Artistic Director Lotte Wakeham writes on the day we should have been opening the doors and welcoming audiences in to our brand new building.
It was meant to be a very different story.
Summer 2020 was going to be one of the most exciting, hectic and exhilarating times in the Octagon’s history. The 18th and 19th July was going to be our official re-opening weekend, where we would have thrown open the doors to our beautiful new building, and welcomed everyone in for our House Warming Party. There would have been balloons, glitter, music, tours of the building, delicious food and celebratory drinks in our new Kitchen and Bar. We would have sat on plush new seats to enjoy the world premiere production of One Night in Bolton, performed by our brilliant Young Octagon company and a dazzling community choir. The whole building would have been buzzing with people laughing, smiling, chatting, applauding, sipping their drinks, munching on pasties and licking their interval ice creams.
I can picture these celebrations so clearly in my mind, but we all know now that this was not meant to be. This chapter of the Octagon’s story – in fact, everyone’s story – took a very different turn.
Instead, we’ve spent the summer in a totally unexpected way. The majority of our staff are on furlough, whilst a small ‘skeleton’ team continue to work long hours from home, with occasional socially-distanced trips to the new building, to sign off on decisions for the final stage of the redevelopment. Instead of producing live shows and our usual community groups in person, we’re producing digital content, including moving this summer’s Get Creative festival online, with workshops, masterclasses, quizzes and online parties.
Things have still been hectic, but not at all in the way we’d imagined: endless scenario planning, new budgets and timelines to draw up, major new announcements from the government to digest. We’ve been having detailed and often complex conversations with our local MPs, Bolton Council, the Arts Council and other stakeholders, supporters, staff and freelancers. People’s generosity and enthusiasm has been humbling, and inspiring. If I ever need a boost of energy, I look at the comments on our Octagon Future Fund Crowdfunder page – reminding myself of just how much everyone is looking forward to getting into the new building, even though it won’t be this summer, as we had hoped.
Amidst the franticness, there have been some rare moments of excitement and exhilaration: reading the entries for our One Night in Bolton creative writing competition was a highlight for me, as well as being able to cast five amazing actors to perform the winning pieces. Having not been in a rehearsal room since the final day of rehearsals for Shirley Valentine back in February, the idea of working on these brand new monologues fills me with joy.
However, we can’t ignore how perilous the current situation is for the theatre industry, with many individuals and beloved organisations suffering hugely. I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to sponsor two local freelancers (Ibby Ismail and Phil Harland) to join the Freelance Task Force, to make sure that Bolton’s freelancers are represented, and that their voices are heard at these vital UK-wide discussions. Like all venues, the Octagon relies heavily on the talents of freelancers, including actors, technicians, designers, directors, facilitators and writers. It’s been a particularly uncertain and frightening time for them, and as one of the North West’s major producing venues, we want to do everything we can to support them, alongside our staff.
I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to lots of artists recently who have loved working at the Octagon over the years. Many of them started their careers here, including Sue Devaney, Bhavna Limbachia and Andy Serkis. Over the past five decades the Octagon has always championed new talent, and frequently provided a vital, game-changing step in an artist’s freelance career. The next generation of North West talent needs nurturing and protecting. We can’t afford to lose them. Because, despite bleak national headlines and widespread unpredictability, the next chapter of the Octagon’s history – and the theatre sector’s history – is being written, right now. It’s going to take the exceptional talent, energy and brilliant ideas of everyone in our sector – from veterans to students and recent graduates, from freelancers to those in buildings and companies. We’re going to need the widest range of people, from different backgrounds, with diverse experiences and expertise, to bring their imaginations, creativity and problem-solving skills to the table. Our audiences are a crucial part of this too.
Although this isn’t the story we were expecting, we’re determined to do everything we can to protect our theatre, audiences, staff, freelancers, participants, and our wider community. Let’s face this new chapter together. With your continued support, patience, flexibility and passion, we WILL be back.