Artistic Director - Stephen Joseph Theatre

In-depth details about the Stephen Joseph Theatre and its history can also be found in The SJT section of the website.

Alan Ayckbourn and the Stephen Joseph Theatre

The Stephen Joseph Theatre opened in 1996 - the project was delayed from the initially intended launch in 1994 which would have seen Alan Ayckbourn's play Haunting Julia be the first production in The McCarthy auditorium.

When the project was delayed, Alan Ayckbourn turned - unexpectedly - to one of his biggest flops, the 1975 musical
Jeeves to relaunch the theatre. Alongside the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, the two completely revised the musical and opened the theatre with the essentially new musical By Jeeves; an enormous success which transferred to London, toured the UK and eventually opened on Broadway.

Alan Ayckbourn was keen the entire venue was used to its maximum potential and that the smaller end-stage McCarthy Theatre would not be a second or studio theatre but as an equally important performing space as The Round. Unfortunately, within six months of opening there was a funding crisis due to the three-way funding deal between Scarborough Council, North Yorkshire County Council and the Arts Council - just one pulling out could jeopardise the entire subsidy agreement and North Yorkshire County Council was threatening to cut its funding. As a result, Alan Ayckbourn found himself fighting to secure the future of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in a story which received national media coverage. The funding was eventually secured but Alan Ayckbourn later revealed the venue was being run on practically the same sized subsidy as for the company's previous home, which was less than half the size of the new building.

On his 60th birthday in 1999, Alan announced he was going to step back to lighten his work-load and begin concentrating on his own work alongside his role of Artistic Director and to all intents and purposes ceased directing work by other authors (with the exception of Tim Firth's
The Safari Party in 2002). With funding a perpetual issue at the theatre, Alan looked to 'events' such as the 10x10 season in 1998 and the world premiere of House & Garden in 1999 - which marked his 60th birthday - to attract audiences. The latter production being two plays performed simultaneously in two auditoria by a single cast and which was a huge success and later transfered to the National Theatre.

In February 2006, Alan suffered a
stroke and was out of action for six months. Although he returned to work in September 2006 to direct the world premiere of his new play If I Were You, he would announce the following May his retirement as Artistic Director of the venue in 2009. To mark his final full year at the venue, 2008 saw five productions of plays by Alan Ayckbourn, culminating in the musical Awaking Beauty.

On 31 March 2009, just shy of his 70th birthday, Alan Ayckbourn officially
retired as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph after 37 years. Ironically, given the major events at the SJT which had accompanied his 50th and 60th birthdays, the timing of his retirement meant the SJT barely marked his 70th birthday during 2009 with the major Ayckbourn celebration taking place at Northampton's Royal & Derngate Theatre with the Ayckbourn At 70 festival.

Since 2009, Alan has remained a guest director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre with a commitment to presenting new work at the venue. During 2018, he was appointed Director Emeritus of the company to mark his contributions and achievements.

Alan considers one of his greatest achievements of his life to have been the move of the Scarborough company into its first purpose-designed home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, during 1996.

A Brief History of the Stephen Joseph Theatre

A more comprehensive overview of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, plays produced and people involved can be found within The SJT section of the website.

Despite the ongoing search for a permanent home for the company, a new home for the company was not found until 1988, when Rank closed Scarborough’s Art Deco
Odeon cinema. The building had been built by the architect Harry Weedon and used as a cinema until it closed. Alan Ayckbourn enquired about the possibility of acquiring the empty Grade II listed building, but discovered Rank wanted £300,000 for the remaining 48 years of the lease. Confident he had found the perfect home for the company and after much negotiation, Alan formed the ADMirable partnership in 1990 with Lord Downe and Charles ‘Mac’ McCarthy. They each put £50,000 of their own money together with a bank loan for £50,000 and managed to secure the lease of the building; Scarborough Borough Council consequently increased the lease to 99 years. With the building secured, work began on raising the funds needed for the extensive conversion of the building.

The conversion and move to the new building eventually cost £5.2m and involved refitting the top of the cinema’s circle to create the 165 seat McCarthy Theatre and cinema; the front of the cinema was gutted and the supporting proscenium arch removed to create the 406-seat Round auditorium with a stage-lift and trampoline mesh beneath the lighting rig (apparently the first of its kind in the UK and a clever solution to offering easy and quick access to lighting grids above round venues).

A hole was also punched through the roof, sinking from it a glass shaft - the ‘atrium’ - to allow natural light to reach the offices in the centre of the building (all the office spaces have natural light within the building). The theatre also houses a shop, conference room, full backstage and front of house facilities and a bar area. The front of house areas retain, as far as possible, many of the listed building’s 1930’s features. Even the theatre's original carpet (now only found in The McCarthy auditorium) was an exact replica of the cinemas original carpet taken from a piece that had been found in the building before the conversion. Using Harry Osborne of Henry Osborne Christmas Associates of Tunbridge Wells as the concept architect and Shepherd Design and Build of York, the conversion was finally completed just in time for the first performance of
By Jeeves on 24th of April 1996; the theatre's official opening night took place on 1 May.

Since then the venue has gone through a number of changes which include adding a digital projector - and as a result, live streams - to The McCarthy. The Restaurant has gone through several permutations but is currently being utilised as an extended bar area. During 2015, the new OutReach department was opened; this was the result of an extensive capital build which created several new spaces for the theatre's OutReach department as well as creating new costume and propping storage areas. During 2018, major changes saw the complete refurbishment and re-design of the front-of-house areas including a new foyer area as well as the the introduction of an all LED lighting system in The Round and structural improvements and maintenance. During 2019, the exterior 'neon' lights were updated with an LED system replacing the original neon tubes which had become too expensive to run and replace.

During 2016, a new chapter in the SJT's history began with the appointment of a new management team with Artistic Director Paul Robinson and Chief Executive Stephen Freeman; the first time neither Artistic Director nor Chief Executive had any direct historical link with Alan Ayckbourn or Stephen Joseph. Steve Freeman was later succeeded by the present Executive Director, Caroline Routh, during 2019.

For details about the Odeon building in which the Stephen Joseph Theatre is based, click here.

A more comprehensive overview of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, plays produced and people involved can be found in the
The SJT section of the website.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
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The exterior of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.
© James Drawneek

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The Round auditorium in the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
© James Drawneek

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The McCarthy auditorium in the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
© James Drawneek

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One of the changing rooms at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough.
© Scarborough Theatre Trust

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The Boden Room at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
© Scarborough Theatre Trust

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A cut-away plan for the initial design of the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
© Osborne Christmas Associates