In one, a very young Martin Freeman is captured playing Arthur Kipps in the 1997 revival of The Woman in Black. In another, David Harewood, who would later find fame in the American crime thriller Homeland, takes centre stage in Alan Ayckbourn’s One Over the Eight. A third shows Judd Hirsch, the actor forever linked with the 70s sitcom Taxi, as Eddie Ross, the abusive New York bartender in Herb Gardner’s landmark play Conversations With My Father.
“Yes, it’s quite a line-up,” says Stephen Wood, the recently retired executive director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, who along with archivist Simon Murgatroyd has put together the photographic exhibition to mark the Scarborough venue’s 60th anniversary. “It was incredibly difficult to make the selection and I have no doubt that many regulars at the theatre will wonder why a particular production didn’t make the final cut. The truth was there were 4,000 images to choose from and with the exhibition featuring just one picture for every year, we had to be quite ruthless.”
Inspired by venues in America, theatre impresario Stephen Joseph opened the very first in-the-round company in Scarborough in 1955 with Circle of Love by Eleanor D Glaser. Back then, the setting was the first floor of the town’s public library and while it later moved to The Round at Westwood before settling into its current home in the former Odeon building, the theatre’s ethos remained the same – to promote the very best new writing. It’s also become Ayckbourn’s second home. One of the country’s most prolific playwrights – this year will see the premiere of his 79th play – he joined the company in 1957 as acting stage manager and after 37 years as artistic director he, like the theatre, has become a Scarborough institution.
“One thing we wanted to show through the exhibition was the breadth of the work which is put on here,” says Wood. “We could have filled the entire exhibition space purely with images from Alan’s back catalogue, but that wouldn’t have been a true reflection of everything that has gone on here.”
While there were no shortage of images from the last couple of decades, few photographs of early productions have survived. However, with a little detective work and a great deal of painstaking research, the exhibition faithfully captures the life of the venue over the last six decades.
“We have concentrated on production shots, but we have included a few behind the scenes shots of rehearsals,” says Wood, who explained his recent move to London as a desire to be closer to his young grandson and The Oval. “We wanted to show that a play doesn’t just appear fully formed and give at least a little glimpse into the hard work that goes on before the public ever take their seats.”
Since the curtain first went up, the Stephen Joseph Theatre has produced a total of 616 plays. Of those, 327 have been brand new productions and the venue has rightfully earned a place in the history of British theatre, not least for its decision back in 1958 to become the first regional theatre in the country to stop playing the national anthem at every performance.
“In 60 years, so much has happened here,” says Wood, who did his first spell in Scarborough between 1976 and 1982 before rejoining the venue after a spell at the National Theatre. “We have done some pretty zany things over the years like flooding the stage for a production of Alan’s Way Up Stream to sawing a Morris Minor into a dozen different pieces so we could get it on stage for a run of another of Alan’s plays, Just Between Ourselves.
“In total, I spent 25 years of my career at Scarborough. I loved every minute and it was real privilege to be able to help curate the exhibition, which is a photographic tribute to 60 incredible years.”
The exhibition features images by the likes of Ken Boden, Alec Russell, Adrian Gatie, Tony Bartholomew, Robert Day and Karl Andre and it’s as much a chronicle of changing photographic techniques as it is the history of the theatre.
“In the early days, production photographs tended to be staged, but by the 1960s and 70s there had been a move to more reportage shots,” says Wood. “That kind of photography is a real skill because if you miss the moment there is no second chances, it’s gone forever.
“In some ways it’s a bit like sports photography – the best picture of a goal is never the ball in the back of the net, it’s the moment just before it gets there. The same is true of a great picture of a stage fight, no-one wants to see an actor not landing a punch, but they want to see the moment right before that climax.
“One thing I think which really changed theatre photography is the introduction of colour prints towards the late 1990s. The lighting tends to highlight red hues and I think it’s much, much harder to capture an atmospheric shot in colour than it is in the simplicity of black and white.”
The exhibition will be on display throughout the 60th anniversary summer season, which see the return of the Woman in Black, Ayckbourn directing a revival of his 1974 comedy Confusions and the world premiere of his 79th play, Hero’s Welcome.
“There are wonderful stories behind each of the photographs,” adds Murgatroyd. “For example, we chose one of Sabine Azema in Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden. That role was a wedding present following her marriage to Alain Renais and taken with all the other images it’s a snapshot of the theatre’s long history.”
• The First 60 Years – Part One runs until October 3. 01723 370541. www.sjt.uk.com