David Thacker, Artistic Director of Bolton Octagon, talks to Northern Soul
David Thacker cut his theatrical canines in the capital. He held directing positions at various prestigious places including the Young Vic and the National Theatre, as well as claiming a host of gongs which numbered two Olivier awards. After all that, Thacker moved out to the regions. Well, to be specific, he moved to our region. Or, to be even more specific, he moved to Bolton and has just entered his sixth season as artistic director of the Octagon.
Although clearly proud of his past successes, Thacker is not awed by them. “A lot of good and fortunate things happened to me [in London], mostly in relation to the people that I was lucky enough to work with,” he tells Northern Soul. “That was a really nourishing period for me.” Nonchalantly, Thacker reels off a quick list of those people. All of them happen to be household names, featuring the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Natasha Richardson, Clive Owen, Timothy Dalton and Arthur Miller. Yes, THE Arthur Miller.
“The downside to working in London – or with the RSC – is that every piece of work you do is subjected to such massive scrutiny, not that I mind that, but you almost get to a point where you are directing plays more for the critics or tourists than you are for a community,” he says. “You put [the play] on the stage and you come back to see it now and then, but you know nothing about these people who come to see it. You don’t experience watching it with them. I wanted that experience again, of working with a community.”
Thankfully for Thacker, tourists are not as populous in Bolton as they are in the Big Smoke. Instead, there is a small city community which has the Octagon both geographically and metaphorically at its heart. “The people of Bolton love their theatre, they are really committed to it. You develop a relationship with the audience and they get to trust us. Those who come a lot will get to see us and know us as real human beings, not just as names on a programme.”
The community ethos is admirable but the real parameter of success for any theatre anywhere is still audience numbers. Thacker is all too aware of this. The irksome numbers game is a little harder at the Octagon than at London playhouses: the population is smaller, the arts scene is smaller and the funding pot is smaller still.
“For a lot of people, theatre is inaccessible as an art form,” reflects Thacker. “A lot of people aren’t used to it, or have assumptions about it being boring or difficult. So it’s thrilling when you can convert people to theatre. If I had to say what would be my aim over everything else in the period of time that I am here, it would be to get more and more people in to see our work. Then it will become a continuing spiral of success.”
When he first arrived in Bolton, Thacker implemented a season ticket philosophy at the Octagon. “It had only been done once before in the history of the theatre. But we tried it and that’s what we are still doing. It has lots of advantages in terms of the identity of the theatre and for the theatregoer because it makes going to the theatre cheap.”
This is not just hot air. At the current price of £98, you can see seven plays. That’s £14 per play! And it seems to have worked with Thacker breaking Octagon box-office records with the highly regarded Of Mice and Men in the last season. The show sold almost 12,000 tickets and took more than £141,000 at the box office.
A new season has recently begun at the Octagon. On September 4, it opened with R.C. Sherriff’s First World War drama, Journey’s End. Thacker says: “The thing we most wanted to do this year was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War. We think it is important that a regional theatre should commemorate it for its community. It is a very moving, heart-wrenching play but also a lot of it is very funny. It is funny because even in the serious situation that these characters are in, they are surviving through humour.”
Plays that have a balance of comedy and tragedy are on Thacker’s agenda, then. He speaks at length about what this season is trying to achieve with his choice of plays. “We can create a season of plays which is rich and varied, and where we believe in all of them. I have to believe that these plays will have impact. It would also have to be comprehensible to an audience; it would not be elitist.”
The Octagon is in no danger of being elitist. Having seen productions there, I have never felt alienated and the building, although formidable, has a welcoming and relaxed atmosphere – there is little posturing here. But most democratic of all has to be the education programme which partners the main season of plays.
“We do an Investigate Day on every single show,” explains Thacker. “What I love most about those is that you get this complete mix of people: some highly educated, some people probably left school at 14. I love that. We want all our plays to be a stimulus for thinking and reflection.”
Journey’s End will be paired with Early One Morning which will continue the Octagon’s autumnal commemoration of the centenary. This second play, first commissioned by the Octagon in 1998, is written by a Bolton playwright and tells the true story of a Bolton soldier who was shot for desertion. So, it’s safe to say that this is a play that has Bolton in mind. “Well we try to make sure that some of our plays are rooted in the culture of Bolton.”
Looking ahead to the rest of the season, one play in particular stands out for being written in Bolton, by a Bolton boy, for Bolton’s Octagon. The Ancient Secret of Youth and the Five Tibetans, penned by international award-winning playwright Jim Cartwright, will be a world premiere. Thacker says: “This whole thing of the theatre interacting with the community in a tangible way was something I am very keen to explore.”
This is exactly what the Octagon offers. It provides for its public by being interactive, by being ambitious, and by being varied. Such variety is evident in the current season which also includes A View from the Bridge, Hindle Wakes, Private Lives and Noises Off. Viewed in its entirety, this season will serve the existing community and the Octagon regulars, while also expanding and enriching that community.
“I think I was probably quite idealistic and hopeful when I arrived, I hope I’ve still got some of that idealism.” Having found the community for which he was searching, Thacker is still wholly intent on inspiring a so-called “spiral of success” at the Octagon. The comforts of community life will not blunt his ambition.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.