Artistic Director - The Library Theatre
Alan Ayckbourn & The Library TheatreAlan Ayckbourn joined the Library Theatre in 1957, two years after it was formed, as an acting stage manager (a stage manager with limited acting roles). He came at the invitation of Rodney Wood, a stage manager with whom he had been working at Leatherhead.
Considering the significance he was to have on Alan's life, Alan would not actually meet Stephen Joseph until several weeks into his employment when, as a total stranger to Alan, he was instrumental in Alan bringing the lights down on a scene mid-performance at the venue!
By 1958, Alan was employed primarily as an actor and being encouraged to write by Stephen Joseph. He was commissioned to write his first play in December 1958 with The Square Cat premiering in July 1959. A second play, Love After All, would follow in December.
By 1961, Stephen had also encouraged Alan to try his hand at directing and the combination of writing and directing (alongside the realisation he wasn't a particularly good actor) led him to quit acting in 1964.
In 1962, Stephen set up the UK's first purpose built theatre-in-the-round venue at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, and Alan moved with the Studio Theatre Ltd company away from Scarborough. There would be no Ayckbourn plays staged in Scarborough between Standing Room Only in 1962 and Meet My Father (later retitled Relatively Speaking) in 1965. In 1964, Alan quit the Victoria Theatre to work full-time for the BBC as a radio drama producer, but continued to write plays for Scarborough.
After Stephen Joseph's death in 1967, Alan was instrumental in helping to keeping the Library Theatre going and as well as writing plays for the venue, he was also appointed the Director Of Productions in 1969 and 1970 (in the aftermath of Stephen's death, the permanent position of Artistic Director was replaced by the seasonal post of Director Of Productions, which was held by several people between 1967 and 1971). In 1972, Alan was offered the permanent position of Artistic Director which he accepted and held until 2009.
"Theatre-in-the-rounds were completely unknown in England in 1955. It was an extraordinary idea to open a space in Scarborough. Stephen Joseph died very young actually in 1967 and I was persuaded - because I was the only person they knew really - to take it over and I started to try and develop it into a slightly more year round show. When it started it was just eight weeks - as soon as cricket week arrived we all packed up. We had an ambition to expand."
Alan Ayckbourn, 2015
A Brief History Of The Library TheatreAn in-depth history of the Library Theatre, particularly focusing on its first 10 years whilst Stephen Joseph was Artistic Director, can be found at our sister-site Stephen Joseph & The Library Theatre).
The Library Theatre, Scarborough, was founded in 1955 by Stephen Joseph; he was passionate about new writing, supporting new playwrights and theatre in the round, which he had seen briefly in the UK and more extensively whilst studying in the USA. He believed theatre in the round offered a practical, exciting and financially viable way of presenting new drama.
Whilst Stephen was running a weekend playwriting course in Ravenscar, North Yorkshire, in 1954 a friend suggested the Concert Room at Scarborough Library might be a possible venue. was suggested as a venue. Stephen came to the town, met the Chief Librarian William Smettem and saw the Library's Concert Room for the first time. Here was the venue where the UK's first professional in-the-round company would reside for the first 20 years of its life.
The Library Theatre opened on 14 July 1955 with a season of four new plays by four new writers (three of whom were women). Obviously every aspect of this was a risk, the theatre was competing against a town replete with theatre entertainment during the summer months, it was staging unknown plays by unknown writers and it was offering theatre in the round, practically unknown in the UK at a time when the theatres were dominated by the proscenium arch.
The Library Theatre was basic on every level: the single toilet was shared by both company and audience, the changing area was minuscule and the stage only had two entrances - one of which was also the audience entrance. The seating was built on portable rostra specially designed by Stephen Joseph and was designed to be disassembled relatively quickly and easily. While a lighting box was eventually installed, facilities remained limited throughout the company's 20 year tenure at the venue. With little money to fund the venture, Stephen was dependent on all the help he could get and found an enthusiastic supply in the local amateur dramatic scene. Members of Scarborough Theatre Guild were heavily involved in front of house and behind the scenes work, most prominent of whom was Ken Boden, a local insurance agent, who was involved in the theatre from the start and would go on to play a pivotal part in the theatre’s future.
Within two weeks of opening, the theatre was in trouble. Stephen had calculated he needed 100 people a night to break even, but audiences had not risen above 75 and were frequently far fewer. Not helped by a blisteringly hot summer, Stephen made an impassioned plea to the local media for support. The future of the fledgling company was in the balance and one thing contrived to save it. The weather. The heatwave broke and the rain fell, drawing crowds into The Library Theatre and ensuring the theatre was able to survive its first season.
By 1957, the theatre had become firmly established in Scarborough with good houses leading Stephen to explore the possibility of a winter season in the town. He had also made the decision to incorporate more established work and writers into his season to supplement the new writing - although the emphasis was always on the latter. That same year, a young acting stage manager by the name of Alan Ayckbourn also joined the company.
By 1961, The Library Theatre could lay claim to being the country’s first professional and permanent theatre in the round company although its future suddenly looked insecure when Newcastle-under-Lyme expressed interest in supporting Stephen creating a purpose-built theatre in the round in the town. This would eventually lead to the formation of the Victoria Theatre in 1962, the country’s first permanent theatre in the round venue.
Stephen formed a new company, Scarborough Theatre Trust, to ensure the survival of The Library Theatre in Scarborough, although its future looked bleak when most of Studio Theatre Ltd’s Art Council subsidy followed Stephen original company - Studio Theatre Ltd - to the Victoria Theatre. The winter seasons in Scarborough were abandoned and the summer seasons drastically shortened; Stephen was also increasingly convinced the Library was not a suitable home for the theatre.
The facilities at the Library Theatre had always been limited and Stephen never realistically believed Scarborough’s public library could be a permanent home for the company. As a result, Stephen was constantly looking for new venues for the theatre. By 1963, Stephen had become frustrated by the position of the company; unable to find a new home for it, limited by the Library facilities and feeling Scarborough Borough Council was unsupportive of the theatre, Stephen delivered the first of several ultimatums for the theatre to be supported. By 1965, Stephen felt his pleas for support had fallen on deaf ears and he announced there would be no season in 1966 (indeed, judging by Stephen’s book Theatre In The Round, it can be construed Stephen believed the Library Theatre was over). Scarborough Theatre Trust was retained but with the task of finding a new home for the company, even if it was likely to be outside Scarborough).
At this point Ken Boden stepped in and persuaded Stephen to let him stage an amateur in the round season in 1966, hoping to keep the popular venue going. It was a good decision as the Council finally agreed to provide more solid support for the theatre in 1967 and professional theatre was able to resume in 1967, although by then Stephen was too ill to play an active role in the theatre’s life. Stephen tragically died on 5 October 1967 at his Scarborough home, aged just 46, and for the next few year, the theatre was run on a day to day basis by Ken Boden with the aid of people who had been influenced by and worked with Stephen such as Alan Ayckbourn, Alfred Bradley and Rodney Wood.
In 1972, Alan Ayckbourn became the Artistic Director of the company (a position he would hold until his retirement in 2009), ensuring Stephen Joseph’s legacy would be preserved. His first years were met by the enormous challenge of trying to ensure the theatre’s immediate survival.
In the wake of Stephen Joseph's death, the search for a new home became even more pronounced. Between 1967 and 1972, Scarborough Theatre Trust considered venues throughout the town to no avail and even faced competition from an effort to restore Scarborough’s Opera House. With diminishing support from the Libraries Committee and no sign of a permanent home, the Council stepped in and offered a temporary home at the old boys’ grammar school beneath Valley Bridge (better known as Westwood). A promise was made to move forward with a purpose-built venue within three years of the company moving to Westwood. The move took place at the end of the summer 1976, with the company knowing they had less than two months to prepare a new theatre for the winter season.
An in-depth history of the first decade of the Library Theatre's existence can be found at the Stephen Joseph & The Library Theatre website. A more comprehensive overview of the Library Theatre can also be found at the website Scarborough In The Round.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.