We are thrilled to present our proposal for developing The Octagon Theatre into a flagship venue for the Arts and Entertainment in South Somerset.
"The team at the Octagon have been working behind the scene on these exciting proposals for some time and we are delighted to share with you a glimpse of our hopes and aspirations of how we might develop the theatre so that it continues to be a source of joy, inspiration and entertainment for generations to come. In what has been a pretty dreadful year for everyone these proposals promise an exciting future for theatre and creativity that would provide a huge boost for our local economy, support the health and well-being of our residents, celebrate and nurture local talent and bring people together to enjoy live entertainment." - Arts and Entertainment Venues Manager, Adam Burgan
Read all about the basis of the proposal and the provisional plans below, if you would like to skip to a specific section, please click on the given section title below:
In 1974 The Octagon Theatre (then known as The Johnson Hall) opened its doors and has been entertaining audiences from South Somerset and beyond ever since. Millions of people have been entertained in our theatre and each year we present a diverse range of artists and events, from big name comedians, classical music and opera to rock and folk music, the very best in variety as well as superb plays and ballets, and not forgetting our yearly blockbuster pantomime. In the last financial year (2019/20), 125,331 people purchased a ticket for an event at The Octagon Theatre whilst thousands more took part in one of our weekly classes as part of our Octagon Academy participatory programme. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the theatre in 2024, it is time to build on our success and plan for how the theatre can serve our future audiences and continue attracting the very best in performing arts and entertainment to South Somerset.
Image Above: Each dot represents a customer who made a booking for an event at The Octagon Theatre or Westlands Entertainment Venue that took place from 1st April 2019 - 15th March 2020.
The Octagon Theatre currently achieves an average of 83% capacity throughout the year with upwards of 250 performances staged annually. The theatre is popular with artists and producers, who appreciate the friendly welcome from our technicians along with our warm and responsive audiences. Over the last ten years, our audience numbers have increased dramatically (from 78,546 in 2009/10 to 125,331 in 2019/20) and, put simply, we have outgrown our current facilities and the record usage is taking its toll on the 50-year-old building.
Whilst the front of house areas were extended and seating refurbished in 2003, there is no disabled access backstage for visitors, staff, artists or those with mobility needs and we currently only have one accessible toilet situated front of house. The front of house areas have begun to look tired, dated and often feel cramped. The popular and profitable café bar is hampered by being wrapped around the auditorium with diners’ meals interrupted by the arrival of audience members. The kitchen is small and inadequate for the size of the restaurant and the front of house areas lack air conditioning. The popular Octagon Academy classes take place in a small studio obstructed by a supporting pillar in the middle of the room, with no windows or air cooling and a lack of ceiling height for dance classes. The Octagon Theatre remains one of the most popular theatres in the South West with a loyal and enthusiastic audience, a passionate volunteer base in The Foyer Club and talented team who are devoted to the venue. Somerset deserves a better venue and The Octagon Theatre is well placed geographically to serve the South West with the organisation, under the management and support of South Somerset District Council, having the financial track record and robust plan to develop the theatre for the next 50 years and beyond.
The stage is set for the next chapter in the history of The Octagon Theatre; as we move forward to raise aspirations, provide residents with a flagship venue that will be the catalyst for a significant renaissance of the district, bring new artists and companies to Somerset and provide exciting new opportunities for residents to engage. In recent years the UK has seen an increase in the use of cultural initiatives to address socioeconomic problems, ranging from major capital projects to local participatory initiatives. The use of culture to refresh neighbourhoods, improve the physical environment, offering places to go and things to do, increasing local pride, and building stronger communities has been taking place for many years. Capital projects have shown that cultural buildings and facilities can contribute to the economic as well as the physical, social and cultural regeneration of an area, which in time will attract new and increased investment, creating jobs and opportunities for local people. Live performance has proven to be an incredibly effective way of educating, inspiring and encouraging people of all ages to aspire for a better tomorrow and the development of The Octagon Theatre demonstrates a firm commitment to this belief.
"The Octagon Theatre has been bringing joy and entertainment to South Somerset since 1974 and is one of our most celebrated and loved assets. I have enjoyed seeing the theatre prosper and seeing local talent having a stage to shine. This investment in The Octagon Theatre will ensure it will be enjoyed for future generations to come. " - Cllr, Mike Best, Portfolio Holder Health and Well-Being
Images Above: Artist’s impressions of the re-imagined auditorium layout.
The Octagon Theatre’s auditorium currently has a capacity of 622 seats. At many times throughout the year we are sold-out and having to turn customers away, with over 100 shows having reached 90% or higher capacity in the last financial year. All dressing rooms are located underneath the stage with no level access to the stage, making it very difficult (if not impossible) to accommodate performers and crew with disabilities and mobility problems. The stage is currently lacking a fly tower (used for flying scenery and a requirement for most touring musicals, plays and pantomimes). The auditorium and stage has a metal roof and drainpipes in the walls which means that when experiencing heavy rain or hail it can be heard during a performance. There are no sound lobbies or sound proofing around the auditorium which means that during quiet shows and classical music concerts, audiences can hear doors closing or staff preparing for the interval. The sight lines are generally very good, with good leg room. Artists like the intimacy of the space but the current auditorium looks very tired and dated and the seats are in need of replacement.
The enhanced auditorium will retain the Octagon’s best features, whilst the addition of a circle will increase the capacity to 900 seats whilst retaining excellent sight lines and similar leg room. A well-equipped stage, with a flexible Orchestra Pit and full flying facilities will be suitable for a wide range of arts and entertainment events. The additional capacity and facilities will open up a new range of companies and events to our programme, from larger orchestras, leading theatre companies and touring musicals to offering a much improved experience for existing popular shows and our thriving amateur and community companies. Improved acoustics and sound lobbies will give audiences, performers and stage crew a superb experience that is accessible both front of house and backstage to welcome everyone.
"I have worked at The Octagon since 1987 so it really is my second home. I have so many fantastic
memories of the shows we have presented here over the years and I am very excited to be part of the next chapter for the theatre. The plans for the theatre are amazing and would open up so many possibilities for what we can do." - Danny Norris, Technical Manager
Images Above: Artist’s impressions of the proposed cinema spaces.
The extension to the front of the building will see two additional theatres seating capacities of 124 and 64. These spaces are designed to offer a new experience in Somerset that will predominantly screen films showcasing Live Events (National Theatre Live, Royal Opera House Live etc.) and the best of mainstream films alongside British, independent and foreign language films. While film festivals and special screenings will bring our communities together in new ways. The auditoriums will house luxury seating, superb sound systems and purpose built facilities that are fully accessible and offer an enhanced film experience. The larger space will also be suitable for comedy events and acoustic live music, with both spaces designed for lectures, conferences and spoken word events that will be perfect for Yeovil Literary Festival events. The smaller Film Theatre will be a luxury boutique cinema that is a ‘destination cinema’ with sofa seats offering an exceptional experience.
"Opening up The Octagon so that it is more welcoming and accessible to everyone is really important and will make a huge difference to our customers. We always want to offer the best service and experience possible and these new facilities really will help us in our efforts to be one of the leading theatres for the South West." - Charlotte Wood, Box Office Supervisor
Our popular participatory programme ‘The Octagon Academy’ will have a new home with our two community studios. The Dance Studio is a large fully equipped dance studio with a sprung dance floor, mirrors, sound equipment and full ceiling height that will become a creative hub for dance in the region. Perfect for all dance classes and as a rehearsal space, our Dance Studio will be the place where local dancers of all ages learn new skills, develop their talents and prepare for performances on stage.
Studio 2 offers an alternative space for additional classes and rehearsals including our popular choir, theatre groups, writer’s group and arts and craft workshops. Our participatory programme brings communities together in forging new friendships and improving the health and well-being of local residents. They are also key to our engagement programme where workshops can be delivered by the companies performing in the main auditorium.
Images Above: Artist’s impression of the developed Octagon Theatre
Front of house will offer attractive foyers for use throughout the day with excellent supporting bars and eating opportunities. Customers will enter on the first floor, level with Petters Way Car Park, with no need to use the sloped path or steps. An enhanced route to the Country Park will help guide visitors to Ninesprings, one of Yeovil’s best loved areas and audiences on the night will have a well-lit route to Goldenstones car park as an alternative to Petters Way Car Park. The Front of House areas will have accessible toilets on every level and an adult changing facility (the first one in Yeovil Town Centre).
The venue will offer fabulous views of the town along with the country park and house two complimenting food areas. On the first floor, directly in front of the main entrance and at the ‘heart’ of the new venue will be our relaxed and cosy café bar. Open throughout the day for hot and cold food options, great coffee, and tempting cakes, this will be the perfect place to meet friends and family whether you are attending a performance, film screening, a class, making the most of the free Wi-Fi for a meeting or just finding a quiet corner to read your book. This hub will be a valuable income source for the venue and a destination in its own right. On the second floor you will find more formal dining, away from the bustle of the audience, in our restaurant. Treat yourself to a delicious meal before the show and return to your reserved table in the interval for dessert.
When developing our new venue at the forefront of our work will be a venue that is greener and more sustainable. At the heart of all our operations we will strive to be carbon neutral, utilising modern building approaches through the construction phase, and improving our day-to-day operations. Our new venue will be accessible to everyone, addressing and resolving the current access inadequacies and transforming the venue to offer a warm welcome to everyone with improved facilities for those with physical disabilities including visual and audio impairments. The venue will be a flagship arts venue for the south west where inspiration and creativity can be found every day. It will create a ‘cultural quarter’ for Yeovil with new opportunities for residents that will help raise aspirations, attract new businesses and investment to the area, drive new job creation and re-build the local economy following the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The development will give the opportunity to architecturally mark the gateway to Yeovil Country Park and create a more attractive building that is sympathetic to the surrounding area.
"Creating a ‘greener’ theatre for the future will ensure we are ready for the next 50 years of entertaining Yeovil and the surrounding areas. Through the pandemic our team of staff and volunteers have pulled together to try and be there for our audiences. Securing the future for The Octagon Theatre will make sure we can be here for years to come." - Joel Capes, Marketing Officer
Our aim with the programme in our auditorium is to offer ‘something for everyone’ with an exciting and diverse programme of cutting edge and leading arts companies, the very best entertainment and a celebration of local talent. The developed auditorium will allow us to ‘step up’ our programming and enhance popular favourites.
Images Above (left to right): Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs,
Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story & Craig Revel Horwood
We will continue our popular programme of live music and the larger capacity will allow us to attract some bigger names on the touring circuit and establish Yeovil as a ‘destination venue’. Tribute and musical shows will continue to be a popular part of our programme and we will offer the very best.
CLASSICAL MUSIC & OPERA
Our Classical Concert Series will benefit from attracting larger ensembles and headline artists. Prestigious orchestras will perform regularly with education and community work building new audiences and in particular introducing children and young people to experience a leading orchestra live. A vibrant classical programme including choral work will delight audiences.
We will continue to attract the biggest names in comedy while our larger capacity will see us move to the ‘main tour’ in some cases and will allow us to sell more tickets for these hugely popular events.
We will attract some of the UK’s leading theatre companies including top quality touring plays. Our fly tower and increased capacity will attract touring musicals that will draw audiences from across the South West and bring the ‘West End’ to Somerset.
We will stage superb ballet and continue our relationship and commitment to contemporary companies with an exciting education and community programme to support the performance and offer exceptional opportunities throughout the region.
FAMILY SHOWS AND PANTOMIME
Our stage will continue to bring children’s favourite characters to life and our pantomime will soar to new heights as the increased capacity and improved flying facilities will enhance our record-breaking pantomime even further.
COMMUNITY AND AMATEUR SHOWS
Our theatre will continue to be a home for our thriving amateur societies. The improved facilities will support their productions and ambitions while remaining an affordable space. The venue will celebrate and nurture local talent proving to be a spring board for gifted and talented performers and a place where anyone can learn new skills, gain confidence through performance and make new friends.
SPOKEN WORD AND YEOVIL LITERARY FESTIVAL
Our larger auditorium and two spaces will create a premier venue for our thriving Literary Festival to grow and establish itself as one of the best in the country.
"There is nothing we love better than experiencing the excitement, applause and happiness that live theatre and entertainment can bring. This new development will bring many exciting new shows and artists to Somerset and ensure that our local audiences will not have to travel far to enjoy them."
Adam Burgan, Arts & Entertainment Venues Manager
South Somerset District Council (SSDC) has been a committed champion and supporter of the arts. SSDC recognises the ability of the arts to transform lives, raise aspirations, improve education and help lift people out of poverty. When it comes to making South Somerset a better place to live, work and visit we recognise the arts have a vital role to play in achieving an improved standard of well-being. We are passionate about working with and for our community and are committed to finding innovative ways to encourage participation in the arts.
The development of The Octagon Theatre will transform our existing Arts Development Department with a new vision and investment that in hand with our new venue will unleash creativity in South Somerset. Our new Engagement and Outreach programme will run across the whole of the South Somerset, we will continue our work to build and develop a diverse and extensive range of projects, activities and events designed to broaden the experience and enjoyment of the creative arts.
The Octagon Theatre will become a creative hub and a living resource for the region, contributing to, and enriching the lives of everyone in South Somerset while delivering new and exciting opportunities. In addition to opportunities to engage audiences at The Octagon Theatre, our Engagement & Outreach Service will deliver activities and support throughout our district. We currently provide core funding to four arts organisations who work across the theatre – Take Art, Somerset Art Works, Actiontrack and Somerset Film. We also support local arts organisations, art projects, festivals and artists in South Somerset. The income generated by the redeveloped Octagon Theatre will be invested back into our communities across South Somerset, taking an innovative approach to tackling the issues facing our communities. These initiatives will be tailored to the local area and will be developed with our residents in mind.
Initial projects being developed are:
• Arts On Prescription – We know that before the pandemic the NHS has been struggling with an increase in mental health issues and while conventional medicine and treatment is vitally important the arts have a significant impact on people leading happy and healthy lives. We will work with NHS trusts to offer patients access to performances and regular activity that will support their treatment, recovery and long-term well-being.
• Active Communities – Our Octagon Academy classes are hugely popular and we want to share access to them across our rural district. Through the development of our engagement and outreach programme we will aim to support the work of pre-existing choirs, dance and theatre groups operating throughout South Somerset, while providing opportunities in the community by pioneering activity in areas lacking classes or local engagement.
• Children & Young People’s Programme – Urban arts, streetdance, music creation and DJ skill development. We will provide a programme that develops skills, improves confidence and inspires achievement.
• Arts and Dementia – For older residents there are huge benefits in improving physical mobility through dance and cognitive ability through dance and music. Music can transport people through memory association and lift moods. Whilst participants would benefit from our activities they could also provide vital respite for principal carers.
Our Engagement and Outreach programme will be funded by The Octagon Theatre and will attract national funding. It will deliver an exciting range of projects that will build stronger, healthier and happier communities.
"Our programme of activity will transform peoples lives, bringing people together and positively benefiting our community. We will continue our work to provide equality of access and present a diverse programme that unlocks creativity in all of us." - Katherine Hoskins, Arts Engagement Assistant
A large capital development like this is a monumental undertaking and there are of course risks involved that will be carefully managed. As part of South Somerset District Council there are robust business and development plans in place. The council has an excellent track-record of delivering large scale building projects for the community. The total cost, including architects, consultants’ fees and a contingency is £23million (excluding VAT). This would mark a major investment for the area.
• We would look to attract around £5million from national funding bodies such as Arts Council England. It would be great to see national funding coming into our district and our commitment to the project will attract this funding to support our bid.
• Through local funding we are aiming to raise £250,000 and we have already begun with our ‘Name A Seat’ campaign and collections led by The Foyer Club Charity who have been fundraising to support the ongoing development of the theatre.
• We will secure funding from other grant making bodies, including recovery grants, Section 106, Community Investment Levy and other sources.
• SSDC could loan itself a significant portion or all of the funds that would be repaid (plus interest). Payments from the ticket levy (paid by users of the theatre) would mean that over time the theatre will pay for the development costs itself and the project will not have cost the tax payer anything.
• SSDC does have a capital grants scheme - a portion could be made available as a capital grant that would not be repayable.
What is the return on Investment?
A capital investment project such as our proposal for the Octagon Theatre would see a substantial investment into the local area, benefiting communities and businesses alike. Capital Projects are one of the most significant investments an organisation can make, and as with any major investment the potential financial return should be scrutinised to ensure expectations and aspirations are attainable. The proposed development for The Octagon Theatre would not only support the local economy, it would deliver a greater opportunity for cultural enrichment and an improvement in mental wellbeing for those living within South Somerset and neighbouring areas. Culture is a major driving force for regeneration, making towns and cities more attractive places to live. The proposed development and larger operation will help to create new jobs and sustain those within the local area. It is estimated that the proposed plans for The Octagon Theatre could create an additional £9.2million for the local economy on a yearly basis. Visitors to The Octagon Theatre will support our ‘night-time economy’, boosting income for businesses such as hotels, restaurants, car parks and shops in the area whilst also encouraging the exploration of everything South Somerset has to offer. Improving the cultural offering and therefore increasing footfall within the area will help to attract businesses to establish and develop further.
"The economic impact of this development would be felt right across our district, supporting and attracting business. This investment in our local economy can be delivered at little or no cost to the taxpayer while delivering a multitude of health and well being benefits."
Clare Pestell, Commercial Services and Income Generation Director
Whilst the economic basis for development is compelling, this project is not just about money, it is about improving the health and well-being of everyone living within our district and beyond. Attending concerts and performances along with taking part in classes and workshops brings joy, whilst additionally offering the opportunity for expression of feelings and an improvement in confidence and self-esteem. Try to imagine a world without music, dance, theatre, art and film - it would be a pretty bleak place! We passionately believe that everyone should have access to the arts and that they have the ability to transform people’s lives. The Octagon Theatre and it’s team have always been focussed on spreading joy and happiness; a larger operation will equip us to be able to do more and reach more people within the community. This would be an investment in everyone’s health and well-being and is therefore one of the most vital investments we can make.
This is a question asked a lot when a large public sector project is put forward. We are all passionate about the NHS, schools, adult social care and other public services, who all do so much and would benefit from additional funding. This project is being developed by South Somerset District Council. The NHS is funded directly from government whilst the responsibility for schools, young people’s services and adult social care in Somerset lies with Somerset County Council at present, who fund these services from the grants they are given by the government.
The proposed evolution of The Octagon Theatre will be directly beneficial to the running of each of the given organisations. Outreach and engagement within our community will be at the core of our operation; supporting many of the most vulnerable within our district. Through supporting those facing mental health issues with an arts focussed engagement programme we can reduce the number of people needing to access mental health support via the NHS.
Working to build confidence in young people that have, or are facing adversity by facilitating the expression of feelings and development of positive skills through music, theatre and dance, we will be directly supporting the Young People’s Service. Our programme with schools will aim to bring education to life across the curriculum, with content and classes designed to engage and inspire students through the arts, as well as promoting the health and wellbeing benefits of being active. Our local gifted and talented students will be given the chance to shine through additional development opportunities. Engagement with the arts as a positive outlet for expression will be encouraged throughout South Somerset.
Older residents will be given the opportunity to thrive through community activities that promote psychical and mental fitness, while providing an outlet for building new friendships and support networks that will help to tackle the risk of isolation. Programmes aimed at supporting those with dementia will support adult social care providers in the area.
The arts have proved time and time again to be an innovative and highly successful means for addressing many of the issues we face in our society and this development presents us with the opportunity to make a real difference that will benefit generations to come.
Well, if not now, when? This project was conceived and work began prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected everyone. One of the most impacted industries has been theatres, cinemas and venues that bring people together. We also know there will be economic consequences and the effects of the pandemic will be felt for many years to come. Whilst it is important to be prudent it is also important to have hope and optimism for the future. Storytelling is an essential part of being human, we have been doing it since the time of cavemen, when they would gather around the fire to tell stories, sing songs and dance to celebrate. If we think back to our favourite performances, films we have shared, and the experience of live music at a concert, it is clear that live entertainment has always played an integral role in shaping who we are.
We know our audiences are keen to return when it is safe to do so and the uncertainty we currently all face is temporary. When it is over we will need music, theatre and arts to bring us all back together. Those places that bring friends and families together to feel joy will be more important than ever and we will appreciate them even more. During times of economic downturn and instability, theatre, arts and cinema tend to perform very well and often show an increase in attendance. This was the case in the financial crisis when our audience continued to grow. It is understood that this is because people will spend their money on things that ‘cheer them up’ and experiences that families and friends can do together, a trip to the pantomime for Christmas, or a concert to escape becomes an affordable treat. The existing Octagon Theatre will still need refurbishment if this project is not taken forward, but these plans offer so much more and promise of a brighter and more exciting tomorrow.
We are very fortunate in Yeovil to have two great entertainment venues. The team who manage The Octagon Theatre took on the management of Westlands Entertainment Venue following its refurbishment in 2016. Westlands is home to a beautiful ballroom which is a flexible space that can be used for banqueting, parties, conferencing, trade fairs, standing gigs and live performances (seating 870). The venue has meeting and function rooms which are used for both smaller regular events and larger scale events, like Yeovil Beer Festival. Having a joint management team means that the programme and activities complement each other.
During the construction phase that would close The Octagon Theatre we are lucky that we will be able to move many shows and activities to Westlands Entertainment Venue, allowing us to retain our audiences and continue providing excellent entertainment in South Somerset. Westlands is a superb multi-purpose venue but it will never be a theatre, as the venue lacks the stage size and backstage facilities to present large, technically challenging shows. The redevelopment will see both venues play to their strengths and the film programme at Westlands relocated to purpose built, comfortable and luxurious cinemas at The Octagon Theatre. We believe with both venues we can diversify our programme and offer an exceptional programme of performances, events and activities that will make Yeovil the destination for culture and entertainment.
On Thursday 7th of January, members of South Somerset’s District Executive committee voted unanimously in favour of an agreement in principle to proceed with this project. The Executive Committee’s agreement in principle is an important step and major milestone in the development and improvement of The Octagon Theatre. It will allow the project to move forward into the next stages of planning, with work beginning to advance the project further with partners and potential funders.
Although an initial agreement in principle is in place, this is a long-term project that requires sign-off from councillors at further stages of the process, with the business plan, finance plans and planning permission needing to be approved before building work can commence. Planning and construction is currently forecasted to take approximately three years.
With the project approval in principle we will begin the process of applying to potential funding bodies, which would reduce the amount of initial capital required from the council and the amount loaned for the project that would be repaid by the theatre.
A final financial case is currently being developed to include VAT implications, once this has been finalised the financial plan will be presented once again to the District Executive Committee. If the case is approved, we will then consult with our audience, artists, local community, business groups and national bodies to get their input, advice and thoughts on our proposals.
Thank you! We are delighted that you would like to support this project and make the development of The Octagon Theatre a reality. You can voice your support for the project by recording a short video that we will share on our website. We want you tell us what The Octagon Theatre and the arts have meant to you and why you are excited about this development. Another way you can support us is by contacting your local SSDC Councillor and letting them know you support this project. You can find out who your local councillor is and their email address on the SSDC website southsomerset.gov.uk.
If you are able to, you can also donate to our ‘Name A Seat’ fundraising campaign that will support this development or undertake other fundraising activity that will make this exciting vision become a reality.
We invite you to be part of the conversation and thank you for taking the time to read this information. We hope you found it interesting, exciting and helpful. You can contact us in the following ways: