New Writing: An Overview

In 1955, the theatre pioneer Stephen Joseph opened the Library Theatre in Scarborough. At the time, much of the attention was focused on its theatre-in-the-round staging - practically unique, certainly in professional theatre, in the UK during that period. Yet whilst championing new theatre forms such as in-the-round was undoubtedly an essential part of Stephen Joseph's aims, just as important to him was the championing of new writing and new writers. It was on these foundations the Library Theatre was created, to promote new theatre forms and new writing. In context, the in-the-round format was also a cost-effective way of staging new plays by new and rising playwrights.

It is remarkable to consider that a small regional theatre was opened with this remit a full year before the Royal Court would open in London, which is largely considered the first British modern theatre dedicated to encouraging new writing.

In its inaugural season in 1955, Stephen Joseph unveiled a season of four plays at the Library Theatre, all of which were new and all of which were written by new writers. Often over-looked is the fact three of the four writers were also female; highly unusual for the time. A glance over the Royal Court’s history confirms a paucity of female writing talent in the early years. Stephen looked to encourage talent wherever he found it and after his death, his successor Alan Ayckbourn embraced the legacy and placed it at the heart of a company.

This also typified Stephen's desire to encourage anyone to write - no matter their sex or age - producing a remarkably eclectic range of playwrights during Stephen Joseph's tenure as Artistic Director of the venue.

New writing has always been at the heart of the Scarborough company as demonstrated by the remarkable achievement when in 2012, the theatre unveiled its 300th new play. That is 300 plays in 57 years by more than 100 playwrights; a remarkable achievement for any theatre.

The most obvious achievement of Stephen’s policy was the discovery and encouragement of Alan Ayckbourn, now one of the world’s most successful and popular playwrights. However, the new writing policy has helped launch the career of many notable writers and seen the premiere of plays by more established writers. During the past five decades, writers such as Torben Betts, Vanessa Brooks, Ben Brown, David Campton, David Cregan, Tim Firth, John Godber, Susan Hill, Vicky Ireland, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, Ged McKenna, Stephen Mallatratt, Sarah Phelps, Alan Plater, James Saunders, Robert Shearman, Mike Stott, Brian Thompson, Peter Tinniswood, Nick Warburton and Chris York have all had world premieres in Scarborough; many of them have had their writing careers launched or had important early successes such as Tim Firth and Ben Brown.

Since the Library Theatre opened in 1955, the Stephen Joseph company has staged 639 professional play productions of which 332 were world premieres as of December 2019.

New Writing At The Stephen Joseph Theatre - 100 Plays in 11 Years

The following article marked the anniversary of the 100th play to be staged at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, since its opening in 1996. Written by Alan Ayckbourn's archivist Simon Murgatroyd, it was first published in the programme for Nick Warburton's play Touch Wood in 2007* whilst Alan Ayckbourn was still Artistic Director of the venue.

When Stephen Joseph formed a new theatre company in Scarborough in 1955, his main remit was to produce and encourage new writing. His first season consisted entirely of new plays by new playwrights and during the theatre’s first decade he would be responsible for encouraging such talent as Harold Pinter, Alan Plater, James Saunders and - of course - Alan Ayckbourn. This October [2007], it will be forty years since Stephen Joseph’s death, yet his passion for encouraging new writing remains a vital and important part of the theatre he created.

Nick Warburton’s play
Touch Wood is part of that tradition and holds its own special place as the 100th new play to be premiered in the Stephen Joseph Theatre since the company moved to its present home in 1996. In just 11 years, the theatre has produced an astonishing average of nine new plays per year and showcased new work by more than 45 writers. How many other theatres can show that level of commitment in encouraging and developing new talent?

Back in 1996, the Stephen Joseph Theatre opened with a new play - or at least a nearly new one:
By Jeeves radically reworked and rethought Alan Ayckbourn and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1975 West End flop Jeeves and began a run of 25 new plays for Sir Alan at the theatre. With a new one planned for 2008, that run doesn’t look like ending anytime soon. It is too obvious to concentrate on Alan Ayckbourn’s work though, particularly as he has been singularly responsible for making sure the theatre stayed true to Stephen Joseph’s vision and has encouraged and directed many new plays, often by new writers.

The first totally original play in this conversion of the former Odeon cinema was not by Sir Alan, but Vanessa Brooks with
Love Me Slender. Vanessa had been working with the company since 1993 and had two premieres at the company's former home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round at Westwood, with Penny Blue and Let’s Pretend. She was one of several writers to make the transition to the new building alongside Rob Shearman whose Fool To Yourself, directed by Alan Ayckbourn, opened here in 1997. Rob’s first new play for this company was White Lies in 1994, which can currently be seen during lunchtimes in the restaurant.

It did not take long for a number of new writers to emerge and make an indelible impression on the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Foremost among them must be Ben Brown whose first play was the remarkable
All Things Considered in 1996 and who would go on to premiere the award-winning and highly acclaimed Larkin With Women at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1999. Other writers such as Neil Monaghan, Helen Kelly, Torben Betts, Sarah Woods, Christopher William Hill, James Volmar and Nick Warburton have followed in his footsteps producing exciting and innovative new work at the venue. Nick’s journey to tonight’s play is a perfect example of how many of our writers develop; his first two plays For Starters and Purvis premiered as lunchtime shows in the theatre's restaurant leading to his first full-length main house show, Touch Wood.

The theatre is not just searching for exciting new talent though and can point to world premieres by established writers too. In 1998, the 10x10 season boasted new plays in The Round by Alan Ayckbourn, John Godber and Tim Firth. John has premiered two plays at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and Tim has premiered three including the extremely popular comedy
The Safari Party in 2002. The world famous television writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran chose to make their theatrical debut at the venue in 2005 with Playing God and Torben Betts, acclaimed as one of the UK’s most talented young playwrights, has seen his plays A Listening Heaven, Clockwatching and Her Slightest Touch open at the theatre.

The support of all these writers has ensured Stephen’s legacy continues to thrive, but in recent years the theatre has turned its attention to not only encouraging new writing but also attracting new audiences. A substantial amount of writing has been commissioned to encourage children to discover and enjoy the magic of theatre, led by Alan Ayckbourn with four plays targeted specifically at the four to eight year old age range. Often working in conjunction with the theatre’s OutReach department, this audience has been nurtured with plays by the likes of the acclaimed writer and director Vicky Ireland, who produced
The Ugly Duckling in 2006, Helen Kelly, whose plays Kite and What’s In The Box have proved a resounding success with young audiences and Lee Threadgold, who produced the puppet-orientated Christmas shows The Firebird and The Sleeping Beauty. Hopefully, inspired by the chance to visit the theatre at a young age, this young audience will become the adult audience of tomorrow, eager to embrace and experience all that this and other theatres have to offer.

It is this which is perhaps as remarkable as the new writing tradition at the theatre. Stephen Joseph believed in 1955 that he could attract audiences to see new plays and make a financially viable theatre rooted in new work. He believed that providing the plays were of good enough quality and entertaining, there would be an audience. He was not naïve enough to believe everything would be successful, but he did believe there was a demand from people to try something new. His faith in Scarborough has been more than justified over the years with a commitment by theatre-goers to seeing established plays and playwrights as well as new plays by unknown writers. Stephen not only nurtured new writers but also a new audience for new writing, which more than fifty years on is one of the reasons why his legacy plays such an important role in the Stephen Joseph Theatre and why we can celebrate the achievement of the play
Touch Wood.

* Subsequent to this article, it was discovered following extensive research that the number of premieres was incorrect and the 100th play to premiere at the Stephen Joseph Theatre was actually Alan Ayckbourn's play
Awaking Beauty, produced in 2008.

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