Friday, March 17, 2017

60 Years At The SJT: 1974

2017 marks the 60th anniversary of Alan Ayckbourn joining the Library Theatre, Scarborough, in 1957. Alan has been indelibly associated with the company since that time as actor, writer, director and Artistic Director.
To mark this anniversary, the blog will be running a weekly feature highlighting each year's significant achievements and events relating to Alan Ayckbourn alongside notable photos.

60 Years At The SJT: 1974
It had been two years since Alan Ayckbourn had taken over as Artistic Director of the Library Theatre and the previous year had seen the company break box office records with Alan's acclaimed trilogy, The Norman Conquests.
The playwright had every reason to be optimistic about the future of the company he had inherited from its founder, Stephen Joseph. He had plans to expand it moving forward, not least making it a year round operation rather than the summer season orientated company it was now.
But rather than the theatre and Alan being embraced as a positive attribute to the town, it kicked off a series of events which not only led to the threat of the Library Theatre closing, but also Alan Ayckbourn leaving Scarborough.
The summer of 1974 had been a successful one for the company and seen the world premiere of Alan's latest play Absent Friends, now seen as a landmark in his writing career. At the end of the season, the company had launched its first touring season since 1962 with another new Ayckbourn play, Confusions. The company was expanding its programme and its reach.
Key to further expansion was a bid to operate in Scarborough's public library for 40 weeks a year and, to that end, an application was put in for, what was hoped, would be a formality.
However, earlier in the year, the responsibility for administering the library had moved from a town to a county council level; a small administrative move which led to an audacious conflict of interests and a county council sub-committee almost being responsible for the loss of Stephen Joseph’s legacy in Scarborough.
The background to which lay with a high-profile campaign to restore Scarborough’s Opera House theatre; launched the previous year, the campaign had garnered popular support with 13,500 signatures and the backing of several prominent Scarborians in a bid to raise £30,000 by January 1975 to obtain the building’s lease.
Against this, Scarborough Theatre Trust - which ran the Library Theatre - applied for the extended license in November 1974, expecting little in the way of opposition. They were to be surprised.
On 23 November, the Scarborough Evening News reported North Yorkshire County Libraries Committee had turned down the application more than two to one when County Councillor Erkki Lahteela “spearheaded opposition to the Library Theatre proposal” suggesting the theatre’s presence would “take facilities away from organisations” in the town.
The Scarborough Evening News story
from 23 November 1974.
Copyright: Scarborough Evening News
Now there might have been a cogent argument here - after all the Library Theatre was based in the Concert Room on the first floor of Scarborough Library and the room was, arguably, there for the use of the town.
However, this argument was dulled substantially by the fact that Coun. Lahteela also happened to be the chairman of the Opera House Preservation Society and about to become the very public face of an argument that was to be largely played out in the regional media.
The county council’s decision was unexpected and put both Scarborough Theatre Trust and Scarborough Town Council into a difficult position. The Town Council viewed the theatre as an asset to Scarborough, welcoming both the publicity and the money it generated, but which had also made little progress in helping to secure a much needed new home for the company away from the library.
Which was problematic considering the company was now threatened with homelessness.
On 25 November, Alan Ayckbourn was interviewed by the Scarborough Evening News with a prominent story proclaiming “Ayckbourn says he will quit if Library Theatre is refused a longer season.”
There he regretfully noted how if the County Council's decision was not overturned it would leave Scarborough without a repertory company and also lead to his “own departure from Scarborough.”
Extract from Alan Ayckbourn's threat to 'quit' Scarborough
published in the Scarborough Evening News on 25 November 1974.
Copyright: Scarborough Evening News
Carefully rebutting all of the committee’s raised objections to the license, he also addressed the Opera House issue for the first time publicly, questioning the veracity of the plans and suggesting the money would be better spent knocking the building down and constructing a more suitable Scarborough theatre - with an in-the-round space - in its place.
It was a provocative statement, never likely to be accepted.
Just to add fuel to the fire, Hull Arts Centre also made an offer to house the company - which had unilaterally voted to join Alan in his threat to leave Scarborough; interestingly the Arts Centre would later become the Spring Street Theatre, home of Hull Truck Theatre and intrinsically connected with another playwright figurehead, John Godber.
Scarborough Evening News story about Hull Arts Centre's
offer to Alan Ayckbourn from 25 November 1974.
Copyright: Scarborough Evening News
The argument between the county council and the Theatre Trust received extensive television and newspaper coverage with both parties going on the attack in numerous interviews, which saw Alan at one point note: “I feel hurt, naturally, that our application for a 40-week season was rejected on such flimsy pretexts, and after 17 years I would have thought the town would be more supportive for theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough.”
As the conflict rolled into December, Scarborough Councillors publicly pushed for a special meeting of the Libraries Committee, which the county council agreed to.
With his dual positions publicly exposed and being portrayed in a less then positive light, Coun. Lahteela resigned as chairman of the Preservation Society and went on to make a rather extraordinary public declaration, which generated national coverage. He announced neither he nor any other county councillors had realised “how famous Alan Ayckbourn was.”
It is not recorded what his fellow councillors thought of this sweeping statement proclaiming their profound cultural ignorance, but it was perhaps not the wisest of comments.
In context, in 1974 alone Alan has been the subject of both extensive national and international press coverage for equalling the record for the most plays simultaneously playing in the West End, he also had his first Broadway success, been featured in a self-titled documentary on BBC2 and was a constant presence in the region’s newspapers.
It seems highly unlikely that the entirety of North Yorkshire County Council was unaware of who Alan Ayckbourn was or his fame. The county council now also needed to save face.
On 3 January 1975, a special meeting of the Libraries Committee was held and its decision reversed. The Library Theatre company was given permission to run a season from May until January 1976.
It was not all good news though as, in a additional statement, the committee declared this would be the company’s final season at the library and it would not be extended.
As for the Opera House Preservation Society, the deadline for purchasing the lease passed that same month. Despite its thousands of signatories and reports it was well on the way to raising the needed £30,000, the society had actually raised less than £500 and its bid - and existence - ended there.
Alan Ayckbourn had secured the future of the Library Theatre, but essentially only for another twelve months. A new home was needed, but before all this was to come the creation of one his most popular plays.

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