“Oh I do like to be beside the seaside.” Who would have thought that would become a lament rather than a summertime ditty?
This week I reach Scarborough on my virtual journey around the region’s theatres. The Stephen Joseph Theatre in the seaside town is perhaps harder hit than most by the coronavirus lockdown as it begins to extend into what will soon be the summer months.
The SJT dances to a different rhythm than most of the region’s playhouses: when the summer arrives, many go dark, or lay dormant, for a while, as audiences go elsewhere. In Scarborough, the audiences flock.
Who knows when this summer will begin and who knows when we’ll be allowed and, perhaps more relevantly, when we will feel like we want to go back into a theatre to sit in the dark together? It will probably be some time.
Amongst the gloom, Paul Robinson has found reasons to be cheerful.
“Our box office staff have been working tirelessly. We’ve offered audiences the chance to either get a refund for cancelled shows, receive a credit for a future show or donate the cost of their tickets. We’ve done about £20,000 of credits and received £11,000 of donations. We are really lucky to have one of the most loyal audiences in the country,” he says.
He is the artistic director of SJT, a post he took on in the summer of 2016 and one to which he seemed immediately suited. He understands the importance of the theatre to the town, of how it is wrapped up in the work of a certain author, and, most significantly, he understands how the SJT will remain relevant in the future. People often get this theatre wrong. They think it’s a place to pass a rainy summer afternoon with something mildly diverting. It is far more – and far more subversive – than that.
“There are three things at the heart of what we do. Community, new work and new forms of theatre,” says Robinson, who is juggling, along with his wife, homeschooling two young children during the lockdown.
Being handed the reins of the theatre four years ago was clearly something of a dream job for Robinson. “I think for me it united a lot of the things that excited me about the theatre. One of the big things about the SJT was the immediacy of the relationship with the audience. In London the audience sees a production and then is spat out into the city, here the audience is literally in the bar with you and the actors at the end of a performance and they really are very happy to tell you what they think about what you are doing,” he says.
Of course when we talk about SJT, we have to talk about Alan. One of the things that has made the SJT what the New York Times called a ‘Mecca’ for theatre lovers, is Sir Alan Ayckbourn. Our greatest living playwright has premiered almost all of his plays in Scarborough since the first in 1959 and he was the artistic director of the Scarborough theatre from 1972 to 2009.
“He was a huge part of why I wanted the gig here,” says Robinson. “Most theatres are looking for their Alan Ayckbourn and we actually have him.”
In order to prepare for his interview as artistic director, Robinson read the half of Ayckbourn he didn’t already know and rediscovered a writer who ‘doesn’t have a single voice’.
“He can write farce, but he writes these devastating, excoriating plays like Just Between Ourselves. I had the problem, when I became artistic director, about how to approach this demi-god. The answer was to treat him like a writer and he really responds to that.”
New writing is what Ayckbourn is doing, of course, but because it’s Ayckbourn we forget that. His latest new plays, Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present and Better Off Dead, just two more world premieres of pieces of new writing. It is also a key to what Robinson is building at the SJT.
The theatre has two spaces, the famous Round and the McCarthy, which is where Robinson has tended to programme new work since his arrival. There is also the need to programme big crowd-pleasing work in the spaces for those audiences that are both local and seaside visitors.
Robinson is doing something more subversive than just going for the obvious, though. In the same way that in the early days some people missed what Ayckbourn was doing because he made it look so easy, Robinson is subverting expectations.
“We will have a crowd-pleasing piece like The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, and it is one that people here particularly love because the film was shot in Scarborough, but actually the second half of that play is a brutal, unflinching piece of drama with a lot to say. It’s the same with Stepping Out – a bad production of that is something nobody wants to see, but if you can say something new with a production of that play, you see that the audience is ready to go with you with something that is really quite progressive.”
When we speak it is the day after what should have been the opening night of the theatre’s co-production of Two (with Hull Truck).
There is a ray of hope. Whenever the theatre does re-open, and it will, the bookings are already very healthy for the Christmas shows.
“What’s happening is crushing,” says Robinson, “but you just have to look around to see the way that communities are reacting.
“There is so much creativity happening, that you just have to keep going and know that the community will be there when we come back.”
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