Stephen Joseph – Theatre Maverick and Pioneer.

Stephen Joseph – Theatre Maverick and Pioneer

Photo courtesy Scarborough Theatre Trust

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of theatre pioneer and inspirational theatre genius Stephen Joseph. A year ago a small group of Stephen’s students from the early 1960’s – the formative years of the Department of Drama at Manchester Univerity where Prof. Hugh Hunt had invited Stephen to be the first Fellow – met to discuss ways in which Stephen’s legacy could be re-evaluated.

Stephen Joseph has had an influence not only on those fortunate to have worked with and been influenced by him at Manchester Univerity, in the establishment of the ABTT and in the professional theatre, but his enthusiasm and pioneering spirit have had far reaching effects over and beyond what he achieved in his very short life.

Perhaps in his own way, Stephen has done as much as Peter Brook, Tyrone Guthrie and other more acknowledged influential theatre practitioners to shape the theatre of the last half of the 20th century and his influence is still being felt today. It is just that very few even know who Stephen Joseph was or what his influence has been.

Now some 50 years after his death and working in collaboration with those who knew him and others who have been influenced (often unknowingly) by him, in collaboration with various Univerity Drama Departments, theatres and organisations such as the Association of British Theatre Technicians, which Stephen helped to found, the Society of Theatre Research and the V&A Theatre and Performance Collection, it may be possible to make a more rounded and personal assessment of his life’s work and how it has had an influence.

So at this point it’s perhaps worth stepping back and reviewing Stephen’s life and what he did achieve, in order to recognise why his legacy is important.

We know of course that he was the man who pioneered ‘theatre in the round’ in the U.K. Starting with a fit-up structure that he designed (and possibly built?) for Summer Seasons of plays performed initially in a municipal library in Scarborough – a holiday resort in the North of England more noted at the time for end of pier variety shows and candy floss, than for untried plays in an intimate, oddly unusual and confrontational setting.  Against the odds he toured this fit up structure and a small troupe of strolling players to other towns in England. From within this company, he encouraged the development of a number of playwrights and presented their work to an unsuspecting public – several of them became well known for work which the company developed and Stephen produced.

Perhaps it is also worth remembering that Stephen preferred the title of ‘producer’ rather than ‘director’, implying that he was someone who undertook whatever tasks were necessary to get the show on the road (sometimes literally!) and that included working the lights, selling the tickets or even – god forbid – ‘acting!’

Here then was a man of the theatre who influenced not only architecture and theatre forms but also if you like ‘pop-up’ theatre, writing and wordsmiths, design and lighting and so on. At the outset in the 1950’s Stephen was battling against a dismissive background of London and provincial theatre in which plays were only presented, full frontal, in picture frames, but in less than a decade some of his ideas were already being adopted and new theatre forms were breaking the traditional pattern.

In terms of his approach to theatre making, Stephen almost wilfully set about deconstructing the then accepted norms and like a joyously naughty schoolboy did so simply because he was told that his ideas were wrong or could never work. He once said that he persevered with a form of theatre in which actors had to ‘act with their backs’ because of the weight of antagonism from the profession – “so he knew there must be something in it worth exploring!”

Would Stephen have been surprised that some 50 years on there are now new experiments in writing, theatre forms, immersive theatre and so on? I am sure he would have been delighted, but it is arguable that many of these new forms might never have come into being had it not been for his tenacity and perseverance.

So the question of how far and to what extent Stephen Joseph’s pioneering work has had an influence, either directly on others and theatre in general, is therefore surely worth exploring?

Now, after the Scarborough Weekend and the two days at Manchester, we have an ideal opportunity to start this investigation, with a view to a longer term project culminating and coinciding with the centenary of Stephen’s birth in 2021.