Stephen Joseph: A Short Biography

by Simon Murgatroyd

Stephen Joseph was an extraordinarily passionate and knowledgeable man who inspired those around him. His knowledge of theatre and drama appears to be practically encyclopaedic - as witnessed by his extraordinarily varied career in British theatre - and his protégé Alan Ayckbourn summed this aspect of his career up quite succinctly: “He knew more than any person I’ve ever known about playwriting, when it came to talking about it, and he knew more about directing than any living person, and I suspect he knew an awful lot about acting: he certainly managed to talk about it very lucidly and entertainingly and interestingly, although he must have been the World’s worst actor.”

Stephen Joseph was born in London on 13 June, 1921, the son of the noted actress Hermione Gingold and the publisher Michael Joseph, with whom he did not share an easy childhood. He was educated at Burstow in Surrey and then at Clavesmore School, Dorset, but it is not until his higher education that a sense of the remarkable man Stephen would turn out to be emerges. In 1937, after only two months at sixth form, Stephen left and became the youngest person to be accepted at the Central School of Speech And Drama - a place which would also have a significant impact on his later life. He graduated in 1939 with a First Class certificate.

By all accounts, Stephen was an exceptional student and he went on to teach drama in Bristol, but his passion for the theatre was interrupted by World War II. He served in the Royal Navy from 1941 to 1946 on both the HMS Newport and the HMS Avonvale. He was awarded the RSPCA's Silver Medal in 1944 for rescuing HMS Newport's mascot Tish the dog, who fell overboard. Whilst on the HMS Avonvale, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during a clandestine mission in the Adriatic Sea. After the war, Stephen resumed his studies, going to Jesus College in Cambridge, where he gained an MA in English Literature. He was also a member of the renowned Footlights society for whom he directed two performances in 1947 and 1948. The latter production,
La Vie Cambridgienne, was also recorded by BBC Radio and broadcast on 28 July 1948 with Stephen credited as both writer and stage director.

His professional theatrical career began in November 1948, when he joined the Lowestoft Repertory Theatre as producer. From there, he went to the Frinton Summer Theatre, where he acted as director, designer and business manager. While with the company, he had his first experience of theatre in the round when he saw a touring amateur company performing
A Phoenix Too Frequent, under the direction of Jack Mitchley. Stephen reported that he left the play so excited, he had “a bee beginning to buzz at the back of my mind.”

Stephen returned to education taking up a post as a tutor at the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1949. While working there, he asked for unpaid leave to visit America in 1951 to study for a degree in drama at the University of Iowa, majoring in playwriting. He was also awarded a grant by the Elmgrant Trust to record new theatre buildings in the United States. Through this, he was exposed to purpose-built in-the-round theatres - at this point, theatre-in-the-round was an established and accepted convention in the United States with several major spaces in the round. Stephen was obviously inspired as he returned to England passionate about what he had seen and determined in some way to implement it.

Back in England, he resumed tutoring for the Central School, but with two pre-occupations; encouraging and teaching new writing and forming a theatre-in-the-round company in the UK. For the former, he set up an evening course “The Art Of The Playwright” at Central, open to the public and from which he would eventually draw the four playwrights that would later open the first season of the Library Theatre in Scarborough. Towards the latter, he founded Studio Theatre Ltd - the first professional theatre-in-the-round company in the country. In 1955, he began a summer season of performances at the Library Theatre in Scarborough and, in the winter, began a series of performances on Sundays in London called the Studio Theatre Club. Stephen would be involved in theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough until his death in 1967. From 1958, the Studio Theatre Company began seasons of winter tours, primarily visiting towns without civic theatres with the main intention of finding somewhere that could provide a permanent home for theatre-in-the-round.

Throughout this early period, Stephen was also working to secure funds to finance his project. This ranged from buying coal in bulk in Scarborough in 1955 and selling it door-to-door to finding employment at the ITV television company in 1956, where he worked on children’s entertainment. The latter work, he later conceded was hard and not terribly rewarding, but the pay was good which was essential at that time.

Stephen was also an enthusiastic and talented theatre architect and in 1961 he helped found the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT), which would contribute much work, ideas and research to new theatre spaces in the UK - particularly with regard to schools and universities. This would lead to the formation of the Society Of Theatre Consultants in 1964, which Stephen also helped found and was a leading member of. One of his many projects was the conversion of an abandoned cinema in Stoke-on-Trent, which became the Victoria Theatre in 1962; the first permanent theatre-in-the-round in the UK and where Studio Theatre Ltd relocated with Peter Cheeseman as Artistic Director.

The same year saw Stephen appointed as the first fellow of the Department of Drama at Manchester University; this was intended to be a year-long sabbatical for study and teaching, but at the end of the year Stephen decided he did not want to leave the university. In 1962 he was appointed to a lectureship at the university and in the following year created and ran a postgraduate diploma in drama. He was instrumental in helping to establish the department of drama, which now bears a theatre with his name. The running of the Victoria Theatre passed into the sole hands of Peter Cheeseman and Ken Boden ran the Library Theatre in Scarborough, for which Stephen had formed a new company, Scarborough Theatre Trust.

The perceived lack of support for the Library Theatre in Scarborough by the town council during the early 1960s led Stephen to announce it was to close at the end of the 1965 season; in his book
Theatre In The Round Stephen made it plain he believed there was no future for the Library Theatre and the project was over (in reality, an amateur season was arranged in 1966 by Ken Boden with professional theatre resuming the year after with Stephen's blessing, but not his involvement). In 1966, a much publicised quarrel between Stephen and Peter Cheeseman regarding the future of the Victoria Theatre developed, which would eventually lead to the Victoria Theatre being taken over by a local trust and the end of Studio Theatre Ltd.

In hindsight, it seems no coincidence that these events occurred as Stephen was made aware he was terminally ill in 1966 and doctors did not expect him to live beyond the end of the year. He showed great resilience though and survived long enough, despite being bed-bound, to write several books:
Theatre In The Round, New Theatre Forms, The Story of The Playhouse In England - he had already published a book entitled Scene Painting And Design in 1964 alongside several pamphlets and numerous articles on theatre design and forms. He also lived long enough to see Alan Ayckbourn achieve his first bona fide West End success, Relatively Speaking, the play which established Ayckbourn as a successful young playwright to watch in the eyes of the wider theatre-going public.

Stephen died at the tragically young age of 46 on Thursday 5 October 1967 at his home in Scarborough. He had been working practically until the last, when cancer claimed his life. His legacy and name live on though in the theatres he created - the Stephen Joseph Theatre and the New Vic Theatre, which has a studio theatre named after him - and also through the playwrights, directors, designers and other theatre professionals he encouraged and inspired.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission.