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Octagon Theatre, social housing and the uses of history


Post by Jenny Hughes

I am looking at the history of a partnership between a major regional theatre and social housing provider in the North – the Octagon Theatre and Bolton at Home. The aim is to document the partnership by talking to key artists and community members as well as collect together materials from the archive of creative work made over its duration. This takes place as part of the mapping part of the Poor Theatres research – which aims to provide a platform for sharing examples of theatre projects engaging with economically hard-up communities.

Bolton at Home is a registered charity that owns and manages more than 18,000 homes in Bolton, a former mill town in Northern England. It runs the renowned ‘Percent for Art’ initiative which develops art projects ‘that help to improve our communities and benefit customers’, in part by supporting community-initiated projects that ‘offer creative solutions to neighbourhood issues’. Uniquely for social housing in the UK, Bolton at Home employs four arts officers to support this activity.

The partnership between the Octagon Theatre and Bolton at Home reflects the latter’s commitment to the arts, and is now more than 10 years old. At present, Bolton at Home contributes £20,000 a year to the theatre in return for 1800 ‘free’ tickets to the theatre for tenants as well as community work. Watch a film about the Octagon’s work on the Willows estate in Bolton here.

Driven by an idea/hunch that arts organisations might make (better) use of their histories, I am delving into the history of this partnership. Here, awareness of history might be a resilience factor, a source of a set of narratives, ideas and affects, used to support self-aware and confident approaches to on-going challenges. History as a resource, then, or point of stimulus for articulating identity and value, and gathering ideas for development and new approaches. Might this be particularly useful in an increasingly precarious economic climate for the public arts provision? Might historical work also be a way that research can have immediate and practical value for arts organisations? Developing a language and terminology that describes the ethos of an organisation, a language derived from and embedded in successes of the past?

I’ve just read Robin Pemberton-Billing’s The Octagon Theatre, Bolton: Concept to Reality (2011) – which gives an account of how the theatre came into being, written by its first artistic director. Pemberton-Billing was a Lecturer in Drama at Loughborough University, interested in the architecture of theatre spaces, and was encouraged by a group of students to get involved in a madcap scheme to open a theatre in Bolton. He eventually led this venture, with the new theatre building, based on an innovative ‘in the round’ design, opening in 1967. To give a sense of how adventurous this was – the Octagon opened almost 10 years before the perhaps now better known Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester (which opened in 1976), and the National Theatre’s move into its permanent home (also in 1976). Supported by a groundswell of good feeling and substantial contributions from a group of Boltonians, including a local businessman (Tom Markland), the council, and locals investing in ‘Buy a brick’ and ‘Buy a seat’ schemes, and much ‘in-kind’ support – including, incredibly, an agreement from the builders, William Towson and Sons Ltd, to construct the theatre ‘at virtually cost price’ (41-2) – this was a theatre that, from its inception, belonged to the people of the town.

Pemberton-Billing’s opening concept was to create a ‘community theatre’ for Bolton. He didn’t mean ‘community theatre’ as we might understand the term today – as in community plays or theatre made with communities – although there were early plays and projects at the Octagon that are examples of these approaches. Rather – this was an attempt to develop a theatre that – from its architecture, management structure, and through to its staffing and programming – provided an ‘artistic service to the area’ (78). The proposal for a community theatre mapped onto six objectives: delivering high quality productions that reflected the community; keeping a coffee bar open all day to ‘ensure that the building was used as much as possible for the benefit of the local community’; delivering a diverse programme of activities (talks, one-person shows, concerts, as well as plays); undertaking an educational programme; and making a commitment that ‘practical help and know-how would be offered to Universities, Colleges, schools, local dramatic societies – whatever, whenever they asked for it’ (78-9). I think you can see the longevity of these principles in the theatre’s activities right up to today.

I can’t find much published on the Octagon – theatre researchers are dreadfully neglectful of regional theatre – but one article published in 1975 gives an indication of an early affinity between the theatre and the issue of housing – written by Pam Schweitzer (now Pam Schweitzer MBE) and entitled ‘Bolton Octagon and “Holland New Town”. It gives an extraordinary insight into the early educational work of the theatre, from a point in time when the theatre had a permanent theatre-in-education company. The aim here was to ‘use the techniques of theatre to increase awareness in young people of the fundamental problems they are bound to encounter and to encourage them in an active attitude to social questions’ (73).

‘Holland New Town was an ‘especially unusual’ project, intriguingly described as ‘a non-play with a twist in its tail, aimed at education school-leavers in the social problems they will face’ (73).

It took place as part of a ‘ROSLA’ programme – ROSLA stands for ‘raising of school leaving age’. School leaving age was raised from 15 to 16 years in England and Wales in 1973, leaving a disenchanted group of children who had expected to leave education at 15 in need of some occupation. The company wanted to work with this group because (using language that we perhaps wouldn’t use today) ‘they would probably be particularly inarticulate and amongst the least equipped to play an active part on local affairs. They would be the natural victims of society, future clients for the social worker and the housing officer’ (74). Given the group’s likely contact with authority in the area of housing, the issue of housing was taken as a focus. The project happened at the same time as the Poulson scandal – John Poulson was an architect who served a prison sentence following exposure of his use of bribery, especially as part of local authority construction programmes – and this is important to understanding the project’s impetus.

This was a project in many ways well ahead of its time – it was not a play, rather it was a ‘simulation’ in which young people were immersed for a day and a half. The pupils did not know they were participating in a piece of theatre until the end. Invited to take part in a ‘town planning course’ held in a teacher training centre in Wigan, the pupils met various ‘experts from different disciplines who would proposed mutually contradictory solutions’ to the town planning proposal that was the focus of the piece. And, ‘Underlying the cool professionalism of the planning course would be a Machiavellian plot by which one or more experts hoped to gain financial advantage’ (76). The built-in on-site CCTV facilitated the actors’ management of how this plot unfolded. The ‘characters’ included a friendly caretaker, who met pupils informally, providing refreshments and – as pupils gradually learned – whose self-renovated terraced house was due to be flattened to leave room for a proposed flyover in the private interest of the planner and contractor. There was also a well-meaning social worker, overwhelmed by the ‘scale of human problems’ created by the redevelopment, and a councillor, who in her inability to see the private interests of her advisors, was easily manipulated.

The pupils arrived on day one, and engaged in friendly banter with the caretaker, followed by presentations by each expert. They were then split into groups and engaged in sessions with each expert on the new town development. These sessions explored issues of cost, the mix of social and private housing, whether the local museum should be free entry, where the chip shop, school, youth club, nursery, cemetery, phone booths etc should be situated, and the social and human costs of poor housing. Throughout, the caretaker moved in and out of sessions, making interventions that asked pupils to think more deeply about the impact of their decisions and drawing attention to how they might be being manipulated by each expert. Pupils were also sent to the caretaker in the basement to get items to support the sessions, where he offered more provocations, and ‘during the tea break some of them shut themselves away for a conspirational smoke and chat’ (80) (perhaps not something that would happen in theatre education today!). In the final session, all the experts came together and the planner presented a slide show of ‘horrible old back-to-back housing’ which was be knocked down – the pupils recognise the house of the caretaker on the slides.

Gradually, a ‘sub plot’ is revealed whereby it becomes clear that the planner and contractor are conspiring to buy properties – purportedly to be demolished – on the cheap. Privy to the development plans themselves, they know the properties they are buying on the cheap are not going to be demolished (although the caretaker’s house, which he is very proud of, is to go …).

I am intrigued at the way the pupils are explicitly positioned by the work as in need of information and knowledge in the face of, and about, (corrupt) power. Nowadays, what shapes might we imagine a theatre project dealing with social housing with young people taking? Drama workshops to train young people to become good tenants, perhaps? Arts initiatives focused on well-being, neighbourliness, anti-social behaviour? This project was far from this – instead, it was a warning to young people to watch out for powerful agents, out to get them! A reflection of one of the teachers reflects this – when asked to think about the impact of the project on the young people, he said that ‘he felt that a healthy cynicism was the best ammunition they could have to protect them in the future’ (82). The actors themselves worried that the scenario was too pessimistic, and perhaps left pupils feeling disenfranchised. However, they concluded that they wouldn’t want to raise ‘false hopes’ that a corrupt system can be changed, and so ‘it is left to the pupils and their teachers in the school to decide whether this pessimism is justifiable, or whether it is in their power, as the possible Mr Kays [the caretaker] of the future, to get out of the mess which is otherwise their heritage’ (82).

I have written elsewhere on this blog about the trend towards the ‘neoliberalisation’ of arts initiatives, which creates demands on participants of arts projects to work harder to respond creatively to the economic inequalities that define everyday worlds; that is, to respond with evermore athletic reinventions of self in order to adapt to precarious socio-economic contexts. Is the ROSLA project’s location of power outside of the young person here more critical or empowering, in the end, or not? I’m not sure, but perhaps something can be learnt from the juxtaposition of past and present here … in terms of how this theatre continues to serve its town – and acts as one of the caretakers of its future.



Robin Pemberton-Billing (2011) The Octagon Theatre, Bolton: Concept to Reality Leeds: Leeds Graphic Press

Pam Schweitzer (1975) ‘Bolton Octagon and “Holland New Town”’ Theatre Quarterly, March-April, 74-82

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