Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre's bold new season

One of the honours of using the time of lockdown to write profiles of our theatres for Culture is that it has given me the opportunity to pause and fully appreciate just how culturally rich we are as a county.
Paul Robinson, artistic director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Picture: Tony Bartholomew.Paul Robinson, artistic director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Picture: Tony Bartholomew.
Paul Robinson, artistic director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. Picture: Tony Bartholomew.

It’s something I often write in these pages, but to pause and be reminded - and share the stories of - all the jewels that make up our cultural crown has been delightful.

It is, though, really wonderful to be able to tell you this week about a season of actual theatre that is soon going to happen.

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Stephen Joseph Theatre (SJT) in Scarborough is being considered something of a canary in the coalmine as the industry looks to this little resilient seaside venue to see how it is staging a season of work this autumn.

Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).
Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre. (Picture: Tony Bartholomew).

Paul Robinson is the pioneer leading the SJT into a brave new world. “We understand that others have needed to batten down the hatches – for larger organisations opening and having to close again could be fatal. It’s entirely subjective and each organisation knows what the right thing to do is for them. But for us, given where we are, I don’t think it was an option not to open,” says the Scarborough theatre’s artistic director.

It is truly a season that would raise eyebrows and pique interest at any time, let alone during a year when a global pandemic has left theatre fans bereft.

Daniel Kitson is a performer who can, and has, sold out the National Theatre on the strength of his mailing list, that is to say without publicity; and Robinson has bagged him for the season.

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Polly Lister will be remembered by Yorkshire audiences as the Wicked Witch in the Leeds Playhouse last Christmas production of The Wizard of Oz. I saw her deeply moving one-woman show in Lancaster a few years ago. The prospect of her working with Robinson on a one-woman version of The Snow Queen for December is seriously tantalising.

A one-woman version of The Snow Queen is due at SJT in December.A one-woman version of The Snow Queen is due at SJT in December.
A one-woman version of The Snow Queen is due at SJT in December.

There is a series of play readings including Alison Carr’s Dogwalker, a play which is being developed for next year’s Edinburgh Festival.

“Truth is, we’ve always developed new writing, from Tim Firth to Fiona Evans,” says Robinson. “We became rather exclusively known for one rather brilliant writer who still writes a new play for us every year.”

He means, in case you didn’t know, Sir Alan Ayckbourn: who also appears in the season with an audio version of his classic scary tale Haunting Julia. The season also sees new work from John Godber, featuring his wife and daughter, both actors, and a chance to see the lovely one-man show from Nick Lane, My Favourite Summer.

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The big question is how. How will all this happen? “Our approach is two-fold. The first is about ‘getting ‘em back’ – giving our core audience irresistible programming – alongside excellent health and safety – to overcome their fears and get them coming back through our doors. For those shielding at home we’ve got digital options so that they can experience at least some of the offer from the comfort of their homes.

“But it’s also about audience development; the chance to build new audiences – younger audiences, family audiences and more diverse audiences. And I think we’ve come up with the kind of programme that does that.

“Obviously we’re following all the guidelines. We’re taking a ‘super safe’ approach: we’re social distancing with our audiences more than we need to (2m); we’re operating a one-way system; we’re asking people to wear face coverings in the building and we’ve got a huge amount of staff ensuring people’s safety at all times.

“We’ve built in appropriate financial ‘escape lanes’ but it’s vital that we take the risk, not least because I worry that we’ll start losing audiences, the audience which we spent the last four years building up – it’s increased by 30 per cent since I arrived in 2016. I worry that it doesn’t take long for you to drop off peoples’ radars.”

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Robinson’s can do attitude owes something to the fact that he previously ran a pub theatre in London, so the kick, scramble way of making theatre is in his DNA.

“We’re used to creating small-scale work but with big ambition. In fact I had an epiphany a few weeks ago when I was at my absolute lowest. We hadn’t had the announcement about theatres opening yet and Manchester had just gone into local lockdown and I guess I had started to see that this was going to be our new normal.

Then I remembered my experience at Theatre503 where we had to effectively start from scratch. We were unpaid, uninitiated but also pretty undaunted. So we set about building the audience (literally from scratch) and building a programme of work that we believed in, building on the immense talent around us. It was small but it felt relevant and exciting. So remembering that I’d been here before – at least in some ways – gave me my confidence back.”

It’s amazing that Robinson has stayed positive. He describes trying to pull the season together as ‘creative planning on a bed of quicksand’. “We’ve put together a season with people who are invested in our survival. I’m optimistic. Perhaps a little gung-ho, but I genuinely believe that we will come out of this with a new-found resilience, a more rounded perspective and a whole new set of skills.”

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And we’re going to be able to go to the theatre for some live entertainment, thanks to his optimism.

New season highlights

Daniel Kitson: A live stream from the SJT and people will be able to buy tickets to watch online - but only the same number as can fit in the space. The income is being donated to the theatre. Date tbc.

Bloodshot: Douglas Post’s one-man play performed associate artist, Simon Slater. Oct 21 - 24.

Orpheus and Eurydice: Internationally award-winning theatre makers the Flanagan Collective and Gobbledigook Theatre bring a modern retelling of the ancient myth to stage. Nov 18 - 21.


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Thank you

James Mitchinson

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