Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre presents a summer of staged play readings

It’s difficult to relay just how much fury there is in the theatre industry right now.

Actors performing a rehearsed play reading at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
Actors performing a rehearsed play reading at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Shows being cancelled due to positive Covid tests while nightclubs are filling to the rafters, uncertainty surrounding foreign travel and a ‘traffic light’ system that has hardly helped matters; it’s all getting a bit much after 16 months.

It is wonderful, and feels necessary, then, to write about a project that is pure positivity.

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In Scarborough this week the Stephen Joseph Theatre fell foul of Covid, being forced to cancel all performances of Home, I’m Darling following a positive case in the cast.

Serena Manteghi in Christopher York’s one-woman play Build a Rocket which was developed at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.

Despite the disheartening news, it is in the seaside town that a project that originated there has had an impressive impact on the world of theatre and it is due back this month.

All theatres do semi-staged readings of new plays, but at the Stephen Joseph Theatre it’s a real event and has been for the past five years. For the unfamiliar, staged readings do what they say on the tin – a new play, a group of actors and a chance for an audience to hear something in its infancy.

The theatre’s literary co-ordinator, Fleur Hebditch, is the woman in charge of the theatre’s staged readings programme.

“It’s a great way for writers to see the progression of their work and get a feel of audience reaction to them,” she says.

Playwright Christopher York. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).

“For us it’s about getting to know the writers as well. It gives our audience an idea of up and coming plays as well as being a platform for writers to step onto the first rung of the ladder.”

In the past, audiences might have seen readings of plays by the likes of one-time associate Tim Firth, but it was Hebditch who formalised the process, with the theatre now putting on four staged readings a year and a showcase evening of readings.

“We’ve been doing new writing staged play readings for about the past five years. Most of the plays we select come to us via our Open Submissions window via our website, which is open for a few months a year and allows any writer with a little or no experience to submit to us, alongside established playwrights.”

That’s one of the reasons for bringing this positive story to Culture this week. It is an exciting prospect for audiences to catch new plays by emerging writers while both plays and playwrights are in embryonic states. The next chance is Monday, when All of Us Are Dead by Maureen Lennon is staged.

“Playwrights write to connect with people,” says Lennon. “We spend a long time inside weird corners of our own mind, but the bit where it really comes alive happens when there’s an audience living it with you. Doing a reading at this stage in the drafting process is invaluable, because audiences give the best notes.

You learn so much just by being in the room and feeling it with people.”

Hebditch is equally excited. She says: “It’s a really exciting, thrilling and provocative play and it’s so fabulous that our audience can see it so early in its journey.”

That’s the thing about the staged readings that makes it so thrilling for the audience – they might see the next big hit before it becomes just that.

That’s what happened with Christopher York’s Build a Rocket. It started in 2017 when the Scarborough playwright saw his one woman show brought to life in a staged reading by Serena Manteghi, who was in the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s production of Little Voice that year. In 2018 the play had a full production and went to the Edinburgh Fringe, where it won the Holden Street Theaters Award, a prize which included an invitation to the Melbourne Fringe in Australia. The production then went to Australia in 2019, winning fans Down Under.

York says: “A play is a hypothesis before it’s performed. I generally finish a draft wondering ‘is this good or is it garbage?’. Any opportunity to get an evolving script in the hands of an actor, in front of people, is genuinely invaluable.

“Build a Rocket had a rehearsed reading before it was produced. These events are essential for playwrights – it’s a sort of petri dish for the play’s themes and characters, what lands, what doesn’t. I was very lucky the play had a life beyond the reading, but had I not had the chance to workshop the play, it would never have seen the light of day.”

Next month Emma Geraghty will hope her play Lagan will follow a similar path to York’s Build a Rocket. She says: “Getting the chance to have my play read at the SJT is brilliant. You spend so long as a writer only hearing the words in your own head, and so being able to hear Lagan read by actors in front of an audience makes a world of difference both to the writing process and to me progressing as a writer. A play doesn’t come alive until it’s in front of an audience, and the SJT is the perfect place for that to happen.”

Hebditch says: “As time is limited, the actors are usually seated and read the plays from scripts. We read out the stage directions so the audience can use their imaginations to take them to the various locations.

“It’s been described as like watching a radio play being recorded. The audience are always amazed at the quality of the performance and how much enjoyment they get out of the evening – and of course if the play gets selected for production it’s really interesting to see how much it changes between the first reading and the performance.”

Forthcoming play readings at SJT

All of Us Are Dead: a twisted coming of age story about our deepest fears and how we seek to control them. Katie and Hannah love murder. They go to bed listening to podcasts about serial killers, they clutch blankets glued to gruesome documentaries. By Maureen Lennon. July 26.

Lagan: How do you navigate a parent-child relationship when you’re both adults and nobody is being honest? Max returns to mum Pam but the B&B no longer feels like home and Max’s return brings up things neither want to talk about. By Emma Geraghty. August 16.

Full details www.sjt.uk.com