The Literary Department at the Stephen Joseph Theatre

Although promoting new plays and writers is ingrained in the DNA of the Stephen Joseph Theatre and was present from the day the Library Theatre opened in 1955, the Literary Department is a relatively new addition to the theatre.

A dedicated literary department did not operate at the venue until 1996 when the
Stephen Joseph Theatre opened at its new state-of-the-art home in Scarborough's former Odeon cinema. For the first time, there was a dedicated Literary Manager and Literary Department dedicated to reading and assessing submitted scripts, encouraging new writers and developing plays. This department ran for a decade until, at the end of 2005, it was closed. In 2013, the department was relaunched in a far more limited capacity than had been previously seen only accepting scripts during specific submission windows for specific production windows.

With the appointment of a new Artistic Director - Paul Robinson - during 2016, a renewed commitment to new writing was made with the intention of revitalising and re-evaluating the Literary Department. This is an ongoing project with the SJT launching a number of new initiatives promoting new writing.

What came before?
When Stephen Joseph opened the Library Theatre in Scarborough in 1955, the initial season consisted of four new plays by four new - or relatively inexperienced - writers. These were all people Stephen had met on a playwriting course he ran at the Central School of Drama in London. For the duration of Stephen's association with the Library Theatre, most of the new work would have been both commissioned and encouraged by him based on people he had met, worked with or had built up a relationship with. This director-led approach to commissioning and working with new writers was essentially the model used by the theatre between 1955 and 1996.

Between 1955 and 1975, the Library Theatre professionally produced 74 new plays including works by Alan Ayckbourn (who obviously has had work produced at the venue consistently between 1959 and the present day), David Campton, Alan Plater, James Saunders and Stephen Mallatratt among many others.

Following Stephen's death in 1967, the decision on producing new writing would have been a collaboration between each season's Director Of Productions and the Scarborough Theatre Trust board, most notable Alfred Bradley who was renowned for his work with new northern writers at the BBC and with whom Alan Ayckbourn worked with during his tenure as a radio drama producer at the BBC between 1965 and 1970.

In 1972, Alan Ayckbourn became Artistic Director of the Library Theatre and continued to build upon Stephen Joseph's legacy of promoting new writing and writers. Following the company's move to its new home, the
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, during 1976, its reputation for working with new writers and commissioning new work grew. Over the years, a system of readers was nurtured who would assess the many submissions sent to the venue, bringing notable ones to the attention of the Artistic and Associate Directors.

This led to the appointment of Gordon Townsend as Script Reader in 1988 - essentially the first Literary Manager at the theatre. Although he had been responsible for evaluating new scripts and organising readers for several years previously, the position was only formally recognised in 1988. He worked closely with Alan Ayckbourn's Personal Assistant, Heather Stoney, during this period in evaluating submitted work.

The theatre continued its director-led approach to new commissions and encouraging new writing, arguably hitting a notable peak during the early 1990s when Alan Ayckbourn, Associate Director Malcolm Hebden and staff director Connal Orton were working with and encouraging a number of talented new writers such as Tim Firth (working with Connal Orton), Vanessa Brooks (working with Malcolm Hebden) and Robert Shearman (working with Alan Ayckbourn).

Between 1976 and 1995, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round professionally produced 110 new plays including works by Brian Thompson, Peter Tinniswood, Stephen Lowe, Tim Firth, Robert Shearman and Vanessa Brooks amongst others.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre Literary Department
In 1996, the company finally moved to its first purpose-built home at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and the Literary Department was formed with the appointment of Connal Orton as the Literary Manager. This marked the first time the company had a recognised - and more important, funded - department tasked with dealing with submissions to the theatre and to work with and encourage new writers. Connal Orton established the department as an essential part of the SJT before departing in 1998. His successor was Laura Harvey, who was Literary Manager from 1998 to 2005, at which point the Literary Department essentially closed for the next eight years. During this period submissions were not accepted except where commissioned and the number of new commissions fell substantially; this is particularly noticeable if new work by established writers such as Alan Ayckbourn and John Godber is stripped out.

In 2013, the Literary Department was relaunched in a limited capacity at the Stephen Joseph Theatre under a new Literary Manager, Associate Director Henry Bell. The relaunched department generated two productions in 2014 with Henry Bell directing
Screenplay, which consisted of four short new one act plays which had been developed with the Literary Department, and Slipping by Claudine Toutoungi. Despite this, when the SJT celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2015, under the Artistic Direction of Chris Monks, there was just one new play produced - an Ayckbourn play - during the entire year.

With the appointment of a new Artistic Director, Paul Freeman, and Chief Executive, Steve Freeman, during 2016, there came a renewed commitment to new writing at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. The OutReach department began working with local writers with the theatre actively looking to develop new scripts, particularly writing with local links. Under the direction of Paul Robinson and the Literary Co-ordinator Fleur Hebditch, the theatre has once again made new writing a central tenet of the SJT.

As of December 2022, there have been 155 new plays professionally produced at the Stephen Joseph Theatre since it opened in 1996, which include amongst their number plays by writers such as Ben Brown, Torben Betts, Fiona Evans, John Godber, Ged McKenna, Sarah Phelps, Ali Taylor, Nick Warburton and Chris York.

More details about the Literary Department can be found at the Stephen Joseph Theatre's website

With thanks to Sir Alan Ayckbourn for his recollections about the history of new writing at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and the formation of the Literary Department at the SJT.

All research for this page by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce the articles without permission of the copyright holder.