Stephen Joseph Theatre associate director Henry Bell wanted to find a challenge for writers who were not internationally famous or who had not worked in the theatre before. As he tells Steve Pratt, the result was Screenplay
ON the day he took up his role as associate director at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, Henry Bell was sitting in the McCarthy, one of the two auditoria in the former art deco cinema, and had the kernel of the idea that became Screenplay.
“Because it’s been a cinema since 1936, I thought of the past and the stories and the different sorts of people who’d come to see the films, and the things that would have happened during the films,” he says.
He told artistic director Chris Monks about “this mad idea” and got the go-head to develop it into Screenplay, four short plays by new writers set during screenings at the cinema.
They cover four decades - the opening night in 1936, a showing of Hitchcock’s thriller Rear Window (1954), a late night double bill of The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now (1973), and finally Little Voice (1998), the film of Jim Cartwright’s play that was shot in Scarborough.
“One of the things that I really wanted to do was get something tangible for writers who aren’t necessarily internationally famous and who hadn’t worked at the theatre before but we hungry to work there,” says Bell.
“I didn’t really want to do a play reading or development project, what I wanted was an actual tangible project to work on.”
He received some 500 scripts through the open scripts submission policy. From those he found 20 writers he thought would be right for the Screenplay project.
The brief was a short play set in the Odeon in Scarborough between 1936 and the modern day. There was also a specific cast breakdown as all four plays use the same actors – one man, two women – as the current production of Cox & Box.
It was a tough brief for the writers. Jimmy Osborne, who set his on the opening night in 1936 when Scarborough-born Charles Laughton made a surprise appearance, admits it was a “real challenge” but one he enjoyed once he found his angle.
Another of the writers Claudine Toutoungi looked for a film that would bring her to the Yorkshire seaside town of which she knew little – and found Little Voice, which starred Jane Horrocks.
“That’s such a rich film and is brilliant writing anyway so I could bounce off that and write something quite comic, which is how I ended up with two rival extras in the film.”
Osborne didn’t visit the cinema before writing his play An Empty Seat but was sent archive material about the cinema’s opening night. “I spent a lot of time in Scarborough as a kid because I’m from Wakefield and had holidays there. The opening night was a massive event with Charles Laughton showing up,” he says.
Each play is set during the screening of a film. “I thought it would be quite fun to see how the themes and images in the play could reflect the film that’s showing or respond to it,” says Bell.
Kate Brower wasn’t born in 1973 when her play is set during a double bill screening of two British films that have become classics of their kind, The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now. “They were first shown together with The Wicker Man as the B-movie and shown first. These films for me such a massive moment in British cinema industry,” she says.
“I’ve never been to Scarborough so for me that was a massive challenge to try and learn as much about the town, although obviously I was aware of the theatre and its new writing history. My play is an interrogation of that time, 1973, and living in Scarborough and the film itself - the cultural impact it has and how it brings two people together.”
The plays will be performed in the McCarthy auditorium which is used for as both a theatre and a cinema. “What I was really excited about was doing site specific theatre in a particular theatre and about a particular theatre,” says Osborne.
“My play doesn’t make sense outside the SJT and has to be performed there. I really like to be able to response to that brief.”
Bell says the four plays were chosen because they best responded to the space and could only be set in a cinema. “Most were really good but a few I thought this is a conversation between two people that could be set anywhere. It’s a piece of site specific theatre in the purest sense in that it is responding to a specific space.
“It makes the event more exciting. That atmosphere will carry into the productions themselves I think.”
Bell, who is directing Screenplay, had his first directing experience at the SJT in 2004 working with 25 undergraduates in a Hull University production of Titus Andronicus as part of the National Student Drama Festival.
Since then he has worked exclusively in the round and is working on a PhD at Hull University exploring the effect of theatre-in-the-round with young people and Shakespeare. He’s continuing to work on that project alongside his SJT associate director role.
SCREENPLAY: the four plays
1936 An Empty Seat by Jimmy Osborne. Mae has landed her dream job as an usherette working the opening night of Scarborough Odeon at the screening of The Ghost Goes West. It’s a full house except for one seat next to the town outcast. Can Mae see past Henry’s betrayal and find mutual ground?
1954 The Illicit Dark by Isabel Wright. A showing of Rear Window brings together three people with mysterious intentions. Is Jeanne being watched by Charles? Does he have a violent past? And is Susan, the cinema usherette, trying to protest or take advantage of Jeanne’s concerns?
1973 Double Feature by Kate Brower. It’s a midnight movie double bill of The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now. A night out ought to bring Richie and Diana closer together, by fear if nothing else. But who is the unseen Jules adding fuel to the fire?
1998 Bit Part by Claudine Toutoungi. Sisters Julie and Martine are polar opposites with an attraction wearning thin. Awaiting their screen debuts as extras in Little Voice, now is the time to speak up about what lies ahead.
• Screenplay, the individual shorts and the relative films, will be shown in the McCarthy auditorium at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, on various dates until August 30. Full details at stj.uk.com. Box office: 01723 370541 or sjt.uk.com