Seaside theatre braving a storm of funding cuts

Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre faces a testing couple of years. Nick Ahad spoke to the man running the theatre beside the seaside.

Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre has always done things a little differently.

Out on the coast, it is a long train journey and a longer drive from its nearest metropolitan neighbour, something reflected in rituals that appear anachronistic inside a contemporary arts venue.

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Twice a day, without fail, the whole organisation stops and comes together for tea and often, cake. While Chris Monks is discussing his second year as artistic director, having succeeded Alan Ayckbourn in 2009, the executive director Stephen Wood pops his head round the corner to enquire if the artistic director likes fish – “there’s a fantastic dish on the menu tonight”.

These endearing eccentricities add to the charm of the undoubtedly old-fashioned SJT. However, in these troubled times Monks is aware that old-fashioned charm will only take the theatre so far.

“We need to get as many people as possible through the door,” says Monks. “It is why I have made a personal plea to all our audience members to come one extra time, to help us through this difficult period.”

The “difficult period” will last, Monks says, at least a couple of years. Like many theatres in Yorkshire, it received a small cut in its Arts Council core funding, but for the SJT the cut was exacerbated by the fact that one of its other core funders, North Yorkshire County Council, has reduced the money it gives to the theatre by 80 per cent.

“That’s the scale we’re dealing with and really it means we should withdraw 80 per cent of our activity in Yorkshire schools. But that work is too important, so instead we’re going to heavily subsidise the work. There’s only so long we can do that,” says Monks.

The artistic director is at the helm of the theatre in troubled times. Looking at his new season it is clear Monks has adopted a bold strategy.

“We could have stripped everything back and spent the summer doing a single play with two actors, but I decided we needed to push ourselves, be big and bold. Be adventurous,” he says, pauses to take a breath and adds: “It’s a high-risk strategy, but what else can we do?”

It’s easy to feel that Monks hasn’t had the easiest of rides. He replaced Alan Ayckbourn in the theatre the playwright had made his own and now must steer the SJT through the choppiest of waters.

His high-risk strategy for the summer involves staging one of the most interesting seasons in Yorkshire theatre, a strategy that should be applauded, because “interesting” does not always mean “populist”.

The season opens with a new production of Arthur Miller’s The Price and then a piece of work by Pam Gems about Marlene Dietrich.

Both will appeal to hardcore theatre fans, but much work will be needed to convince the seaside visitors on which SJT relies to go through the doors.

Summer 2011 will feature the theatre’s 300th new production, which also happens to be Ayckbourn’s 75th new play.

Monks says: “One afternoon our archivist, Simon, stuck his head around the door and said, ‘whatever you commission for this summer could be our 300th play’. There were several things in the offing, but it worked out very nicely. It is appropriate that a production like that should be by Alan.”

Neighbourhood Watch will tell the story of a local anti-crime scheme that gets out of hand. Before that is the prospect of the world premiere of Ayckbourn’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which becomes Dear Uncle in the Scarborough playwright’s hands. Given that one national newspaper called Sir Alan “the Chekhov of our time”, Monks agrees it is an appropriate adaptation.

“He actually wrote it for another producer for Sam Mendes and Ralph Fiennes a few years ago, but they’ve never both been available at the same time, so we’re delighted to have the play.”

For the rest of the season Monks takes the responsibility of directing Marlene, the Pam Gems piece about the legendary screen and stage actor and then later will bring what is becoming another SJT tradition, an opera adapted in his own unique style.

So far we’ve had The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance. This summer in Monks’ adaptation of Bizet’s Carmen, a bullfighter becomes an Italian footballer and our heroine, a girl who works in a supermarket.

In Monks’ hands these unlikely adaptations become greatly entertaining and should, if the last two years are an indicator, pull in the audiences. A tradition the director hopes to maintain.

Scarborough’s summer season

Marlene: In the twilight of her years, Marlene Dietrich stripped bare behind the scenes. May 26-Sept 3.

Dear Uncle: Ayckbourn’s version of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. July 7-Sept 30.

Carmen: Bizet’s opera gets a vigorous reworking. July 28-Sept 3.

Neighbourhood Watch: Ayckbourn’s 75th, SJT’s 300th: lots to celebrate. Sept 8-Oct 15.

Elegy For a Lady: Arthur Miller short play. June 22- Sept 10.

For tickets call 01723 370541,