THEATRE Made in Bolton
The Octagon has been making theatre in a Lancashire town for 50 years. On the eve of a major revamp, Patrick Kelly asks what makes this theatre special
It’s been half a century since Robin Pemberton-Billing and a band of “renegade” drama students begged and borrowed their way to creating a brand new producing theatre in the Greater Manchester town of Bolton. The Octagon was a pioneering project, which not only introduced the idea of flexible auditoria to regional theatre but also conceived theatre buildings as all day arts venues.
And Bolton has been grateful. The council is one of a tiny number of local authorities which has not cut its support for its local theatre “by a penny” in the last 10 years and now, together with the Arts Council, it is providing the bulk of the funding for a £9.3m revamp of the theatre. The rest, some £1.5 million, will have to be raised by the theatre trust.
“It’s a unique building,” says Roddy Gauld, Octagon’s chief executive. “But it’s 50 years old and needs major changes. The building has been bursting at the seams because we are doing more and more as a theatre, as an arts venue. Sometimes the studio space has to double up as a scene dock.”
The refreshed Octagon will be fully accessible and built for the digital age, with state of the art technical facilities, the result, says Gauld, will be a theatre 25% bigger, unlocking extra activities in community work, education and studio plays. The beating heart of the Octagon, that pioneering auditorium, one of the first to allow both thrust and in-the-round staging, will remain in its octagonal shape, but will bene t from new seating.
All this is to take place while the theatre is closed from May 2018 until the autumn of 2019, a closure that has also given the Octagon the opportunity to make a virtue of necessity. There will be an extensive programme of theatre and other activities all over the town of Bolton during this period, starting with an adaptation of the iconic Cliff Richard movie Summer Holiday at the town’s bus station. Then there’s a new version of Gulliver’s Travels, co- written by local playwright Satinder Chohan and acclaimed writer Mike Kenny.
This will follow a 50th anniversary season designed to showcase the best of Northern writing, including a reviv- al of the award winning Rita, Sue and Bob Too, a new version of the acclaimed East is East, and a tribute to Bolton’s most famous writer, Bill Naughton, whose play, Annie and Fanny opened the Octagon in 1967. This summer, an adaptation of E Nisbet’s tale, The Rail- way Children, will turn the theatre into a railway station.
Overseeing all this artistic activity will be the Octagon’s recently appoint- ed artistic director Elizabeth New- man, who succeeded veteran David Thacker in the role in 2015. Newman
has worked at the theatre since 2009, when she was appointed as an associate director. She is passionate about supporting new writing and was surprised on her arrival to discover that the theatre which had nurtured names like Jim Cartwright, didn’t have a structure for developing new voices. So she took on this role herself. Now she has a dedicated member of staff looking after the Octagon’s new writing programme, considered to be one of the best in the UK.
Alumni of the programme include Laura French, whose Gulliver’s Travels will be a centrepiece of the season in 2018. “There are hundreds of talented writers all over Bolton,” she says. “We are here to support the people of Bol- ton to express themselves.”
Gauld has been at Bolton for five years and was attracted by Octagon’s reputation as a ‘cocky little theatre’ which he took as a compliment. It has always been willing, since the Pemberton Billing era, “of doing its own thing, taking a risk.” That boldness is appreciated by a loyal and trusting audience which has built up over the years and is willing to follow the theatre into new areas.
But he and Newman are conscious of the risks of that audience becoming a clique and the Octagon makes strenuous and successful efforts to reach out to people who are not natural theatregoers. Community leaders in every one of the town’s 20 electoral wards have been invited to ‘dinner parties’ in the auditorium and asked to tell their stories, local groups are regularly on stage, while theatre sessions are organised for every conceivable age bracket, from babes-in-arms to over 55s. The sessions for older theatre enthusiasts have spawned their own theatre company, which now tours across the North West. Two Octagon partnerships stand out. One, with the University of Bolton, gives local students a thorough grounding in the critical and practical aspects of theatre under the tutelage of David Thacker, who is now the first Professor of Theatre at the university. The Octagon also has a ground-breaking relationship with social housing provider Bolton@Home, which has produced dozens of community pro- jects and also uses the proceeds of a Right to Buy house sale to fund 1800 free tickets for residents. The free ticket scheme and youth outreach has been an enormous hit, says Newman, growing the paying audience by bringing young people into the theatre for the first time. ““We recognise that for many people times are hard and money is tight,” adds Gauld. “So much of our work is aimed at making a theatre trip a priority for people.
Above the theatre a banner proudly proclaims the words: “Theatre: Made in Bolton.” Robin Pemberton Billing would be pleased.
THE OCTAGON STORY
Robin Pemberton-Billing, a drama lecturer at Loughborough University, led a group of students in designing a brand new theatre with the help of the local council and an extraordinary public donation effort to raise the £95,000 needed to build it. Based on an innovative ‘in the round’ design, it was opened by Princess Margaret in 1967, nearly 10 years before the perhaps now better known Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Pemberton-Billing’s concept also embraced pioneering ideas such as keeping a coffee bar open all day, holding talks, one-person shows and work with local dramatic societies and other groups. In In 1987 the building was extended to add a studio theatre, enlarged and renamed The Bill Naughton Theatre. In the late eighties, playwright Jim Cartwright was the Octagon’s writer in residence. His plays Two and Bed were premiered at the theatre. Following a refurbishment in 1998,a financial crisis threatened to force the Octagon to cease producing its own plays and become a receiving house . However, a local campaign under the slogan, “Keep theatre made in Bolton” secured funds from public and business sponsors, and saved the Octagon’s status as a producing theatre.