On behalf of current staff and students in Drama at the University of Manchester, I would like to extend a warm welcome to returning alumni, colleagues, and friends from further afield, to this special celebration of the legacy of Stephen Joseph’s work during his time both here at Manchester and beyond. We have been looking forward to this event for some time now, and are particularly excited at the prospect of conversations with those who knew and worked with Stephen directly whilst he was here.
Whilst so much in the news these days makes us anxious about our futures, this event presents a welcome opportunity to celebrate our past. Stephen Joseph’s association with the theatre in Scarborough is fairly well-known, but perhaps less well known is the relatively short but hugely influential period he spent here at the University of Manchester, and of course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama earlier in his career.
Stephen worked at the University of Manchester from 1962 until shortly before his premature death in 1967, and was amongst the first practitioner-researchers to be employed by a University Drama Department. A genuine theatre pioneer and inspiring teacher and researcher, Stephen worked with incredible energy to develop theatre-in-the-round in the UK. Stephen’s influence is evident in the stories and recollections of those who worked with him, but also of course in the architectures of theatres across the North of England, and beyond. His legacy can be felt not only in the architecture of those theatres, but also in the enduring loyalty to such spaces demonstrated by generations of audiences in Bolton, Manchester, Scarborough and Stoke-on-Trent.
We have taken the opportunity of this event to introduce a new generation of theatre students – our first year undergraduates – to Stephen’s work in their first semester at Manchester. The students have worked with professional theatre directors with expertise in working with theatre-in-the-round – thanks here to Gwenda Hughes, Elizabeth Newman, Teunkie van der Sluijs and Matthew Xia – leading to showings of excerpts from Antigone in our studio space (configured in the round) on Friday.
The contemporary University environment is very different from the one that Stephen knew. Pressures on academic time, resource, metric-based evaluation of teaching and research, and other challenging effects of marketisation have arguably transformed the landscapes of Higher Education. There is less opportunity to make work with students over time, and to allow students the creative freedom to make work autonomously in our theatre spaces. Reading Paul Elsam’s biography of Stephen Joseph, I enjoyed the stories of how Stephen would sit at the back of the studio reading a newspaper in rehearsals until a student did or said something of interest to him. Whilst we can’t do things quite in this way anymore, these stories remind me of how Drama staff here at Manchester, past and present, have worked hard to ensure that we find ways of sustaining the maverick spirit and commitment to creative practice with which Stephen is associated. The opportunity to listen to and reflect upon how theatre practice was taught in previous generations of the Department’s life provides a timely reminder of our shared desire to protect the legacy of genuine innovation, experiment and creative freedom evident in Stephen Joseph’s work for future generations.