Advocates: David CamptonDavid Campton (1924 - 2006) was one of Stephen Joseph's notable successes in playwriting; he remains to this day extremely popular with British amateur companies. Stephen first encountered David during one of his playwriting courses and encouraged the fledgling playwright. He asked David to write a play for the inaugural season at the Library Theatre and David subsequently became the venue's first resident writer. Stephen always maintained a closes relationship with David (who would eventually be responsible for Stephen's estate following his death) and directed more plays by David Campton than any other playwright.
David always passionately championed Stephen's cause and the article below offered David's own perspective of Stephen Joseph's legacy.
Stephen Joseph… And After
by David Campton (Playwright, Actor).
Stephen Joseph died on October 5, 1967. He is chiefly remembered for his work with theatre in-the-round; but even if he had never lived, theatre in-the-round would have become established. It sprang up simultaneously in many different parts of the world - Poland, Italy,France, America - and long before the first professional English theatre in-the-round was established in Scarborough, Jack Mitchley was producing amateurs in-the-round in Essex.
However, I have no doubt that Stephen Joseph’s forceful spreading of the message was responsible for the fact that central staging in this country is now accepted as quite common place.
During the recent holidays I assisted with a theatre course for young people: the youngsters accepted as a fact that a theatre consists of a place where actors and audience come together, and that the question of whether or not the place has a proscenium is irrelevant.
What really matters in the theatre is the relationship between actor and audience. There is still very little exploration in this field. (Recent avant garde performances, in which audiences, to say nothing of their cups of coffee, are spattered with abuse and worse - hardly come into the category, except as a once-and-for-all demonstration of anti-theatre, or how not to meet an audience. But why, for instance, should an audience always be expected to sit still in front of actors, merely wriggling or uneasily fumbling for a chocolate when the performance becomes too much of a bore? Why does the audience sit at all?
Fish And Chip Theatre
Just before he was taken ill Stephen Joseph was experimenting with peripheral stages, like the medieval theatre in-the-round, in which the audience stood in a central arena, and moved around to follow the action. And among the last sketches to leave his drawing board were plans for the Joseph “fish-and-chip” theatre. This was to have been a sort of cabaret for the common man, with solid familiar fare on the tables instead - of caviare and champagne - and solid dramatic fare on the open stage instead of witless tinsel. It is an observable phenomenon, even in other walks of life, that when people want to listen they will, and when they don’t they won’t. In the fish-and-chip theatre the sound of munching would act as a barometer of the success of the play! (Death to cup-and-saucer flimsy - strong stuff would be needed to hold attention in such circumstances.)
The germ of this idea began to incubate in the first years of the Scarborough company, when plays were taken for matinees to a local holiday camp. The audience was almost totally unused to the conventions of theatre, so an in-the-round production did not worry them at all (they had been expecting performing seals anyway). They talked in low tones to start with, but growing louder until the actors were straining to be heard above the noise - until a really interesting scene was reached, when silence fell: not a murmur was heard until the play began to lose its grip again, when the conversation level rose once more. It was a useful experience for a beginning playwright: decibels alone demonstrated where rewriting was called for.
It was an extraordinary occasion, but why should it be unique? Perhaps we are all too polite. Why should an audience’s right of expression be limited to a pattering of hands at curtain-fall? I should like to see that fish-and-chip theatre in operation.
However, Stephen Joseph’s ideas went beyond architecture. He was absorbed by every aspect of theatre from the design of dressing-room tables to systems of accounting.
Which is as it should be. Theatre is made up of many departments, and they are not watertight compartments. An actor who is concerned only with acting is less of an actor than if he knows something about stage-management and box-office methods. An actor who has helped with the wardrobe is less likely to leave his costume in a heap on the dressing-room floor. Lights would not be left unnecessarily blazing if the balance sheet was really under-stood, and the cost of electricity reckoned in terms of the tickets that have to be sold to pay for it. Even an occasional turn with a sweeping brush might reduce the number of cigarette ends on the floor after rehearsal. We are all in this together.
Not all of Stephen Joseph’s ideas flourished, though. A number of innovations accompanied the opening of his first theatre. He insisted that programmes should be free; that plays should be performed without an interval; that after the performance audience and actors should be given the opportunity to meet each other; and that if normal advertising failed to coax an audience into the theatre, then it was up to someone to go out and fetch them in.
He believed - and I agree - that once a person has paid for a seat, he should be able to understand what is going on without paying more. To be charged for a piece of paper, already making a profit from the advertisements printed on it, he regarded as an imposition and would have none of it. Other theatres have since followed suit. Unfortunately at both the theatres which he founded a charge is now made for programmes. I can understand the point of view of companies trying to scrape along on a shoestring: each sixpence has its place in the budget; but there are times when principle is worth more than revenue.
I was not so sympathetic towards the Scarborough policy of no intervals. Only a very good play can stand up to such concentration, and some of my third acts suffered sadly.
On the other hand, I acted in the Joseph production of Hamlet, which was, of course, originally written to be performed without an interval, and which appeared all the better for this splendid continuity. Each scene merged, almost filmically, into the next with no breaks at all, and I felt that I was experiencing the play for the first time: at last it all seemed to make sense.
The object of intervals was originally purely commercial, for the sale of refreshments; though in this case, how odd that so many theatres cater so inadequately. The rush for food and drink in the middle of a play is seldom a pleasure, and if one cannot enjoy it in comfort during the performance (will some-one please build that fish-and-chip theatre!), why not wait until afterwards?
At the Joseph theatres, the sale of good coffee and freshly made cake after the show provided a useful measure of the popularity of the production. If the audience liked the show, sales went up; if the play was a failure, sales were down. This had little to do with the size of the audience, but everything to do with its appreciation. After a disappointment in the theatre the tendency is to slink home and try to forget: after a good time we want to prolong the enjoyment.
Personally I miss that final coffee before coming to terms with the world again. After a vivid theatrical experience, whether Lear or Relatively Speaking, I find the streets outside the theatre oddly unreal. It is like being woken roughly from a dream. I wish more theatres provided amenities for a more gentle awakening.
I realise that this observation applies more to the professional theatre than to amateurs. Amateur companies lucky enough to own their own premises frequently do provide amenities. At the Leicester Little, for instance, or at the Questors, one can linger for a drink after the show - as long as the running time has not exceeded licensing hours. On the other hand companies performing in hired halls are apt to be urged out promptly by a weary-eyed, put-upon caretaker, and have no choice in the matter.
Even so, refreshment ladies might take note of one Scarborough achievement, and provide freshly made goodies rather than the inevitable couple of dry biscuits. The theatre is an amalgam of arts and sciences, so why not include gastronomy? At the height of the season the Scarborough theatre’s strawberry gateau does as much to attract customers as a world premiere.
Packing Them In
Before anything can happen in the theatre, though, the audience has to be present. The phenomenon of theatre takes place when a small number of people perform a fiction in front of a larger number of people. The problem often lies in getting that larger number to the play. Stephen Joseph, in his usual sweeping way, declared that there should be at least as many people outside the theatre getting the audience in as there were actors on the stage. This principle is revolutionary only in the professional theatre. It has been the mainstay of amateurs from time immemorial, with friends, acquaintances, relations and workmates coaxed, bribed, and bullied into attending.
Even so, advantage might be taken of one of the last Joseph innovations. Six helpers were each assigned to an area of the town. Each day they covered their allotted area, knocking on doors, meeting people, explaining that there was a theatre in the town, enthusing over the current production, and even taking orders. Their duties went beyond merely selling tickets: they took a personal interest in the people to whom they were sold. Each evening the six missionary / ushers, best-bib-and-tuckered, would wait in the theatre foyer for their own customers, The ticket-holders were personally greeted, personally shown to their seats, personally made to feel that they too belonged. The success of the system is difficult to assess, because the theatre was filled to capacity every night, so there is no telling exactly how many more may have been attracted.
Outrageous But Workable
Stephen gave up theatre management that season (the tiredness that was a symptom of his fatal illness made it impossible for him to carry on) and the system was never put into operation again. But it could still work. Most of his ideas, however outrageous, worked. Some of them even spread.
All research for this page by Simon Murgatroyd.