AFTER 10 years it is time for Mark Babych to bid farewell to The Octagon. He talks to Kat Dibbits about the highs and lows of his time as artistic director.
“Boltonians are very proud of the Octagon,” said Mark Babych, and he is obviously quite proud of it himself.
“It’s a jewel at the heart of the town.”
Mark is currently in rehearsals for The Seafarer, his final production as artistic director at the theatre which, over the past 10 years, he has steered from near ruin to glittering success, although he is keen to point out that the credit doesn’t belong to him alone.
“It was a very unconfident place,” he said of the theatre when he took over in 1999 — at a time when its deficit had reached £500,000.
“It had had the stuffing knocked out of it and it was treading water. You walk into it now and you feel completely different — as a theatre it knows what it’s about now. There’s some brilliant people here that allow the theatre to punch well above its weight.”
Since those gloomy days when a Bolton Evening News campaign and the goodwill of local people were all that stood between the theatre and closure, Mark has succeeded into transforming it into one of the most highly respected regional theatres in the country, despite the fact that the glittering lights of Manchester are just down the road and budgets are far from lavish.
“Back then we could only stage plays that needed four actors or less,” he said. “The thing that I’m most proud of is the way the theatre is now compared with where it was 10 years ago.
“It’s a great achievement, and not one that I have done by myself.”
Not that it has all been plain sailing — Mark admits that at times it was difficult to keep the faith in what they were doing.
“The hardest thing all along was having the courage of your convictions, being brave enough to expand your horizons and try different things,” he said.
Rather than simply thinking about cheap ways to get bums on seats, Mark decided to challenge his audience with works by Arthur Miller, Blake Morrison and Jim Cartwright, along with a family-friendly sprinkling of Dickens and Dahl adaptations, the now-legendary musicals and a dollop of Irish writing, which the director admits is a personal favourite.
“I like its unique sense of place and character. There’s something about the Irish tradition of storytelling that appeals strongly to me and that works very well in a theatre.
“I just connect with it. They’re worlds that I kind of know — I recognise the people that are being talked about.”
Although he claims not to have really thought about it, it does seem apt then that his final production should be Conor McPherson’s darkly funny play The Seafarer, set in a coastal town of North of Dublin.
The story follows Sharky, who is trying to have a Christmas off the booze, but who is thwarted by his drunk, blind brother, two old drinking pals and a mysterious stranger.
“It’s a great play, we’re in the last week of rehearsals and I’m really happy that we’re doing it,” said Mark. “It feels a bit funny, but I haven’t really been thinking about it being the last one.”
He says that the theatre is in good hands under the control of incoming artistic director David Thacker.
“David is a wonderful director and it has been a great handover period,” he said. “It’s enormously flattering to think that you’re not going to be sidelined — he’s very generous about the work that I’ve done.”
He is now set to embark on a mixture of freelance theatre and television work, with a possible film also in the pipeline.
“Obviously this has been so much a part of my life for 10 years that you can’t help but feel a bit emotional about it, but I’m excited about the new challenges,” he said.
“It’s the right thing to do. You can’t act the same part or write the same album for 10 years — it’s time to move on.”
The Seafarer opens next Thursday. Tickets cost £9 to £18.50. For more information visit octagonbolton.co.uk or ring 01204 520661.