Thursday, May 10, 2007

A cultural treasure in Yorkshire

I first visited the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough in 1996, a few weeks after it had opened. It was organised by the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT), an organisation that I still belong to as an associate. When we first visited, we were unable to see quite a bit of the building due to ongoing rehearsals and snagging but we were privileged to have the legendary playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn CBE spend quite a bit of time with us telling us about the history of the theatre company and the long, complex move into their third home.

Whilst our original visit was cursory, we did get the opportunity to stay and see a show- "By Jeeves!", a rehash of the Jeeves & Wooster stories turned into a musical with Andrew Lloyd-Webber and such a piece of fun that I took Karen to see it a week or two later, then again when it ran in the west End, and now it is one of David's favourite DVDs.

Fast forward eleven years. We had visited the theatre a couple of times in the intervening years (including a special 50th Anniversary celebration in 2005) and are still on their mailing list but now was a chance to see the building in much more detail.

The Stephen Joseph Theatre is actually two theatres, housed in the shell of the original Scarborough Odeon. The foyer and public spaces were restored and the back circle was retained to become the McCarthy Theatre (8 rows of seats to an end stage, seating 165) whilst the stalls and stage end were excavated to form the Round (which seats 404 on four sides) with workshops and rehearsal spaces below.

I imagine that one day, the Round will be renamed the Ayckbourn but let us hope that it is posthumous and many, many years away yet. (Alan Ayckbourn had a stroke early last year, but he is now back at work and his output remains high both in quantity and quality).

Our guide for the afternoon was Paul Baines, the theatre manager. We met in the lower foyer which houses the box office and would have been the original wet lobby. This leads on into the inner lobby with the former entrance to the Stalls (now a toilet block) and a Circle staircase. The current colour scheme is a pale tangerine and our tour guide pointed out a number of subtleties in the design, described as "threes". The skirting board was a triple piece of woodwork, the recreated deco light fittings were triple lamped and there were three colours in the carpet. The carpet design was a recreation of the 1930s house Odeon style and it was pointed out that the arrow effect always led patrons in the direction of the screen.

The inner foyer also houses an extensive bookshop and it is rare that I don't buy something when I visit. Yesterday was no exception- Sir Alan's authorised Biography- and a fridge magnet!

Pausing at the foot of the stairs, we could see a niche that had been uncovered during reconstruction. It was painted in what were assumed to be the original opening colours- pale green with golden aztec motifs. The internal decorative schemes were attended to by Lily Deutsch, Wife of the Odeon proprietor, Oscar Deutsch. (ODEON was later claimed to stand for Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation, although it is thought to have been reverse-engineered.)

Odeon buildings were mostly very stylish in a relatively plain way, bold bands of plasterwork in art deco style rather than the highly ornate interiors of the American school of design (such as the Paramounts and Astorias). Their exteriors were particularly striking and the trademark motifs were the cream faience tiling (with green bands), the Crittal metal windows (which could be made to follow curves) and the strong vertical fins.

Odeon cinemas were generally just picture houses with vestigial stages rather than Cinema-theatres, although a number of seaside resorts were better equipped with Organs and full stage facilities. Scarborough had accommodation for an Organ planned into the structure but one was never installed.

Going upstairs, we arrived in what had been the Circle foyer, now the upper lobby. This leads into the large Cafe area (which doubles as a multi-purpose space) and further stairs (originally for the rear circle) lead on to the McCarthy theatre above.

The main route into the Round is through what had originally been the Circle Vomitory, which is the arcane term for an entrance that leads directly into a seating (or staging) area. It now leads into a bridge/stepped walkway that passes through an Atrium (internal space) the full height of the building, the Atrium providing light down to various internal backstage spaces as well as providing an accoustic barrier between the two theatres.

Rather than follow the bridge route, we went down a side corridor and through a security door and found ourselves backstage. The Round has four blocks of tiered seating and the space below forms the Stage management domain, known as the RunRound. There are three entrances onto the acting area, one in the centre of the seating block nearest the atrium (Vom 1) and the other two in the corners of the opposite block.

Theatre in the round does not require much in the way of scenery but more in the way of Props, i.e. items around the set or carried on & off by the actors (books, spears, lanterns, buckets etc.) Many of the Props for the current show appeared to be musical instruments.

Carrying on through the space and out through Vom 2, we found ourselves onstage in the Round. It is called round because the actors are surrounded by audience on all sides, not because the auditorium or stage are circular (although some are). This space is hugely intimate, you are never more than about 20' from the stage and you can see everything, other than what the cast may be obscuring by their presence. There are two innovations here, one strikingly obvious, the other hidden from view.

The obvious one is the steel mesh ceiling with stage lighting above. This is colloquially known as the Trampoline grid and is strong enough to walk on whilst rigging and focussing the stage lighting. This saves a huge amount of time over ladder access and is much more flexible than fixed catwalk arrangements.

The hidden piece of technology is the stage itself; it is actually one of three pallets and is supported on a huge hydraulic ram. This gives the theatre the flexibility to change the set and work in repertoire as required. The stage cannot be lowered with an audience present, however, it is necessary to fit guardrails and lock the auditorium doors before any platform movement is possible.

The Round looks rather bleak when lit by fluorescent working lights, lots of black relieved only by the blue of the seating. With the house lights on and an audience in, however, a definite air of theatrical expectation occurs.

After a brief visit into the technical control room (which is unremarkable other than having a desk for the Deputy Stage Manager (the show caller on the book, i.e. cueing and actor calls,) there not being a Prompt corner possible elsewhere) we carried onwards and upwards. We visited their third space, the Boden Room which is suitable for meetings and events, located in the upper floors above the parade of shops to the side of the building. (Some of the shops are let, others in use for the Company use with administration and the education office).

Pausing at the top of the audience bridge, the various offices overlooking the Atrium were explained. We had also passed an archive office squeezed into a spare space, stuffed to the gills with files (and an archivist). At night, various coloured lights were projected onto the atrium walls and a smoke effect showed up the beams nicely- until smoking was banned in the Green Room below!

Up some more stairs and we found ourselves at the back of the McCarthy. This doubles as a Cinema and it is an awkward space as it is very wide but rather shallow, with only eight rows of tiered seats facing and end stage with very limited flying capabilities and little over-stage height due to the roof. As part of the reconstruction, decorative plasterwork grilles on the original splay walls were preserved and replaced (somewhat cut down) as decorative features either side. The original projection box has now become the control box and the get-in is through two large dock doors 50' up in the air- if it isn't too windy. This possibly qualifies for the worst get-in ever, although the eight person passenger lift mitigates this slightly.

We couldn't linger there as the space was in use, but we did visit the electrical workshop where we were able to step out onto the trampoline grid for a quick bounce and admire their collection of vintage lanterns, a couple of which probably dated from 1955.

Making our way back downwards, we were unable to visit the workshops, wardrobe or rehearsal rooms due to things going on there but we were able to see into the workshop from observation windows and could see into the stage lift shaft. (I was able to see into the rehearsal rooms from windows on the outside of the buildings afterwards, I was surprised by their size and height). We passed on down to the Green room which is on two levels, the upper zone is where the refreshment facilities are and below are all of the comfy chairs which also sprawl out into the bottom level of the Atrium. Our guide explained that kettles were banned in offices and there were traditional tea breaks at 11am and 4pm when the Company were encouraged to come down, make themselves a drink and mingle. Staff were expected to provide and wash up their own mug and there was a "Mugs of shame" bucket for miscreants to be suitably humiliated. There was also a water feature there (Sophie's Fountain) which was a tribute to an up-and-coming actor who had died whilst on tour with the Company.

Our visit was now coming to an end. What we didn't expect was how much was squeezed into what was admittedly a very large building but was now riddled with convoluted staircases, corridors and multiple levels. Practically evey wall was covered in some form of Company history, particularly framed programmes from past productions in the fire exit corridors that would not normally be seen by the public, unless they asked of course.

The visit is actually open to the public every Saturday morning in the Summer and for the princely sum of £3 anyone can participate. It comes well recommended and I think I'll take Karen and David once the summer comes.

I took lots of photos and here are a selection in a rather quirky order- reverse alphabetical. (It's a blogger thing...)

The upper lobby- bridge to the left through the doors

The mis-spelt trampoline/grid rating sign
Paul shows us the mug of shame bucket

One corner of the Round

The outer lobby and Box office

The McCarthy in the back circle

The niche with original colours

The inner lobby and gift shop

Hard hats in the runRound

The grid looking through to the Round

Bouncers on the trampoline

The staff cups in the green room on the upper level

The Green room lower level

View from the bridge to the upper lobby

The Round control room, lighting desk in the foreground, sound mixer beyond

The electricians bench with practical props

The Atrium, underneath the bridge

The atrium towards the green room

Sophies fountain

The archivist at work


Garry said...

Of course, this isn't the first Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, the first was in Scarborough Library back in 1955 before moving to Westwood in the mid 70's. Intense fundraising, including a donation of 500K from British Telecom to apologise after the town's telephone exchange burnt down helped.

Because of who Stephen Joseph was, I doubt it will ever change it's name.

It's a great theatre, it's just a shame that most theatre critics can't stand the thought of a visit North to come here more often.

Delicolor said...

Garry, I had blogged on the history before but on reviewing the original post, I missed bits out and repeated myself. Further on the pre-Odeon (and pre-Westwood) days, we were told that they got turfed out of the Library because the librarian wanted to use the room for "cultural events"! (Apparently, he got fed up with opening his office door and finding it blocked by large scenic pieces).

I knew of the BT exchange fire (which reputedly started when a PC monitor overheated leading to a Company wide enforced an OFF NOT STANDBY rule) but didn't know that BT had lobbed in a contribution.

I don't see the Theatre changing its name from SJT but I can see the Round getting renamed.

As to the critics- stuff them.

Colin Campbell said...

Very interesting. I thought it was going to be about Geoff Boycott. I am enthused that I can now confidently incorporate Vomitory into my conversations as in "I vomitory in your general direction" Nobody will know that it has a snooty theatrical use.

Delicolor said...

Colin; Fart fits better...