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Mark Babych on... leaving The Octagon

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After 10 years, the current artistic director of the Bolton Octagon Theatre, Mark Babych departs at the end of the month.

During his time he has taken the building from a period of commercial and creative vulnerability to a position as a solvent, thriving and critically-acclaimed theatre with a track record of bold programming choices.Mark was also responsible for the artistic programming of the highly successful Ruby Anniversary season, which drew record-breaking audience figures at the Bolton venue.

Having been nominated for, and won, numerous MEN Theatre Awards, Mark Babych is a celebrated Director, responsible for helming (amongst many others): Blonde Bombshells of 1943, Four Knights In Knaresborough, Anna Karenina, A View From The Bridge, Twelfth Night, Oh! What A Lovely War and Shining City.

His valedictory production of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer is currently running at the Octagon Theatre until Saturday 27th June.

You are leaving this building at the end of the month after a decade long stint.  How are you feeling?
It feels kind of weird. A feeling of, “I can’t believe it’s here now.” After the 40th anniversary season, I wondered, “is it right for me to go?”  I was on holiday, reading Richard Eyre’s book about running the National Theatre (National Service), and I identified with it, because it’s everything that I go through, but on a bigger scale.

Is it a highly pressurised role?
Being an Artistic Director does put a lot of pressure on you because you’re dealing with your own personal expectations, and then the expectations of the audience, and the members of the company and the critics, and the public, and there’s a lot to balance.

So, who do you try and please?
I try and find plays that for one reason or another I connect with, or that have a story which seems important to do.  Obviously, in a theatre of this size you’re balancing the risky with the not so risky, and figuring out where to take the journey next. They’re not plays I do just for me.

 You mentioned risks. Which plays during your time here would you consider to be a risk?
The Venetian Twins was a risk, and maybe a risk too far. Because it didn’t seem to chime with the audience as much as I thought it would.  I love Paul Hunter's style and he was exactly the right person to do it.  It’s not that I thought the production didn’t work, but just when I thought I understood our audience, it teaches you that you don’t know everything.
That show opened right in the middle of our understanding of what the current recession is, so if you didn’t know what it was you might be a bit cautious about taking a risk on it.  

Four Knights In Knaresborough was risky, but a risk worth taking. Hardly anyone came to see it! But everybody loved it. If you’re not putting the organisation at risk financially, in terms of the year, then nothing’s really a risk.

Going back to the beginning, how did you come about working at the Octagon?
I came here as a freelancer to do three shows, when the theatre had gone through its troubled phase. The board were looking for someone to do three shows to kick start the producing. And then, the moment I arrived, the new Executive arrived, people seemed to think I was the AD and I wasn’t! The first show I directed was Perfect Pitch, which was chosen for me. It kind of worked, and I was made Theatre Director, which I did for 12 months. Essentially like being an Associate Director, and I only became Artistic Director when John Blakemore (current Chief Executive) arrived in 2000.  

Over the ten years here, what do you think had been your greatest challenge?
Keeping my courage and learning not to play safe all the time. In the early days we were all so terrified of plunging the theatre back into chaos, so it was trying to work out what your individual identity was going to be, and then when things didn’t go so well, to not panic and revert to your safety zone. That taught me a lot, your policy has to be clear, and you can then revert to that. This is the first time I’ve done this job as Artistic Director, I was 34 when I first came here, and it was a big learning curve. I had a lot of help and a lot of mentoring which was very important.

And what have been your highlights?
I’m probably going to say Blonde Bombshells Of 1943 ‘cos it’s still going on, and I’ve forged a very deep relationship with the author, Alan Plater through that; it cemented my friendship with (Octagon Musical Director) Howard Gray, and it took us to London. Some of the London critics tend to give it a bit of a panning, which tends to miss the point.

It was a step up for us. We’d done Eight Miles High here the year before, which Howard Gray had been in, and it was a step towards what we could do with musicians.

I really loved doing A View From The Bridge, and the combination of the community chorus with the actors. I thought that was a genuinely good production because we had to think how we were going to do it, when we didn’t have all the resources.  

All of these plays get directed in three weeks, and what’s hard about working here is when you’ve raised your standards a lot, and the play needs more time, you just can’t have any more. Obviously, the public don’t care about the rehearsal time, they care about what you show them, which is entirely right.

In 2007, when one of the acting company of your production of Oh! What A Lovely War was absent, you stepped in to perform.  How was your experience of treading the boards?
I did enjoy it a lot, secretly!  Years ago I did a bit of acting, but I wouldn’t have said I was ever an actor; I wasn’t that good at it really. Certainly never good enough. Doing that play reminded me how I felt about doing that sort of stuff years ago, but it really reminded me of how bloody difficult it is. I did five performances with the script in my hand and dressed as a clown!

Have there been any low points over the past decade?
There’s never been a real low point, but productions where I thought I’ve just missed it. Maybe Twelfth Night, I think I overwhelmed with too much melancholy.  If I did it again, I’d be very conscious of the robustness of the comedy.  Frankie And Johnny In The Clair De Lune, I look back on and don’t know why I did that other than that it was a two hander and it paid for Twelfth Night. Which maybe wasn’t the right reason for doing it.  It didn’t fit into where my thinking was. I think people did enjoy it, but it wasn’t a true expression of where we were going.  

Do you read the reviews?  How important are they to you?
I do read the reviews, and by and large I tend to agree with them. Where it’s difficult is where I know we’ve done it in three weeks.

Are there any other plays you’d like to have a go at?
I’d continue along the Shakespeare line. I had a plan to do some Brecht, and try Threepenny Opera, with actor musicians and there was a three year plan to do the ‘major’ Brecht plays also.  

Finally, what’s next for you?
I don’t know!  I’ve got a lot of meetings coming up, and it’s very nice that David Thacker (incoming Artistic Director) has asked me back to direct And Did Those Feet. The major reason for going was to recharge my batteries and refresh myself.  I’ve learned a lot, but you can get a little bit myopic, a  little tunnel- visioned, and I wanted to get out there again, and remind myself what it’s about.

- Matthew Nichols



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