Friday, March 31, 2017

60 Years At The SJT: 1976

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: 1976
In November 1975, the Arts Council announced that the Library Theatre in Scarborough had the highest percentage attendance of any subsidised regional theatre in England.
It was a remarkable achievement and yet, despite this, the company felt unwanted and seemed to be on a precipice. In January 1975, North Yorkshire County Council had confirmed the Library Theatre must vacate Scarborough Library within twelve months.
Despite all the theatre had done for the town - which by this point was being increasingly associated with Alan Ayckbourn both nationally and internationally - it was obvious, as Alan Ayckbourn notes, things had to change.
"Conditions in the library where we spent our first twenty years were getting difficult to say the least. They'd pinched back one of the rooms, so we only had two rooms to do a repertoire of five plays in. It was very hard work and very difficult for the actors - one wash basin and all that sordidity."
Alan probably didn't help matters during the company's final months though when the Chief Librarian was reported to have arrived at work one day only to find a Morris Minor outside his first floor office, as part of the get-in for Alan Ayckbourn's latest play Just Between Ourselves! It was, as Alan noted, probably 'the final straw.'
Alan Ayckbourn removing the advertising page following the
final performance at the Library Theatre in 1976.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
Theoretically there was a solution on the table to the theatre's problems, but there is serious doubt as to whether anyone within the theatre really believed it would come to fruition.
During October 1975 - at a point when the company had made serious progress in securing and making plans to convert St Thomas's Church into its new home - Scarborough Town Council dramatically revealed previously secret plans for a purpose-built theatre opposite Scarborough Library on Vernon Road car park with permission to proceed approved in the same meeting.
This was surprise, if welcome news for the company, but the plans were for several years hence. The theatre would have to be built and, in the meantime, Alan had no current home for the company with the Library unwilling to consider anything but a short six month extension to its deadline.
The only solution was a short term lease offered by Scarborough Town Council for the former Westwood County Modern School, beneath Valley Bridge. It was far from ideal, but the only practical and financially viable solution.
Scarborough Theatre Trust agreed to move into Westwood - as it was colloquially known - at an estimated cost of between £20,000 - £30,000 to convert the ground floor of the building into a practical theatre space; it would actually cost £38,000 - drawn from the money being used to fund a permanent home for the company.
This - the Vernon Road theatre - was budgeted at £500,000 of which the Trust committed to raise £120,000. All was agreed and on 11 September 1976, the company performed for the final time at the Library Theatre where it had first performed on 14 July 1955.
Dismantling the Library Theatre following the final
performance of Just Between Ourselves.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
There was now just 60 days to convert a former ground floor of a school into a working theatre!
That they did this was a remarkable achievement in itself, even though on the day of opening, Alan recalls concrete and paint still apparently drying!
"I clearly remember the first night there. Wet paint everywhere front of house and since the stage lighting board wasn’t yet connected, I had to light the show off a trailing thirteen amp lead, each lamp individually, one at a time. The result being nobody has the remotest idea what the final picture would be! Cussedly I decide to re-open the theatre with a previous failure, Mr Whatnot. Which went fine if a bit dark in places...."
The 308-seat venue opened as Theatre In The Round At Westwood on 26 October 1976 with a revival of Artistic Director Alan Ayckbourn's Mr Whatnot; one of the few plays by the playwright which had not premiered or been seen in Scarborough and which had been a notorious West End flop. It did rather better in Scarborough.
A photo montage from the Mr Whatnot programme showing
the conversion of Westwood from school to theatre in 60 days.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
The original lease for Westwood was for just three years, but it soon became obvious there was not going to be a new permanent home for the company. Nor that Westwood wasn't going to be without its own unique problems.
"Now we're in a building - and we sighed with relief, but then they moved the Technical College in downstairs, and they do things like lead-beating classes on Tuesdays. It's absolutely deafening... They had no idea we used the theatre in the daytime at all, and we pointed out that we did rehearse. We managed to get clearance for matinee days, although they tended to forget that... It's lunatic planning, so once again we're fighting some ridiculous battle. Hardly a day goes past when I'm not on the phone to someone at the Technical College, saying: 'Excuse me, but I can't hear my dress rehearsal.' It's a most extraordinary thing."
Just months after moving in, the town council announced that the escalating costs of the proposed new theatre meant it was no longer viable; at no point was it ever explained how the budget went from £500,000 to more than £1m in less than 18 months.
This posed another problem as having agreed to move into Westwood, Alan was told in 1977 that all funding by the Arts Council would cease if it did not have a four to five year lease.
"It's ironic really, when you think that there'd be several places that would willingly give us house-rooms, and yet here we are only guaranteed another eighteen months in the building."
Westwood was not truly fit for purpose, the promised purpose-built theatre had vanished and it was fair to say, the company felt no progress had been made in the two years since January 1975. On top of that, Alan discovered the company shouldn't actually have been operating at all!
"I learnt later that we opened ‘illegally’ since after several months, we still hadn’t signed a lease with the owners, North Yorkshire County Council."
This highlighted the disparity between the town and county councils. The latter had never really appreciated how significant the theatre and Alan had become to both Scarborough's economy and reputation and which the Town Council were loathe to lose.
In a tacit acknowledgement the company would have to make the best of a bad situation, on 1 April 1978, Westwood was renamed the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in memory of its founder; a name that was initially planned for the new permanent home for the company.
The Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round - second home of
the company formed by Stephen Joseph in 1955.
Copyright: Scarborough Theatre Trust
The following year, the Westwood lease was extended to 10 years and a grant of £105,000 from the local authority, English Tourist Board and the Arts Council offered an opportunity to make the building fit for purpose. A rehearsal room was finally created alongside a costume store, extra offices and other improvements including air conditioning in the main auditorium.
It was a home of sorts and would become, despite all its quirks, a theatre embraced by Scarborough audiences. What was intended as a home for no more than three years instead lasted for 20 years from 1976 to 1996.
Despite everything, Alan had overcome his first truly major challenge as Artistic Director. He had secured a home foe the company and successfully guided it through every obstacle thrown at him.
He now needed to establish the space and make it not only a worthy successor to the Library Theatre, but a success in its own right.
So began the work that within the decade would see the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round recognised as one of the most successful and significant regional theatres in the UK.

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