months, January and February, and presents four plays. Two of these are usually new plays, and the other two a well-known play, perhaps a recent West End success, and a classic, English or foreign. Authors this season have been David Campton and Joan Macalpine, Ibsen and Shakespeare. The new plays are usually written with the company in mind - in fact, there are at present four writers in the company.

The idea of a civic theatre in the round was proposed by the company some years ago. The borough council has agreed that an independent trust shall be set up to raise funds, to build and to run the theatre. The council has chosen a site and will give it to the trust, together with £20,000 for the building when the trust has raised £40,000. The trust deed and the lease are now being discussed. Plans for the theatre have been sketched by Stephen Garrett ARIBA, and it is to be circular in plan, to seat 400 people. Miss Margaret Rawlings, Sir George Wade and Dr Harold Taylor have agreed to be patrons of the trust. While this theatre is being got ready, the company has decided to try and find a temporary home where it can stay until the new theatre is ready. In this way audiences can be built up, tastes tested, and a certain amount of technical experiment carried out, besides funds collected for the trust.

The company will present a new production every two weeks - with occasional longer runs - throughout the year. If amateur or other companies wish to use the theatre, it will be made available to them while the company goes on tour. Plays will be chosen on the same basis as at present and emphasis will still be placed on new plays by writers working with the company. It is not simply a question of plays for theatre-in-the-round - in fact, no-one seems to be very sure what special demands theatre in the round makes on the playwright - but of writing plays with a company in mind, of writer and company being close together, of writer and audience being known to each other, of the writer being imbued with the experience of acting as well as writing.

There will be, as is usual in provincial companies, a group of actors employed on a seasonal basis, with additional actors for special productions. Again, there is nothing special about the requirements for acting in the round, except, possibly, that actors who have had many, many years of working in one form of theatre only may find it difficult to adapt themselves to some of the superficial differences of another form. But this is no particular problem as it is likely to be young actors who will work in a company of this sort anyhow.

As far as actors are concerned, the main excitements of theatre-in-the-round are their realisation of the freedom from familiar technical conventions and the increased awareness of audiences. Every one who performs in a theatre knows the value of an audience's attention; it can and should be a real contribution to the performance. This contribution seems to be greatly increased in theatre in the round. It works both ways, of course, and the audience seems to be more intensely aware of what the actors are doing. If, as in the famous story about Bernhardt, an actress were busy thinking about the times of trains during a passionate speech, I believe someone in the audience might, rather disgustedly, recite the time-table. But where the actors are concentrating on their job, the audience seems to get an increased measure of excitement The give and take between actors and audience, then, is perhaps the key to the value of theatre-in-the-round at the present time.

I believe there is something more important, though, in a re-exploration of the basic situation of drama, where the actor alone (or alone except for the help of props and costume) stands before the audience. He stands for mankind, and his activity is a celebration of the dilemma in which mankind is placed - surrounded by a mysterious universe, limited by his mere faculties, yet using those faculties consciously and with all his will to explore the mystery. The drama is a ritual demonstration of man's ability to take deliberate action in the face of almighty obstacles. There can be no better background to such an activity than other human beings. I believe that this aspect of drama is reduced by scenery - and it is certainly reduced by the common box set. Of course drama reduced in this way has a valuable function, but I think its value is declining in the face of other entertainments such as television. The basic situation of drama is something that television cannot ever touch. Theatre-in-the-round, then, may be able to succeed where the theatre we have known so long has failed. It is worth trying, and where it will lead, if it succeeds, I do not know.

However, a production policy begins to materialise out of these considerations. The actor is the most important person in the theatre. The audience is essential. The writer is useful (particularly if he is a member of the company). A number of middlemen will be required - electricians, stage-managers, cleaners, costumiers and so on. A producer will be useful to knit together all the different contributions of these people, but I believe the producer will have quite a different job to do with us from that in a conventional theatre if we are to take maximum advantage of the new actor / audience relationship. It will be a job where, as far as the actors are concerned, he will, of course, try to be a representative member of the audience during rehearsals, where he will try to help the actors find ways of presentation, where he will try to encourage an atmosphere in which the actors can discover the possibilities of creative work in front of the audience to come. There is much more to be said about the producer, but this is not the place to say it. In brief, he will be a much more important person than we suppose at present, because he will set the whole tone of the theatre's work, but he will be the more important the less he directs each actual play.

Finally, in view of the fresh actor / audience relationship, certain management matters will require rethinking. The company has, since its inception, given away programmes. Plays have, as far as possible, been presented without an interval. Even
Hamlet, with modest cuts, has been played during our current season straight through - with a running time of just over two and a half hours. Refreshments are being served before and after the performance - and after the performance many members of the audience have wanted to stay for an hour or more to talk about the play, the theatre and life in general - with members of the company.

As soon as we have premises of our own, the company hopes to encourage other social activities in the theatre, including dances and discussions, as well as meetings of outside groups, trade shows and demonstrations, and lectures and practical courses related to the theatre itself, for adults and for school children. It seems to me that the magic of the theatre is more astonishing if, like a conjuror, the manager is prepared to show his cards. I find that the phenomenon of theatre is sufficiently complex to appeal to all sorts of people at all sorts of levels. The students from Keele university, the training colleges in the neighbourhood and many of the schools that have supported our performances so far, have a very lively appetite for inside knowledge as well as a vigorous concern to keep the theatre growing. This is refreshing, and I want to encourage it. The theatre belongs to everyone - and one looks forward to the time when everyone realises it, and enjoys it. At any rate that is a goal worth aiming at.

Copyright: Stephen Joseph. Please do not reproduce without permission.