The moment you walk into the Octagon you sense the welcome. You notice how patiently the box office manager is taking a customer through her next booking for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, explaining how it sits in the season ticket scheme. 8 shows for £88 if you’re asking; 4 for £54. Pretty good value by anybody’s standards.
A small queue begins to form behind the customer. But the box office manager never loses her cool, never loses the genuine smile on her face or the particular attention she is giving to this customer. As a visitor on a day’s visit up from London, the friendliness and the care are immediately striking.
To the left, the café is full to bursting. It’s lunchtime. Outside it’s grey and miserable.
|That’s the beauty of the Octagon. It’s been brightening up this old mill town for over 40 years (it’s anniversary was in 2007) and from its earliest beginnings has managed to express, enliven and encourage the best of the Lancashire spirit – a spirit that David Thacker, the Octagon’s latest artistic director, loves for its `openness, kindness, generosity and straightforwardness.’Elizabeth Newman, the 24 year old ITV trainee director working alongside him as his assistant puts it sweetly: There’s something so warm about the Octagon, you know the theatre wants you here.’Thacker has only been in charge since last July, inheriting a ten year reign from Mark Babych. Praising his predecessor’s achievements, his hope is to `take it to the next stage.’
`The theatre was on a very good financial footing, despite receiving low levels of funding in comparison with other regional theatres. John Blackmore (the Octagon’s Executive Director for the past 10 years) and I were as one that we should try to have a season, through the year, of home produced work which would establish our image and identity as a producing theatre, unashamedly without compromise.’
`I want a broad range of repertoire accessible to the largest number of people’, he says to me on several occasions by way of describing his goal. And that means not just the keen theatergoer but attracting those who might feel alienated by theatergoing.
It also means persuading those potential audiences within a one hour’s ride of Bolton – the theatergoers who also visit the Liverpool Everyman theatres, Manchester Royal Exchange, West Yorkshire Playhouse, the Library Theatre in Manchester or the New Victoria Theatre at Newcastle-under-Lyme – to add the Octagon to their list.
The link between all these theatres, says Thacker, is a strong one. `Collegiate’ is the word he uses for a network that clearly provides informal and formal support. Thacker explains how, for example, Rafta Rafta, the summer production of Ayub Khan Din’s brilliant version of Bill Naughton’s All in Good Time, relocated to a present day northern Asian community, will be a co-production with Theresa Heskins at the New Victoria. Chris Honer at the Library Theatre is an ex-Thacker mentor going back to the ‘70s when Thacker was a young Arts Council trainee under Honer at Chester. There are also good relations with other theatres like the Royal Exchange and Liverpool Everyman theatres.
All of which helps to create a positive, reciprocal and encouraging atmosphere in a climate that everyone is gloomily predicting can only get worse in the immediate short-term.
The flexible 360-400 seat Octagon, depending on the configuration of the show – it can be in the round, thrust or end-on – has always been a producing house. Thacker sees it as one of his priorities to keep it as such.
Now almost half way through his first season, you can see his intention in the line-up, a rich mixture of old and modern classics by Arthur Miller, Ibsen, Shakespeare, a co-production of Out of Joint’s recent Mixed Up North, Rafta Rafta, a revival of Trevor Griffiths Comedians and the Melvyn Bragg, Howard Goodall musical The Hired Man. Alongside that, too, is a ferociously lively programme of studio work, debates and events connected to the plays, aptly titled Bolt-On.
Thacker calls their smart, snazzily produced season’s brochure, his `calling card’. But the season itself shouts his intention. `There’s no other theatre in the country I believe which has announced its season of nine shows for the coming eleven months,’ he says with some pride.
The season is ambitious – and it also very much reflects his personal taste.
Like other northern towns in present day Britain, Bolton has a strong Asian presence. 10% says Thacker at the last census. The programme to an extent speaks to that with Rafta Rafta and Mixed Up North. Two guest directors are also the multi-talented Josette Bushell-Mingo and Iqbal Khan, latterly from the National Theatre who directed Oleanna in the Octagon’s 2009 season.
Thacker is unrepentant though about its guiding principle. `I’ve only found it possible to have one philosophy when I’m artistic director of a theatre and that is to do a wide range of plays I passionately believe in. Yes, we’re mindful of wanting to attract the Asian community but if I’m honest, I would see the plays we do here as having universal appeal.’
Which is why it should come as no surprise that Thacker’s choice for his two first plays were Miller’s All My Sons and Ibsen’s Ghosts. During his time as artistic director of the Young Vic (1984-1994), he made his name as a superb interpreter of Miller’s work – a writer who hit the bull’s eye, in Thacker’s estimation, for accessibility and general appeal. Thacker’s 1986 production of Ghosts was also hugely admired, winning him Best Director at the London Fringe awards and transferring to the West End.
So far so meaty. But the season is not only in keeping with Thacker’s artistic credo; it makes pragmatic sense from Blackmore’s point of view.
Blackmore has seen the Octagon through stormy times; he was brought in, in 2000 when the very existence of the theatre was in jeopardy. Later, the success and scale of activities of their anniversary year in 2007 convinced him that `audiences respond and are attracted by ambitious work’.
Thanks to careful budgeting, reserves built up over previous years, an £80k surplus from their astonishingly successful Christmas production, Oliver Twist, and additional funding from various other sources including an Arts Council Sustain award, Blackmore is quietly confident they will break even. Any capital investments however are on hold, he says until, he believes, post Olympics. Like many other regional theatres, anticipated cuts in local authority spending are also likely to have a knock-on effect on budgets.
So what has brought Thacker, still comparatively young at under 60, a nationally acclaimed tv and theatre director, back to a small regional theatre in what may be increasingly testing times?
Thacker was born in Northampton but his ties to the north are extensive and deep-rooted. A graduate of York University where he read English and Related Literature, his first jobs were at York’s Theatre Royal and Chester Theatre and at 29, he became the youngest artistic director in the country when he was appointed to the Dukes Playhouse, Lancaster in 1980. There he met his wife, the actress Margot Lester, who also comes from Manchester.
Describing his time at Dukes as `four very happy years’, his policy then, as at the Young Vic (1984-1994) reads like a blueprint for the Octagon: to run it as a national theatre of Lancaster, `like an arts theatre reaching the widest possible number of people’.
At the Young Vic, following the example of the Royal Court’s days, he sought to: `do modern plays as if they were classics and classical plays with a modern sensibility.’
`We attracted an amazing talent of actors – Bob Peck, Tom Wilkinson, David Calder, Judi Dench directed by Sam Mendes. The turning point for me was when Vanessa Redgrave came to do Ghosts. It changed the perception of the theatre, that something important was happening there’.
You can’t help but feel that something similar is under way at the Octagon. There is a real buzz about the place. Newman, in charge of the dedicated new writing programme, Incubate, exudes energy and enthusiasm. At any one time there are half a dozen activities going on in every available space – from the rehearsal rooms to the studios, from the café (a hubbub in itself; every month it houses a lunchtime poetry session, Poetry on a Plate) to the auditorium. National critics have already taken note and and found their way up the M6.
Thacker has been thrilled by the response thus far to the two opening productions. `Audiences have come out shattered’. Pairing the two plays which have similar themes with the same cast – including Margot Lester – paid off handsomely. Ghosts even made a small surplus. That Ibsen should prove such good box office Thacker still finds amazing.
Newman enthuses equally about the add-ons that Thacker has put in place such as staging Chekhov shorts after performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children in tandem with All My Sons. Saturday morning `Investigate’ debates such as the one about Verbatim theatre, have brought Max Stafford Clark, Robin Soans and Aleky Blythe to demonstrate the technique and involve audiences in issues surrounding Mixed Up North. Thacker calls it creating a `little academe’. Newman describes it as a way of `giving existing audiences more, a richer experience.’
But for Thacker, the Octagon represents something even more important: a new lease of life. He explains: `If I feel I’m not giving 100% commitment then I feel it is time to move on.’
He felt it was the right time, for example, to leave the Young Vic after they had secured that theatre’s future and when, having proved himself an outstanding director of Shakespeare, he was made an offer he couldn’t refuse by the RSC.
At the same time he was beginning, he says, to be fascinated by and went on to make a formidable career in tv directing. A BBC tv production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House with Juliet Stevenson and Trevor Eve (whom Thacker worked with again on the Emmy-award winning Waking the Dead) became a BAFTA nominee. Other credits include the highly impressive The Mayor of Casterbridge, an award-winning Measure for Measure, Faith about the 1984 Miners’ Strike (of which he is very proud) and a slew of admired drama series such as Silent Witness, Foyle’s War and Dalziel and Pascoe.
After ten fruitful years, however, the `missed opportunities’ of television became frustrating. `The itch’ to direct in theatre again and work on `a really great script’ took over.
Enter the Northern Shakespeare Trust for whom he had become a trustee. They were hoping to win a Heritage Lottery award to build an educational and theatre complex in Prescott near Merseyside, on a site which academics believe had strong links with Shakespeare. Thacker became the spearhead for the bid.
Sadly, it failed. But Thacker feels the Northern Shakespeare Trust experience fired him up and prepared him for being a director of a regional theatre again.
`It came at a time in my life when I was feeling a real commitment to run a theatre. I know I would never be asked to run the RSC or the National but I can honestly say I’m much more interested in what it means to Bolton and the north west hinterland to have high quality work and the impact that can have on people who don’t go to Manchester or London. If you ask me what my personal drive is, it is to put a wide range of high quality plays in productions as good as I can make them for the widest possible audience.’
Directors don’t often articulate the pleasure they get from working in a theatre space they actually like. Thacker’s favourites happen to be the Young Vic, the Swan and the Octagon. No coincidence then that when the opportunity arose, Thacker jumped at the opportunity to work in one of his favourite shaped auditoria. `It suits me’, he says simply.
In a nutshell, the Octagon, has renewed Thacker’s sense of purpose, He needed more, he says, than `doing an individual tv or theatre production.’ He wanted something where he could `connect with an audience, a town and a community in its widest sense.’
`All I want now is to satisfy four constituencies. I’m not bothered any more with its being recognised as better than this or some other notional production. All I need to know is we’re doing the best we can do, that we are satisfying the author, the audience, artistic peers – and myself. ‘