The Development of New Writing at Theatre in the Round

Although promoting and producing new plays and writers was ingrained in the DNA of Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre from the day it opened on 14 July 1955, there was no formal process for encouraging new work until the 1980s. This page traces the story of how new work was encouraged and developed at theatre in the round between 1955 and 2009, when Alan Ayckbourn stepped down as Artistic Director of the company.

Developing New Writing

When Stephen Joseph opened Theatre in the Round at 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 Theatre in the Round at 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, Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre professionally produced 77 new plays including works by Alan Ayckbourn, David Campton, Alan Plater, James Saunders and Stephen Mallatratt among many others.

Following Stephen's death in 1967, decisions on producing new writing would have been a collaboration between each season's Director Of Productions - Rodney Wood (1967 - 1968), Alan Ayckbourn (1969 - 1970) and Caroline Smith (1971) and the
Scarborough Theatre Trust board, most notably the board member 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 Theatre in the Round at 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,
Theatre In The Round at Westwood during 1976 later renamed the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round), the company's 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 106 new plays including works by Brian Thompson, Peter Tinniswood, Stephen Lowe, Tim Firth, Robert Shearman and Vanessa Brooks amongst others.

A Literary Department

In 1996, the company moved to its first purpose-built home at the Stephen Joseph Theatre and the Literary Department was officially 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 company before departing in 1998. He created an extensive network of readers to evaluate scripts and provide feedback and archive documents indicate the theatre was receiving and providing feedback on hundreds of scripts.

Connal's 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 reflected in new work produced during this period if established writers such as Alan Ayckbourn and John Godber is stripped out.

Although the Literary Department has subsequently been revived in various forms subsequent to Alan Ayckbourn's departure as Artistic Director, it has arguably never again attainted the stature of the original intentions of the Literary Department with a dedicated staff and an open submissions policy.

Between 1996 and 31 March 2009, when Alan Ayckbourn stepped down as Artistic Director, the Stephen Joseph Theatre produced 100 new plays.

Between Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre opening on 14 July 1955 and Alan Ayckbourn stepping down as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre on 31 March 2009, the company produced 549 plays of which 283 were world premieres of new plays.

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.