Significant People: Caroline Smith

This article focuses on the largely unrecognised first female Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Caroline Smith, who ran the Library Theatre for a year during 1971. The article was first published in the SJT Circular during January 2020.

Caroline Smith: The SJT's First Female Artistic Director

by Simon Murgatroyd

Here’s a teaser for you. Can you name theatre in the round in Scarborough’s first female Artistic Director?

And no, it’s not a trick question - although I suspect very few readers will know the answer as this is a particularly obscure piece of the company’s history.

But in 1971, Caroline Smith was appointed Director of Productions (essentially Artistic Director) for the summer season at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre making her, as of writing, the company’s first and only female Artistic Director.

Before we look at Caroline’s brief tenure with the company, let us set the scene.

In September 1965, Stephen Joseph had decided to close Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre. By 1967, theatre manager Ken Boden had arranged for it to re-open as a professional venue, but Stephen was now terminally ill with cancer.

The role of Director of Productions / Artistic Director needed to be filled; it should be borne in mind, the company at the time was only operating summer seasons and had no guarantee of existence from one year to the next.

As a result, Scarborough Theatre Trust took the decision to appoint a Director of Productions on an annual basis. For 1967 and 1968, the position was filled by Rodney Wood - who had worked as a stage manager and director with the company since 1959. He was followed in 1969 and 1970 by Alan Ayckbourn; despite the fact he was employed full-time by the BBC as a Radio Drama Producer and not supposed to take on any other work!

Come 1971, Alan informed the Trust he was heading to America for his first major Stateside transfer with
How The Other Half Loves and a new Director of Productions would be required.

It’s not clear what the process for application was - very little from this period survives in Archive - however, two people are known to have applied for the role: Philip Hedley - most famous as Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Stratford East from 1979 to 2004 - and Caroline Smith.

Caroline was an Associate Director at the Salisbury Playhouse at the time and her application letter survives in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University of York. Within it, she noted her only proviso in applying was she had also applied for a job at the Royal Shakespeare Company which would take precedence. Understandably enough!

Caroline had no previous connection with Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre, although she knew Alan Ayckbourn having worked with him during 1962 and 1963 at the Victoria Theatre, Stoke- on-Trent. There she had been stage manager, actor and director and had experience of theatre-in-the-round and had also worked with Stephen Joseph.

This obviously worked in her favour as - as far as it is possible to tell - there was no actual interview for the job! The applicants appear to have been given to the Trust with the theatre manager Ken Boden recommending that Caroline be given the job sight unseen.

A month later, on 13 December 1970, Ken replied to Caroline’s application with the news she had been appointed to the job unanimously and entirely on his recommendation and that it might be a good idea if they met!

His letter also makes it clear the theatre had lost £1,330 the previous year with the blame being solely placed on Alan’s shoulders for several reasons such as not doing what the Arts Council wished, increasing wages for actors and employing two more actors than had been agreed.

In accepting the role, Caroline was agreeing to produce five plays - three of which had to be new in order for the theatre to qualify for grant subsidy - with a company of eight actors (four male and four female) with one stage manager and one assistant stage manager. Ken also noted the board would like one of the new plays to be by Alan “if at all possible.”

Caroline was introduced to the Scarborough Theatre Trust board on 21 March 1971 where she presented her plans for the season. It would begin with what Ken euphemistically labelled as the ‘bankers’, two established plays by well-known writers, with
Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas and The Daughter-in-Law by D.H. Lawrence.

For the rest of the season, she proposed three new plays:
Revenge by Howard Brenton, Alan’s untitled and unwritten latest work and a ‘Medieval Ballad’ described as a ‘dramatic play with music.’

It was an eclectic choice of work but the minutes of the meeting note that Caroline made it clear “the plays she produced had to be her forte in order for the season to be popular and successful apart from a financial success.”

The Board unanimously agreed to the season and agreed that Caroline was to be paid £35 a week for the duration of the summer season; adjusted for inflation that is approximately £500 a week. I’m not sure there are many Artistic Directors who would work for that amount today!

Four days later, Caroline’s appointment was officially announced and carried by The Stage newspaper with the summer season confirmed as running from 14 June to 11 September.

It’s worth noting that Caroline was responsible for casting Christopher Godwin - who she had worked with previously - at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre for the first time; Christopher, of course, became a key member of the company during the 1970s and was most recently seen in 2018 in Alan Ayckbourn’s play
Better Off Dead.

Sadly, very little survives in archive about the actual season itself with next to no press cuttings, reviews or images. But we do have several interesting observations.

Caroline directed all but Alan’s play including the medieval ballad which became Ray Herman’s
One For The Road; a loose adaptation of several of the stories from Boccaccio’s Decameron. The programme for this is a personal favourite as it has a rather wonderful cast list of Lorenzo Medici, Niccolo Machiavelli, Cesare Borgia, Leonardo Da Vinci and... a Pig.

Her production of Howard Brenton’s
Revenge ruffled a few feathers too as advertising for it warned of strong language and violence. This led to the Vicar of St Martin’s Church - despite apparently never seeing the play - complaining to the Clerks of both the town and county council as well as the chairman of the the Scarborough Corporation Entertainment Committee on behalf of the Scarborough Council of Churches!

As for Alan, he did produce a play
Time And Time Again which he was writing until the day before rehearsals began and which, according to The Stage, he was rehearsing until half-an-hour before the first performance! The play was a huge success though and is considered the first of his tragic-comic works.

At the end of the season, the board declared it an artistic success if not a financial success. True, it has lost less money than the previous year but the board was disappointed that a £400 loss had been made despite a slight rise in ticket sales and an increase in ticket prices.

And that marked the end of Caroline’s tenure with the company - of which there is disappointingly little to show; there isn’t even a contemporary photo from her time at Theatre in the Round at the Library Theatre.

The next year saw Alan return as Director of Productions before being appointed to the permanent role of Artistic Director at the close of the summer season.

Caroline, meanwhile, would go on to great success and from 1975 to 1978, she was Artistic Director of Manchester’s Contact Theatre and gained a reputation for fostering and championing new plays and new writers. She has worked with numerous companies throughout the UK both in the regions and the West End as well as working on radio and television. She also became closely associated with the Orange Tree Theatre - at which she is still an Associate Director - and was Chairman of the Board for a number of years. Perhaps one of her most significant achievements though is founding Interact Stroke Support, a charitable organisation which uses professional actors to deliver reading material specially selected to suit the needs of stroke patients to stimulate memory, language, and lift spirits.

It was inspired by her nursing her terminally ill brother who enjoyed being read to. He, a doctor, discussed with Caroline how arts and health could support each other. Caroline began reading voluntarily at local hospitals before forming the company.

Today, Interact Stroke Support has professional actors working with 19 hospitals and more than 50 stroke clubs across the UK reading to victims of strokes. During the pandemic of 2020/2021, they even brought the reading service directly to home through video or even phone calls.

Caroline has enjoyed an exceptional career in theatre over the decades and whilst her connection to theatre in the round in Scarborough may not be widely known, she very much has a special place within the company’s history.

Not only the first female Artistic Director, but also one of the people who helped guide the theatre through one of its most perilous times when its future was by no means certain.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the copyright holder.