In the Octagon, Bolton has a successful theatre generating its own productions and receiving touring shows. Sounds like any other theatre, right? Well, yes. But Bolton Octagon does something else; something that could be considered a rarity for large-scale theatres. That something is called an Investigate Day.
Many theatres implement educational projects or discussion-based events to run alongside the main programme. To do so is often seen as a duty on the part of the theatre (it also helps with funding applications). However, Investigate exceeds what I have seen on offer anywhere else. Rather than just viewing it as a duty, to either audiences or funding, the event is infused with the company’s joy of unpicking and exploring its own work with the help of potential audiences.
When I went along to the Octagon, the play under investigation was Twelfth Night. And there to get the day kicked off was the director of the show, David Thacker. With him was an academic of Shakespeare, Dr Jami Rogers, and the entire ensemble cast of the show.
Putting a nervously naive audience at ease, Thacker was infectiously enthusiastic about everything ranging from what was on offer at lunch to the merits of editing Shakespeare’s work. “Today is really going to be about ‘The Text’,” Thacker began. He did not falter in this regard; the text was studied, but, refreshingly, it was never made into a lecture or lesson.
It began with the cast performing (clearly without any rehearsal) Hamlet’s famous advice to the players. With no warning, Thacker had sprung it on them that morning. But they accepted it and knuckled down. It was similar to a rehearsal. And, like a rehearsal for any ensemble should be, it was fun and democratic. Thacker was not there to dictate proceedings, rather he seemed to allow the event to unfurl upon its own course through the cast.
The audience had a major part to play as well. We were truly involved: jokes were shared with glee, questions accepted with gratitude and ideas explored with sincerity. Never before have I seen the spirit of ensemble work opened up beyond the limits of the cast in this way.
These days, whether because of modern audiences’ unrelenting awareness of time or our struggle to understand every word of his verse, the Bard’s plays are rarely staged unabridged. Coming in at a little over two hours, Octagon’s Twelfth Night is an edited version. So the majority of the morning was spent dealing with the controversial question of editing Shakespeare.
In the programme for Twelfth Night, Thacker draws attention to the considerations and concerns of cutting Shakespeare. The main aims of editing he lights upon are cuts to assist the primary action, cuts to ensure meaning is conveyed, and cuts mindful of the last train home. Bit by bit, these issues were explored through a live script-trimming exercise to which the audience contributed. It was, after all, for our benefit. What became clear was that these are complex issues.
For many a contemporary audience member, Shakespeare’s texts are not easy. Cuts are often necessary in order to avoid audience alienation and to make meaning accessible, especially to those who are unfamiliar with the Bard.
However, consider a slapdash cutter who might slash something believing it to serve no part in the play’s action or overall meaning. In cutting those words the editor runs the risks of transforming the character from whom the words emanated. And if a character changes, will their motives change? Will the relationships in the play change? Will the understanding of the play also change? And so, carrying along this slope of thought, the seasoned Shakespeare audience might then ask: if this is all in aid of accessibility, then why is our full access to the play, in all its original ambiguity and nuance, being barred?
This might be true. And it is certainly a concern, but not just for theatre companies. Most printed versions of Shakespeare have gone through a similar editorial process. But, as we continue to work on cutting with the cast, it is clear that editing is balancing.
Making Shakespeare accessible nowadays is about allowing for both the Shakespeare novice and scholar to be engaged by the production. And that is what Investigate Days are all about. It is a room where the public mix with scholars; where, time permitting, everyone is heard; and where the theatre-makers share the experience of exploring and engaging with the play. This kind of democracy in theatre’s educational programmes is essential, not only to break down preconceived notions of elitism in theatre, but also because it is thoroughly thought-provoking and enriches our experience of the stage.
What: Investigate Days – Twelfth Night
Where: Octagon Theatre, Bolton
When: March 2014. Event runs alongside the Octagon’s main programme
More info: https://octagonbolton.co.uk/investigate