50 years old, the theatre that inspired Ayckbourn

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The Independent Culture

Joseph, son of the actress Hermione Gingold and the publisher Michael Joseph, had been so inspired by seeing theatre in the round - where the audience sit around the stage instead of in front of it - in America that he decided to import the concept.

As his venture, originally on the first floor of Scarborough's public library, gave fresh impetus to British theatre, he attracted a young teenage actor called Alan Ayckbourn to join his company. Hearing that Ayckbourn had written a little at school, Joseph encouraged his talent. Nearly 70 plays later, Ayckbourn, now artistic director of a theatre carrying the name of Stephen Joseph, is leading 50th anniversary tributes to the man to whom he owes his award-winning career.

"Stephen was charismatic and very attractive with a very warm personality. He was very unconventional in dress and I met him when I was 17, 18 - he was the sort of guy who made an impression on you," Ayckbourn said yesterday. "He believed that writers should not be people living in the Shetlands in huts posting scripts out. They should be working members of a theatre in the tradition of Shakespeare, and when not writing, they should be sweeping the stage or running the box office." He hated the way the traditional proscenium arch distanced audiences from the actors, Ayckbourn said. By having theatre in the round, the actors were up close, just like those on the televisions which were beginning to make their way into people's homes. "It brought the actor into the same room as the audience."

What Stephen Joseph pioneered in Scarborough was emulated at Chichester, Sheffield and Bolton, and adopted at the National Theatre in London, where only one of the three auditoriums is a conventional proscenium arch stage.

Ayckbourn, now 66, wrote and starred in his first play, The Square Cat, in 1959, a couple of years after arriving in Scarborough. Playing a pop star, he had to learn guitar and sing, a process that contributed to persuading him he was not cut out to be an actor. He left and worked as a radio producer, but after Joseph died in 1967 he succeeded him in running the theatre in Scarborough, for which he writes a new play every year. Nine years ago, he spearheaded the move into a new, two-stage home, which he named the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

For the 50th anniversary, a blue plaque was erected on Thursday on the public library marking Joseph's original work there. From 28 July, an exhibition of archive material will go on show in the theatre. A reception is to take place at nearby Castle Howard on 31 July, while work from each of the past five decades will be commemorated in a series of celebrations in the theatre in August.

The stars he nurtured

* Michael Gambon:

Ayckbourn's star actor for 25 years has taken leads in plays in Scarborough, including Macbeth, Coriolanus, and Othello, after playing Shakespearean roles at the National Theatre.

* Tamzin Outhwaite:

Played in a musical in Scarborough and was spotted by Ayckbourn, who cast her in the lead role of Absent Friends. Shortly after, she landed a role in EastEnders.

* Martin Freeman:

He went on to play the downtrodden Tim in The Office after Ayckbourn cast him in two plays - A Going Concern, and Dealing with Claire - at the theatre.