TODAY, the Octagon Theatre, celebrates 45 years since it first opened its doors.
It was opened on November 27, 1967, by Princess Margaret — the culmination of the dedication of drama lecturer, Robin Pemberton- Billing, and his students whose dream it was to create a new theatre.
Since then it has helped launch the careers of many household names and served as an inspiration for countless others, including Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle.
Mr Boyle, from Radcliffe, said: “The first time I ever experienced professional theatre was as a teenage usher at the Octagon.
“A production of Spring and Port Wine, where the audience almost encircled the actors.
“I was mesmerised and a lifelong obsession began.
“Thank you Bolton Octagon and a very happy birthday.” Famous faces to appear on stage at the Octagon include Coronation Street and The Royle Family’s Sue Johnston, Shameless and Silk’s Maxine Peake and Gavin and Stacey actress Alison Steadman.
Alison, aged 66, who played Gavin’s mum Pamela in the hit BBC comedy, said: “The Octagon will always be a special place for me.
“I was there in the early ‘70s and it was my second job out of drama school.
“It was an exciting and vibrant place. I was saddened to hear the news of Robin Pemberton- Billing’s death earlier this month. Robin was artistic director when I was there, I will always remember him with great affection.
“Cheers to The Octagon and many happy returns.”
Mr Pemberton-Billing, who died peacefully at home in Bolton on November 18 following a pulmonary problem, founded the theatre with a group of five students he taught at Loughborough Training College.
The father-of-four was artistic director until 1972, and, at the time, he said: “There was a sense of enormous achievement and a feeling that anything was possible, which was typical of the late ‘60s.
“The feeling behind the Octagon was to get everyone interested in the theatre and not just make it a middle-class and middle-aged prerogative.”
Mr Pemberton-Billing was followed by Wilfred Harrison until 1984, then John Adams for three years, Andy Hay from 1987 to 1991, Lawrence Till until 1999, Mark Babych for 10 years and current artistic director David Thacker since 2009.
Olivier Award-winning director Mr Thacker has directed more than 100 theatre productions including plays by William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller and Samuel Beckett, and more than 30 TV productions, including episodes of The Vice, Silent Witness, Foyle’s War and Waking the Dead.
He works alongside 90 full and parttime staff at the theatre, which stages eight shows annually, and is visited by more than 150,000 people every year.
Lisa O’Neill-Rogan, from Farnworth, who now lives in Smithills, was a member of the youth theatre who went on to volunteer and then run the youth theatre.
She is now head of learning and participation — which offers a range of out-of-school drama and theatre activities for young people of all ages and abilities — and has worked at the theatre for four years.
The 40-year-old, who said one of her favourite productions was All My Sons in 2009, describes the Octagon as “a little place full of magic and wonder that belongs to everyone here”.
She said: “I hope the Octagon continues to produce its own work because I think that’s what we do well. I wouldn’t like to see the theatre become a receiving house.
“I hope that it continues to be cherished and loved by its community and that we all look after it in these uncertain times.”
Usher and manager of the Bill Naughton Studio Theatre, Sue Lane, aged 65, who lives in Worsley, has worked at the theatre for 13 years.
She said: “One of the events that stands out for me was a joint production we did of a promenade version of Macbeth which was staged in a disused cotton mill in the centre of Bolton. As I was the house manager on the production I saw every one of the eight performances and loved it every time.”
The first production ever staged there was Annie And Fanny, by Bolton playwright Bill Naughton, and, in 1987, the Octagon building was extended to include a studio theatre — re-named The Bill Naughton Studio Theatre in 1994.