Four decades of change in theatre
OCTAGON Theatre executive director John Blackmore celebrates 40 years in theatre at the same time as the Octagon marks a similar anniversary.. .
IT is a happy coincidence that John Blackmore walked into his first job in professional theatre as the Octagon was opening its doors.
Four decades ago both had similar aspirations - to produce great theatre and to make it accessible.
The journey for both has been full of adventure and success, with a few twists and turns along the way.
Last night, at the opening of the latest Octagon production of Oh What A Lovely War, a celebration was held to mark his 40 years in theatre.
John started his theatrical life as an "actor, assistant director, dogsbody etc" at the Library Theatre, where he eventually became joint director after the death of the previous director.
It was a baptism of fire, but, while admitting to making some "horrendous mistakes" along the way, John survived and moved on to undertake a successful career, including running a young people's theatre in Birmingham and stints at the Dukes Playhouse in Lancaster, the Warwick Arts Centre and the University Theatre in Newcastle - where he directed more than 100 productions with the likes of Kevin Whateley, Tim Healy, David Jason and Sylvester McCoy - before joining the English Shakespeare Company, which toured the world as well as opened a new Globe Theatre in Tokyo.
Among other projects, before he joined the Octagon in 2001, John helped re-invigorate theatre in Liverpool. With the famous Everyman virtually bankrupt and the Playhouse closed, he produced a budget and won funding. "Theatre is now thriving in the city and I feel very pleased to have played a part in that."
However, he draws a discreet veil over his time with Bill Kenwright, during which he was the producer of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Jessica Lange and Peter Hall.
Then John got the call asking him to help out at The Octagon - but there were problems.
The executive director had walked out, the chair of the finance committee had resigned, the staff were unhappy and they had not submitted any plans for further funding from The Theatre Review (which was about to distribute £25m of new money).
"When I arrived, I found a note on the back of an envelope from the departed executive director with five bullet points," he said.
Among other things, those told him that the café was virtually bankrupt, the money raised by now principal patron Sue Hodgkiss to maintain the Octagon's ability to produce plays was running out; the activ8 money from the lottery was almost gone and the new lottery funded heating and ventilation system did not work. On the positive side it added: "Good luck."
A plan was drawn up, money was won and the theatre has gone from strength to strength. "Things have just got better and better and now we are celebrating our 40th season.
"Things have changed a lot in theatre. When I first started, you would set up a show on a Sunday, light it and tech it on a Monday, open on a Tuesday and start rehearsing for the next show on a Wednesday morning," John said.
One of the highlights of John's career was beating Andrew Lloyd Webber to staging a musical version of The Phantom of the Opera while working in Lancaster.
"We found this tiny little theatre at the end of the pier in Morecambe and thought let's do a popular musical.' "We did Phantom of the Opera and that was the first time a musical version had ever been staged."
Eventually, a production in Stratford East was seen by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, who decided he would do a similar thing - the rest is history. Lloyd-Webber may have made the money, but John knows he was there first.
Another highlight was performing Shakespeare's history plays in two nights.
"Every weekend we would do all eight plays on the Saturday and Sunday and after we had finished the Sunday night was absolute mayhem."
John says theatre is much more business-like today, with television having an effect, but is pleased that the Octagon is a community theatre, which connects with the town as a whole and provides jobs in many different areas.
He says a defining moment of his career was a trip to Romania after the revolution which saw the end of Nicolae Ceausescu's reign. A leading director explained to him the importance of theatre: "You have to understand that for 40 years the only place where the truth was told in Romania was the pulpit and the theatre."
It was something of an epiphany for John, who adds: "I have always believed in the fundamental place of the theatre and arts to make a difference to people's lives and to reflect what is important. That's what theatre is about."
John believes the work at the Octagon both entertains, educates and reflects real life.
"With the production of And Did Those Feet, it's just after the Russian Revolution, the First World War and the industrial revolution. The depression is on the way and all of this is put into a context that means something.
"I'm not going to change now and I've seen most sorts of theatre, so I think I'm qualified to talk about it. I've just been out to South Africa to work with kids and they're writing stories that reflect their lives. That's what theatre is about."