To mark World Theatre Day, our Artistic Director Lotte Wakeham reflects on the last year and talks about the exciting plans for the Octagon as we prepare to reopen.
When I think back to what’s happened over the last 12 months, I don’t think it will surprise you to hear that it’s been a uniquely challenging year to be operating a theatre, especially one in the midst of a major capital project!
Like many of you, I’ve really missed live, in person performances: the excitement of arriving at box office, perhaps meeting up with friends and then going into the auditorium, the lights going down, the show starting, and then laughing or gasping or applauding together as a group. That live, human connection feels more important and exhilarating then ever after what we’ve all been through.
Like everyone, we have had to adapt and find new ways of working, but through all the challenges we have faced in the last year, we’ve tried never to lose sight of our desire to bring YOU - our audiences and community - together.
Knowing how vital connection and creativity are to people’s mental health, it’s been a real privilege to be able to continue to provide entertainment and engagement to our audiences. In the absence of live, in person shows, we produced shows on zoom, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as podcasts, masterclasses, quizzes and storytelling sessions.
I’m really proud that we were able to move so much of our participation activity online, including our youth theatre and our over 50s group, who have embraced all sorts of new technology. We also sent out creative care packages to young people and elders across Bolton and Greater Manchester who didn’t have internet access.
A real highlight for me was our One Night in Bolton monologue competition, where we invited members of the public to stay creative by writing short monologues about memorable nights out they’d had in the town. It was a joy to read all the unique stories and memories of people’s experiences. The entries were judged by a panel including bestselling Boltonian novelist Monica Ali and TV favourite Ralf Little. The winning pieces were then recorded, performed by a cast of our finest local acting talent, led by BAFTA nominee Ruth Madeley. If you haven’t done so already, I would highly recommend giving them a listen!
We’ve had to make some difficult decisions over the past year and things have rarely been easy or straight-forward. However, one of the silver linings of the last 12 months has been connecting with so many people who really cherish the Octagon and want to see it flourish. Supporters from around the country and even internationally contributed to our Future Fund, which I am delighted to say has raised over £84,000. Many people shared their memories of favourite trips to the theatre or reflected that their first ever theatre job took place here.
The Octagon continues to be a crucial talent pipeline, with many actors starting their careers right here on our stage, from television stalwarts Amy Nuttall and Sue Johnston to Lord of the Rings star Andy Serkis and Oscar nominee Vanessa Kirby.
With that in mind, we’ve also been focusing on how we can support the next generation of local talent – both on stage and off - by consulting with artists and our invaluable freelance community. Following feedback from our first ever Freelancers Town Hall event, at the start of this year we held 3 incubation residencies and provided bursaries for artists to try out some new ideas for future shows. We also created a new Artist and Freelancer hub on our website, providing opportunities for our local artistic community.
Looking ahead to the future, we have recently revealed the first pictures from inside our incredible new building. There’s a huge sense of excitement as we add the final touches ahead of opening very soon.
With the roadmap out of lockdown on the horizon we are now getting ready to open up. And that’s thanks to all of you - whether you’ve followed us on social media, subscribed to our newsletters, donated to our Future Fund, bought tickets to an online event, or taken part in an online class or workshop. Thanks to your incredible support over the last 12 months, we’re now be on the brink of being able to throw the doors open and welcome you back to your Reimagined Octagon.
We have so many plans – there’s so much we want to do, to make the Octagon a focal point for the whole community: to bring people back together, to be entertained, to socialise, to learn new skills and to have brand new experiences.
We’re now confirming the final details of our opening programme, and we will be announcing the first main house production in the coming weeks. In the meantime we are also working with families in Bolton to co-create a new family festival, plus exploring how we can bring outdoor theatre to people across the town. We can’t wait to have our staff, audiences, artists and participants back. I’m thrilled that it looks like our youth groups’ summer term of activity will be delivered in person in the building, giving them the chance to be amongst the first people to try out our brand new studio theatre space.
On behalf of the whole Octagon team, I’d like to say a massive thank you for all of your continued support. We wish you a very happy World Theatre Day and we can’t wait to welcome you to the Octagon in person very soon!