Stephen Joseph: Who Was He?

by Paul Elsam, author of Stephen Joseph: Theatre Pioneer & Provocateur

Who is, or was, Stephen Joseph? And why should his name mean anything in the twenty-first century?

The short answer is that Joseph was a theatre all-rounder who, dying young, left behind him twin gifts: a radical legacy - now strangely obscured; and a priceless record of experiments and provocations - now bizarrely out-of-print.

Stephen Joseph’s interest in theatre was eclectic, and international. Like Peter Brook and Joan Littlewood, he looked for inspiration to the USA, to continental Europe, to the former USSR - all of which he visited with a keen ear and a hungry eye. Yet - almost uniquely - he also took time to record, examine and value innovation within England.

Just a year after the 1955 launch of Studio Theatre, the BBC’s Head of Drama was telling Joseph how ‘many of us have been conscious, with interest, of the plucky work you have been doing’. Eleven years later Joseph’s
obituary in The Times newspaper offered him up as ‘the most successful missionary to work in the English theatre since the Second World War’ (The Times, 1967).

What then was Joseph’s mission? And how did his plucky work change the theatre, roughly half a century ago? Who are his inheritors, and what was bequeathed?

Joseph was someone who set things up.
Studio Theatre - Britain’s first professional theatre in the round - has also been labelled the nation’s first community fringe theatre group. Stephen co-founded the hugely influential Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT) and Society for Theatre Consultants. And he was a central figure within the growth of university drama education in the UK.

Joseph was a friend and advocate to writers and other theatre makers. He rescued young playwright
Harold Pinter after his critical humiliation in 1958: Pinter was persuaded to personally redirect The Birthday Party, and Joseph later brokered the play’s career-saving transfer to television. Royal Shakespeare Company director Clifford Williams defined the company’s classic style: he became a playful, experimental and design-minimalist theatre maker under Joseph. Peter Cheeseman was plucked from weekly rep by Joseph and placed ‘in-the-round’ in charge of a radical Stoke-based ensemble theatre group: he would go on to invent verbatim theatre and the community-based musical documentary. In fact Joseph’s company debuted and supported a spectrum of provocative playwrights including Alan Ayckbourn, James Saunders, Alan Plater and David Campton (often with Stephen in the director’s chair). Joseph even helped trigger experimental new writing in the USA through his teaching of New York City-based playwright and mentor Michael Weller. Only now are some of the links coming to light: Oscar-nominated writer and director Trevor Griffiths - never professionally employed by Joseph - considers Stephen one of ‘the two most important people in my life, as far as theatre’s concerned’.

Joseph was a designer of theatres whose tireless advocacy of open staging directly influenced radical new theatre building in Britain. Alan Ayckbourn has noted that ‘There are open stages across the country as a result of this extraordinary man’. These include the giant adaptable Nuffield Theatre at Lancaster University - a space now central to international performance experimentation.

Finally - and this might help to explain Stephen Joseph’s low profile in the history books - he was a relentless nuisance to the British theatre establishment.

But most of all, perhaps, he was a lover of live theatre who wanted to share his passion with others. He did this by tackling head-on a central conundrum within the West: how can you attract a new audience for an art form which so many people feel is not for them?

Copyright: Dr Paul Elsam. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.