On Friday 16th November 2018 the Stephen Joseph Association held the first AGM in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. The meeting, to an audience of almost 50 members and guests, was preceded by a Forum with guest speaker Sam Walters who had founded and was first artistic director of the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, Surrey.
The theme of the forum was Iconoclast or Icon? The Enduring Legacy of Stephen Joseph.
The Association (SJA) in Stephen’s name, was formed a year ago to celebrate and evaluate his life and work as director and teacher, and as the pioneer of theatre-in-the-round in the UK. Stephen was appointed by Prof. Hugh Hunt as the first Fellow and later Lecturer in the Drama Department of Manchester University.
The SJA membership to date consists of Stephen’s ex-students and professional artists and colleagues who had known and worked with him and others whose work has been indirectly influenced by him. The aim of the association is to promote Stephen’s legacy and, in particular, to celebrate the centenary of his birth in 2021 with projects and collaborations which investigate and extend the awareness of his influence on the design and development of new theatre forms, writing and performance.
The delegates to the Forum and AGM were welcomed by Simon Sladen, a senior curator in the Theatre and Performance Department of the V&A. He introduced a video clip of Sir Alan Ayckbourn, who talked about his association with Stephen and his importance, even to World theatre. Among the delegates was Robin Townley, CEO of the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT), an association of which Stephen Joseph had been one of the original founder members. Attending also were Neville Hunnings, a shareholder in Stephen’s first Studio Theatre in 1955; Faynia Williams (Jeffries) who was in Harold Pinter’s production of The Birthday Party which Stephen mounted after its disastrous first London performance.
Also attending were Peter Tate the founding director of the new Playground Theatre in West London and his wife Naomi Sorkin; Richard Gill and his wife who started Polka Puppet Theatre and had both worked with Stephen as had Terry Lane, founder of the Traverse theatre and Stephen’s biographer (The Full Round).
In his capacity of Chairman of the SJA, Terry welcomed delegates and introduced the guest speaker, Sam Walters.
Sam spoke eloquently and entertainingly about his concept of theatre, the idea of actor and audience sharing an intimate space, a concept that Stephen Joseph promoted in his theatres in Scarborough and in Stoke-on-Trent. He also emphasised the liberating freedom that the round brings to actors and directors, allowing productions to evolve naturally and truthfully without the imposed artificiality of “facing out front”!!
Sam talked about the early days of the Orange Tree theatre and the ideas that contributed to the conversion of an existing building into a theatre. He argued that the intimacy of the small in-the-round theatre whilst it puts the emphasis on the actors and the text of the play also satisfies a longing for contact between humans, between actor and audience, audience and audience.
And finally, Sam saw Stephen Joseph as definitely an iconoclast, with nothing set in stone and everything questioned.
A lively discussion was then led by Peter Thomson, Emeritus Professor at Exeter Universtity and now one of the SJA’s Patrons, on the relative merits of different forms of staging, the strength of theatre in-the-round as a stimulus for the audience’s imagination, the importance of the actor in theatre in-the-round and its relevance today.
Above all, throughout this forum there was an atmosphere of great fondness for Stephen Joseph, still held as a major influence by many of his ex-students and colleagues and with gratitude for his inspiration, both during and after his lifetime.
The discussion was followed by the Association’s AGM, and closed with thanks to the Theatre and Performance Department of the Victoria & Albert Museum, for supporting the Stephen Joseph Association.