The Legacy of Stephen Joseph – Alistair Livingstone

It just a little over a year since the University of Manchester was first approached with the idea of an event to re-evaluate the life, work and legacy of Stephen Joseph.

Since then some thirty of us gathered for an extraordinary weekend at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough last September, where we were joined by Sir Alan Ayckbourn. Many more of us have been involved in bringing this symposium at Manchester to fruition.

Stephen had been invited in 1961 by Prof. Hugh Hunt to become the first Fellow in the then fledgling Department of Drama with, I guess, an unspoken mandate to shake the first undergraduates out of their lethargy, to invite them to rethink everything they thought they knew about theatre, acting, playwriting, lighting, directing and even running a flat or mending a fuse. In other words to encourage us all who were privileged to have been there at that time to question and “to think out of the box”!

What perhaps for us is extraordinary is that most of us who fell under Stephen’s charismatic influence know that in his own way, Stephen has done as much as Peter Brook, Tyrone Guthrie, Joan Littlewood and other more acknowledged influential theatre practitioners to shape the theatre of the last half of the 20th century.

His influence is still being felt, but if you ask them, very few theatre practitioners today even know who Stephen Joseph was or what his influence has been.

It is also extraordinary that, whilst Stephen wrote or edited some six books on various aspects of the theatre in as many years, there have been only two books written directly about him in the last fifty! Paul Elsam’s well researched Stephen Joseph: Theatre Pioneer and Provocateur and Terry Lane’s book, The Full Round, which benefits from Terry’s having known and worked directly with him and therefore provides insights and understandings of the man that would not otherwise have been possible.

These two books are rather like book-ends to an extraordinarily enigmatic man’s life and work.

Would Stephen have been surprised that some fifty 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.

This is a unique opportunity for present day academics, undergraduates and theatre professionals to come together to re-evaluate how far and to what extent Stephen Joseph’s pioneering work has had an impact on the way we think about theatre in general and British theatre in particular.

Just as important is to use this opportunity as a catalyst for future research and events towards the centenary of his birth and to perhaps pose the question and investigate:

“What kind of theatre would Stephen Joseph be promoting in 2021?”