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The Stephen Joseph Theatre was founded in Scarborough by theatrical pioneer Stephen Joseph.
Stephen, the son of actress Hermione Gingold and publisher Michael Joseph, had seen theatre in the round in America and determined to bring it back to Britain. Frustrated by attempts to open a theatre-in-the-round in London, Stephen’s plans came to fruition when his search for a suitable venue led him to the seaside town of Scarborough on the North-East coast. Here in 1955 he established the country’s first theatre-in-the-round company on the first floor of the Public Library. His primary aim was to encourage new writing by new writers, which he was passionate about until his death in 1967, aged just 46.
Alan Ayckbourn, Stephen’s protégé, was appointed Artistic Director of the company in 1972. Alan had begun working with the company as an actor in 1957 and had premiered his first play at the venue, The Square Cat, in 1959. Alan would remain Artistic Director until 2009 having encouraged Stephen’s legacy of new writing with the world premiere of 239 plays by 87 writers during his tenure. Alan has also premiered the majority of his plays at the theatre, more than half of which have gone on to the West End or the National Theatre. He was awarded a CBE in 1987 and in 1997 was knighted for services to the theatre.
The theatre continued to flourish and in 1976 moved to a supposedly temporary home on the ground floor of the former Scarborough Boys' High School at an initial conversion cost of £40,000.
However, a permanent home proved difficult to find and it wasn't until late 1988 and the closure of the local Odeon cinema by Rank Leisure that Alan Ayckbourn found a suitable venue.
By October 1990, the newly formed Scarborough Theatre Development Trust had gained the lease on the classic thirties building and fund-raising began in earnest.
This time, the conversion cost £5.2m of which £1.48m came from the National Lottery Arts Council of England; £500,000 from the Foundation for Sport and the Arts; £495,000 from the EC Objective 5 (b) fund; £400,000 from Alan Ayckbourn personally; £240,000 from the Chairman of the Development Trust, Charles (Mac) McCarthy; and other amounts ranging from hundreds of thousands to pound coins dropped in a collection bucket after each performance and from a myriad of other fund-raising initiatives.
The entire conversion was chronicled extensively by the theatre and documentary photographer Adrian Gatie. The end result in excess of 5000 images offers a unique record of the entire conversion between 1993 and 1996, a selection of which can be seen here.
The new theatre, known simply as the Stephen Joseph Theatre opened on 30th April 1996 and has two auditoria: The Round, a 404-seat in the round and The McCarthy, a 165-seat endstage/cinema. The building also contains a restaurant, shop, and full front-of-house and backstage facilities.
The Round boasts two important technical innovations: the stage lift, facilitating speedy set changes and the trampoline, a Canadian invention which allows technicians particularly easy access to the lighting grid.
Chris Monks succeeded Alan Ayckbourn as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre on 1 April 2009. A theatre director and writer, he has a history of producing exciting, imaginative theatre in the round; the majority of his work has been for The New Vic, The Orange Tree Theatre, Bolton Octagon and the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.