What does Paul Robinson mean for the Stephen Joseph Theatre?

Paul Robinson

Last year, my most read news story was the shock revelation that Chris Monks, the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s artistic director, was quitting his post after only six years. This came as a bit of a surprise, as he seemed to be doing rather well. I’ve not picked up any further clues as to why he left, so I’m standing by my previous guess that he didn’t have enough time to be creative, but if that is the case, he’s not the only person with this gripe.

But that’s in the past now. We now need to look at what this means for the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the future. I reported earlier this year how they’d started recruitment for a new artistic director and settled on Paul Robinson, and as he was then director of highly-regarded new writing Theatre 503, it was a fair bet that the SJT would be going in a new writing direction. But it’s only been this month that we’ve finally heard from Paul Robinson himself through an interview to The Yorkshire Post and an extended version in The Scarborough News (latter article is a screengrab on Twitter – good eyesight required to read it I’m afraid). There was also a presentation on these plans this week at an event I was invited to, but sadly I couldn’t make it. But from the interview we can get a good idea of the direction things are going in.

But rather than re-iterate what’s in the interview, let’s look at this by revisiting the three questions I asked when Chris Monks departed, and see what the answers are emerging.

Question 1: Will Alan Ayckbourn stay?

Short answer: Almost certainly yes.

Long answer: This was never likely to be on the cards. It would be unthinkable for Alan Ayckbourn to walk from the theatre he built up over all these decades, but that’s exactly what John Godber did with Hull Truck so the unthinkable must at least be thunk. Whatever the chance, Paul Robinson couldn’t be doing more to keep him on board. He went out of his way in the interview to say how much of a fan he was, and reportedly sat in on a rehearsal intended to spend just a short time, and ended up staying the whole day. He also read all of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays prior to starting the job.

Nothing is ever certain, but the chance of a repeat of the Godber/Smaje clash that cost Hull Truck its golden boy  looks as low as it could possibly be.

Question 2: What will the new artistic director bring to the Stephen Joseph Theatre?

Short answer: Mostly a new writing programme.

Long answer: This was pretty much a foregone conclusion with the appointment. Appointing someone with a strong background in new writing was a very clear statement of intent from the start. Even before his appointment, the caretaker management were programming a summer season with a strong focus in new writing, including, of course, The National Joke that has just started running. Unlike the Ayckbourn question, when there was never any real doubt over the outcome, there were other directions the SJT could have gone in. For instance, the SJT’s theatre-in-the-round cousin in London, the Orange Tree Theatre, has a heavy focus in reviving forgotten plays, with new writing a secondary venture.

A few additional details: Paul Robinson say it’s time to “listen to audiences’ likes and needs”. There is also an indication that Paul Robinson will be directing a musical shortly, so perhaps Chris Monks’s efforts to give musicals such a prominent spot in the Round have not gone to waste. But we may have for the programmes for the next season or two before we know exactly what sort of new writing is coming to Scarborough.

One wild bit of speculation: Paul Robsinson directed My Mother Said I Never Should at the St. James’s Theatre in London earlier this year to great acclaim. Could we be seeing an imminent reunion of cast and crew in Scarborough? Watch this space.

Question 3: Will they keep the new writing programme going?

Short answer: Yes, but not necessarily in the same form.

Long answer: This question has sort of been answered by the answer to the previous ones, but there are some unresolved details. One early question was what would happen to associate director Henry Bell? Yes, there’s a new writing programme coming, something he’d undoubtedly approve of, but whose new writing programme? Might a clash of artistic tastes lead to the newcomer pushing out the old guard? The early indications suggest this is unlikely. Henry Bell was entrusted with directing a headliner in last year’s 60th birthday celebrations, and another headliner this year, and played a large role in Tuesday’s presentation of the SJT’s future plans. Looks like the powers that be are keen to keep him on, and quite rightly too.

Less clear is what will happen to the new writing programme that Henry Bell initiated. Henry Bell may have been kept busy with mainstream productions, but the open script calls that got off to a promising start in 2014 with Screenplay and Slipping seems to have fizzled out. Will they give this another go? The obvious argument in favour is that anyone has a chance to get a play performed, but the argument against is that competition is so fierce for such a prestigious theatre that only established writers stand a realistic chance of getting anywhere (as happened last time). So it can be argued that an open script call that most people cannot win is a waste of time.

Or will they do something different? Might they go for support for emerging artists similar to Live Theatre’s Live Lab? If so, who do they champion? Local writers, or writers that fit in with the tastes of the directors? If local, how local? That could mean Scarborough, Yorkshire or the whole north. All have very different meanings. Will their new writing programme be something distinct, or will it be something similar to other new writing theatres?

In summary, interesting times are coming in Scarborough. There can be little doubt that the Stephen Joseph Theatre is going in the direction of new writing, but the question remains: what sort of new writing? Alan Ayckbourn will surely be part of it, but beyond that, who knows? To find out what happens, we will need to keep an eye on not only the forthcoming programmes but also any future script calls or similar schemes. Then we might have a better idea.

Until then, happy guessing.

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