The Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round: 1986 - 1988 Research Issues

From an objective perspective, the years between 1986 and 1988 present an issue to anyone researching the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round.
In 1986, Alan Ayckbourn took a two-year sabbatical from Scarborough to become a Company Director at the National Theatre. Coinciding with this, the long-standing theatre manager of 30 years, Ken Boden, also retired. Day-to-day running of the theatre passed to Robin Herford and several major staff appointments were made, notably Ian Watson as Theatre Manager and Russ Allen as Publicity Officer.
Both left the theatre in 1988 either before Alan Ayckbourn returned (Ian Watson) or shortly after (Russ Allen) and during this period there was a very public row between the pair about the health of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round with both making accusations about each other and the state of the theatre. What is the truth is hard to judge by the surviving material held in archive at the theatre and undoubtedly there is an element of self-aggrandisement on both sides; Allen in particular was notorious for his publicity stunts, whilst Watson's polemic against the theatre is largely unsubstantiated or can be refuted.
In his biography of Alan Ayckbourn,
Grinning At The Edge, Paul Allen succinctly and eloquently sums up the issues and the difficulties this period represents:

"Somehow, while Alan [Ayckbourn] was away and after Ken [Boden] had retired, an inland revenue investigator was given, or took, major offence and lodged a formal complaint, the Scarborough Building Society, a major local sponsor, was alienated following the alleged rudeness of a member of the theatre's staff; Scarborough banks ceased to be prepared to handle the theatre's business; and staff left, so that at one point there was no accounts department…. This is a difficult period in the theatre's history to unpick. Nobody has blamed [Robin] Herford [the co-Artistic Director], to my knowledge, for what happened; maybe the diverse, volatile personalities at large on the administrative side during this time were more than a small organisation could bear."

To provide context, some of the issues raised in 1988 are extrapolated in the timeline below. The major accusations and response can be found at
Accusations (Watson's accusation) and The Theatre's Side (the theatre's internal response).

The Media's View: Russ Allen, Ian Watson and the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round: 1988
  • 4 January: The Scarborough Evening News reports Theatre Manager Ian Watson is to leave the theatre to concentrate on his writing (Scarborough Evening News, 4 January 1988) [Editor's note - it is later revealed by Watson in The Stage on 30 June that he took redundancy rather than face the possibility of being sacked].
  • 4 January: Watson claims the theatre reported a 68% increase in earnings with record bar and catering profits and an increase in box office returns (Scarborough Evening News, 4 January 1988).
  • 4 January: Watson claims sponsorship has risen from 'virtually nothing' in 1985 to £15,000 in 1986 and £22,000 in 1987 (Scarborough Evening News, 4 January 1988).
  • 4 January: Watson claims he has organised two of the longest, most "profitable and prestigious international tours" in the theatre's history (Scarborough Evening News, 4 January 1988).
  • 15 January: Marketing Director Russ Allen announces the popular Scarborough Rock Sunday concerts are to be axed due to staff shortages and the absence of the Musical Director, Paul Todd, in London (Scarborough Evening News, 15 January 1988).
  • 26 January: Watson rebuts all of Allen's claims regarding the Scarborough Rock Sunday concerts claiming none of the staff involved in the concerts would be occupied elsewhere and that Paul Todd had still managed to organise 55 concerts during his absence in 1987. [Editor's note - the actual reason for the concerts' cancellation was the Artistic Director's discovery that the technicians could not work overtime on play productions due to working on Sunday nights for the concerts. He - obviously - decided to prioritise productions].
  • April: Allen arranges for a sign on private land on Seamer Road welcoming motorists to Scarborough and the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round; Scarborough Council later contacts the theatre saying planning permission was needed and the sign must be removed (Scarborough Evening News, 29 April 1988).
  • 25 March: Allen reports the theatre has received a £10,000 increase in its subsidies due to the "theatre's aggressive marketing efforts" (Scarborough Evening News, 25 March 1988).
  • 25 March: Allen claims the 1986 / 1987 seasons reversed a five year decline in box office sales with an increase of 9.7% and a predicted increase of between 11% - 13% for the 1987 /1988 period (Scarborough Evening News, 25 March 1988).
  • 31 March: Watson rebuts Allen's subsidy claims and that "aggressive marketing" played no part in the decisions, which were based on the "high artistic quality of the theatre's work." (Scarborough Evening News, 31 March 1988).
  • 31 March: Watson claims that the 11% increase in revenues predicted for the year should be put in the context of 16% - 18% increase in ticket prices resulting in a 11% decline in theatre attendance (Scarborough Evening News, 31 March 1988).
  • 19 April: The theatre announces Peter Tinniswood's new play, State Of The Union, has been pulled from the schedule. The decision throws into relief a controversial advertising campaign by Russ Allen promoting the play's fictional town of Hallam-on-Sands in a flyer which does not mention the play nor theatre.
  • 2 June: In a story which gains national coverage, Watson claims the theatre has lost £15,000 in sponsorship deals, is due to lose between £50,000 and £250,000 in public subsidies, that Allen has been demoted following a 'patently absurd' publicity campaign, that Alan Ayckbourn ordered the entire 100,000 run of the summer brochure to be destroyed and reprinted after Allen wrongly named the sponsors, that audiences had fallen by 11%, that the failed State Of The Union campaign not only cost £2,000 but also advertised a security system telephone number linking the theatre to the police station and that Allen destroyed the theatre's entire financial archive - see Accusations for further details (Top Trader, 2 June 1988).
  • 3 June: The theatre refutes Watson's criticisms but also declines to take any action against him. Allen says: "The claims are totally unfounded but we do not want to become involved in a slanging match with a former employee." (Scarborough Evening News, 3 June 1988) [Editor's note - Of interest is the theatre did draw up an internal report which convincingly rebutted all the accusations, but this was never published. The report can be seen here].
  • 10 June: Private Eye magazine makes a long series of accusations regarding the "theatre's self-styled 'marketing director' and a bit of a comedian in his own right" Russ Allen. The article can be seen here (Private Eye, 10 June 1988)
  • 8 September: In a letter to The Stage, Allen makes the claim that 80% of productions at the theatre are new and have been since Stephen Joseph set up the company 25 years ago [Editor's note - It was actually 33 years and the approximate percentage of new productions during that period is closer to 50% than 80%].
  • 20 September: Watson writes to the theatre & his solicitors demanding the Winter 1988 brochure be withdrawn as it uses a photograph he appears in, without his permission [Editor's note - Watson's legal argument was wrong, not withstanding the fact the photo is so small (6 x 6.5cm) and poorly reproduced (the theatre complained about the print quality), that neither Watson nor anyone else in the photo is recognisable].
  • 22 September: Watson rebuts Allen's claims from 8 September stating that only 54% of productions that year were new and the theatre had only achieved 80% or higher in 1973 and 1982 [Editor's note - All parties were wrong in this argument - in 1988, 46% (6 out of 13) productions were new; the theatre had 80% or higher new shows in 1955, 1972, 1973 and 1981; since opening in 1955 and between 1988, slightly less than half of the theatre's productions were new plays).
  • 29 December: The Scarborough Evening News announces Russ Allen is to leave the theatre for a new post at the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester.

Whilst Watson's public and private correspondence regarding the theatre largely stops following Allen's departure, it should be noted that the Ayckbourn Archive held in the University of York contains later acrimonious correspondence addressed directly to Alan Ayckbourn, following the events noted above and Alan Ayckbourn's decision - not surprisingly given the events of 1988 - not to help Watson promote his book
Conversations With Ayckbourn in 1989.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.