Despite funding hurdles, emotional backing grows for Octagon Theatre expansion

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Hundreds of people from Yeovil and the surrounding area showed their backing for the Octagon Theatre at a meeting at Westlands entertainment centre on 10th October. The Yeovil Town Council was called to discuss a possible partnership with Somerset Council to ensure the future of the project to refurbish the Octagon Theatre and enable it to host bigger touring shows, bigger audiences and to support more small scale local productions and companies.
The Arts Council has promised £10 million towards the ‘cultural hub’ scheme but Somerset Council has put the £30 million project on hold because of the impact of rising interest rates.
After strong statements from council leader Graham Oakes and the majority of councillors, with a small minority calling for the theatre to ‘just reopen’, the town council voted by 12 to two in support of Cllr Oakes’ motion to work with Somerset Council to get the project back on track.
There were emotional speeches from the floor. Yeovil-born Liz Pike is one of the founders of the successful Yeovil Literary Festival. She recalled that the original Johnson Hall had been opened in 1974 – when inflation was running at 23 per cent and mortgage interest was 14 per cent. The hall was expanded into the Octagon and has been even more important since the closure of the arts centre in 2002.

Time to be ambitious
Founder and artistic director of Project Dance, 19-year old professional dancer James Bamford said the plans were necessary to attract bigger companies and productions, and the project would be ‘an investment in education, culture and the local economy. It is time to be more ambitious,’ he said, to great applause.
The planned work includes expanding the main auditorium from 622 to 900 seats, back-stage improvements and the construction of a fly tower for bigger sets.
The aim is to transform the Octagon into a flagship cultural hub – Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra has already announced its plans to make the reopened theatre its home in Somerset.
Somerset councillors have asked for alternative, affordable, plans to be drawn up – even if construction costs stayed the same, the rise in interest rates would increase the costs. It was anticipated that the council would borrow £16.3m at 1.5 per cent; the rise in interest means costs grow from £245,000 to more than £1m a year.
Graham Oakes proposed: ‘This council seeks the opportunity to work in partnership with Somerset Council to ensure the future of the Octagon Theatre project. The council wishes to financially support the plans and ensure that it progresses in accordance with the support of the people of Somerset.’

A flagship venue
Bill Revans, leader of Somerset Council, told the estimated 400 people present that the unitary authority wishes to work in partnership with Yeovil council and other bodies to keep the project alive as a ‘flagship venue for Yeovil and Somerset.’
Independent town councillor Tareth Casey, who is opposed to the Yeovil Refresh town centre regeneration scheme and the Octagon refurbishment, claimed the budget was under-estimated. But he raised an important question about why two of the three original prospective developers had withdrawn from the tendering process.
Adam Burgan, Somerset’s entertainment manager who has been at the Octagon for 15 years, explained the particular need for improved facilities. Somerset Council wanted to explore the opportunities, he said. ‘Please have a bit of patience.’
Graham Oakes said the Octagon had become regionally important, thanks to Adam Burgan’s leadership. Many audience members ‘came over the border from Dorset – perhaps Dorset Council should be asked to contribute,’ he suggested. A refurbished and enlarged theatre would attract a wider range of acts and companies, putting on shows which currently require a trip to Bristol or Southampton.
‘If you can put on the big shows, you can afford to put on the local shows – you need one to keep the other going.’

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