The English Stage Company (ESC) is the resident company of the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London. The company and its work is the result of two disparate groups eventually uniting in a common cause. In 1953, directors George Devine and Tony Richardson devised a scheme to present 'the whole range of contemporary drama' in London with a small permanent company. Inspired by the work of Harley Granville Barker and John Eugene Vedrenne (who produced new plays by Shaw and Barker alongside the work of Ibsen, Hauptmann, Yeats and others at the Royal Court Theatre between 1904 and 1908), Devine hoped to lease the theatre, newly acquired by Alfred Esdaile, a former music-hall performer. Devine's 'Royal Court scheme' consisted of three main strands, the presentation of European modernism, revivals of classics and new plays, and armed with this he approached the Arts Council of Great Britain, the John Lewis Partnership, Selfridges and a number of other organisations and individuals in an attempt to raise the funds to lease the theatre. He was unsuccessful and continued to work as a freelance actor and director for the next few years.
Also in 1953, verse dramatist Ronald Duncan and his friends Lord Harewood and Edward Blacksell created the Taw and Torridge Festival of the Arts which aimed to present European, experimental and verse drama (including Duncan's own plays). From there Duncan began corresponding with Esdaile's general manager Oscar Lewenstein about a London venue for experimental work and the establishment of a company to produce it. The English Stage Society was formed in 1954 and became the English Stage Company soon afterwards in response to objections about the proximity of their first name to the Stage Society. The ESC formed a governing Council of 'stable, respected men in whom the Arts Council tends to place confidence', including Esdaile, Greville Poke, Sir Reginald Kennedy-Cox, Lord Bessborough and Neville Blond a powerful and influential businessman who guided the theatre through many of its subsequent financial hardships. Oscar Lewenstein, also on the ESC Council, suggested Devine should be approached to be the Artistic Director and thus began one of the most unlikely combinations in theatre history. In February 1956, having considered a number of other theatres, the company bought the lease of the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square from Esdaile and the company has been synonymous with the Royal Court ever since.
In March 1956, Devine and Associate Director Tony Richardson announced their first season in The Stage and declared their intention to 'provide the modern playwright with the stage he so urgently needs'. The company's reputation as a writer's theatre was established by the third show of the first season, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger. In 1957, the company introduced Sunday night productions without dÃ©cor (a forerunner of the rehearsed reading or play workshop) which provided writers, directors and actors with further opportunities to work on new plays. Directors John Dexter, Lindsay Anderson, William Gaskill and Anthony Page all came to the ESC by this route. In 1963 the lease on the upstairs rooms, run as a restaurant and bar by Clement Freud, expired and the company began to explore how it could make use of the space. In 1968, the company began club performances of an 'experimental' nature in the rooms vacated by Freud, and after running a broad spectrum of performance events, were granted funds by the Arts Council of Great Britain to turn the space into a public auditorium. The Theatre Upstairs opened in 1969. In providing a smaller space, the ESC was able to increase its output, provide space for new and experimental work and operate an in-house transfer system whereby successful plays produced Upstairs could be given a longer run and bigger box office downstairs.
In 1996, the English Stage Company re-located to the West End to allow a complete refurbishment of the Royal Court by architects Haworth Tompkins. Under the artistic leadership of Stephen Daldry, the company embarked on an ambitious programme, taking over the Duke of York's Theatre for Downstairs shows and turning the Ambassadors Theatre into a smaller more intimate venue for Upstairs work. This coincided with the company's position in the vanguard of a new, experiential form of theatre dubbed 'in-yer-face' and memorably saw Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking, playing at the Theatre Upstairs at the Ambassadors, being advertised as Shopping and Fucking outside the theatre and across the West End. The company returned to the newly refurbished Royal Court in February 2000.
The English Stage Company is one of the UK's most important new writing institutions, developing and premiering works by John Arden, Edward Bond, Jez Butterworth, Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp, Andrea Dunbar, Christopher Hampton, David Hare, Sarah Kane, and Mark Ravenhill, and running the Royal Court Young Writers Programme since 1998 (before that there was a Young People's Theatre Scheme). Alongside its work in new writing, the ESC has championed international work, from the first French and English productions of Beckett's Endgame and Athol Fugard's The Island and Sizwe Bansi is Dead through to its pioneering International Summer School programme begun in 1989. Although primarily a 'writers' theatre', the ESC has also been associated with some of the most influential theatre directors of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century: Lindsay Anderson, Max Stafford Clark, Stephen Daldry, William Gaskill, Peter Gill, and Ian Rickson.