HE has worked with the finest actors in the land and achieved great success during his time as artistic director at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre. Now, David Thacker, or Professor David Thacker to give him his correct title, is making a life-changing impact on young people in an academic role with the University of Bolton.
This summer, the first cohort of students graduated from the BA (Hons) Theatre degree course, which Prof Thacker leads at a small ‘satellite’ campus based in Farnworth, four miles from the main university in the centre of Bolton.
He says he could not be prouder of the young people he has taught over the past three years. “What we have achieved is very special,” says Prof Thacker, sitting in his office at the Queens Campus in Queen Street, the former site of Bolton Sixth Form College. “We hope in the three years you will get more passionate about theatre and we hope you may find you have got particular skills and also know where there could be a pathway to employment using those skills.”
The course is unique in that it has a special relationship with the renowned Octagon Theatre in Bolton. Students work closely with current artistic director Elizabeth Newman, who leaves in a few weeks to take over at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre in Scotland. She took over in 2015 when Prof Thacker stepped down as artistic director at the Octagon after seven years at the helm.
Despite, leaving the role, he still directs two plays a year at the Octagon as associate director, part of an arrangement which helps to maintain the links with the theatre and enables students to be part of the entire professional production process. He says: “The crucial thing is that those two plays I direct are the catalyst for a lot of the learning. A lot of our modules are centred around the plays that we do. Last year, for example, it was The Threepenny Opera and Hamlet. They enabled students to be involved in so many things – the directing module, or working on scripts, or design, or stage management modules.”
Prof Thacker is passionate about encouraging students to reach their full potential in a supportive environment. He talks about helping them to achieve their own “Personal Best”, or “PB”. “I have a clearly defined educational philosophy, which is the same as my life philosophy and my philosophy when I’m directing,” he says.
“A lot of it has been influenced by my son Edward. When he was a teenager he was a very good middle-distance runner and I used to take him once a week to training. He knew he was never going to be an Olympic athlete and this is when I first got into the idea of the PB, the Personal Best. Eddy knew he wasn’t going to be Mo Farah. But he didn’t mind. He just wanted to beat his PB. That was a big influence on me. I have encouraged the same philosophy with the students I teach. I feel I have two responsibilities. One is for them to achieve their PB in whatever it is. I always ask ‘have you done that as well as you can do it?’ Not as well as someone else can do it – as well as you can do it. That is the key thing for me. I think that if you start from that perspective, the students enjoy it and they get good marks.”
Prof Thacker says he is “incredibly happy” with the results achieved by his first cohort. Of the eight in the group there are three Firsts, two 2:1s, two 2:2s and two others who he says “have to do some re-sitting but I am sure they will get a degree”.
“I think that is amazing – and one of them has already got two jobs,” he says. He is referring to student Cara Novotny, who has been offered work as assistant director for the British Youth Opera. Cara, aged 22, is delighted and says she loved the course.
“It was fantastic to work with David and Elizabeth and see how they approach directing in a professional setting,” she says. “I want to study a masters in directing and will be spending the next year or so saving up and gaining experience to prepare me for this. I feel so lucky to have such a great home for theatre and art on my doorstep.”
Prof Thacker has also offered Cara a paid job as assistant director on a forthcoming play at the Octagon, And Did Those Feet. “She has got a very good start already. The rest is up to her,” he says.
Last month, the theatre degree students presented a showcase of their work at the Lowry, Salford. Professional actors, including former Coronation Street star Vicky Binns, performed pieces of students’ writing or were directed by them. Prof Thacker says the experience was invaluable. “The professional actors treated the students as equals and respected them and their work just as much as they would if they were working in a professional environment. They give complete commitment. It is a tremendous experience for the students,” he says.
Prof Thacker speaks passionately as he describes how important it is to support the students. He says: “It takes me a long time to get the students to not be frightened of being judged, or saying something stupid, or pretending to know something that they don’t know. I encourage them as much as possible, like I do in the rehearsal room. In that environment, nearly always the actors say to me that they would like it to be a ‘safe’ space. What they mean by that is that they don’t want to be humiliated. They want to be inspired but to be able to make mistakes. It is so obvious, but how many school pupils can say they feel in a safe space in school or feel they are not going to be humiliated or bullied either by students or teachers?”
He recalls: “I said that I would like to do workshops or give a lecture – whatever they wanted me to do. That was the beginning of my relationship with the university. When I came to Bolton, this degree obviously didn’t exist, but I immediately started working with the university to enable students to come to observe rehearsals. When Roddy (Gauld, the current Octagon chief executive) joined we thought we should explore the possibility of a degree. I was thinking in terms of the great possibilities of the synergy between the two organisations – the Octagon and the University of Bolton. We created the degree together over about six months and that was a fantastic time.”
Prof Thacker adds: “From the Octagon’s point of view, Roddy, Elizabeth and I were the drivers and from the university’s point of view Sam Johnson (the university’s head of the arts school) and other staff basically created the degree. There were two crucial principles from the outset. Number one, although there are training elements it is not a training degree. Our priority is not to train people. Principle number two was that the content of the degree would be like a mirror to what happens in a professional theatre. You have a very detailed interrogation of scripts, you get the development of new writing, you get high quality acting, you get design and all the technical aspects, you get directing and arts management. You need to know about theatre history, you need to know about current developments in the arts. All that is part of the life of a theatre.”
Once that initial work was completed, it was time build the course. It was important to everyone concerned that the Octagon Theatre was an integral part of that.
Prof Thacker says: “The unique selling point is the synergy between the Octagon and the university. From the students’ point of view, they have access to the Octagon. A lot of their modules are tied in with what happens at the Octagon. The theatre becomes like their second home and that was very important to us. The other key thing for me was that there needed to be some reasonable prospect of them being able to have a pathway to employment. And they have got to enjoy it.”
Prof Thacker also stresses how important it is that students learn a variety of transferable skills that can make them attractive to prospective employers.
He says: “They may not necessarily end up working in theatre or the arts even. What they are getting is going to equip them as well as anything other degree would, other than a specialist degree for medicine or law or whatever. I would hope that they would be as well placed after coming out of this as they would be if they were doing politics, history or English.”
He has clearly enjoyed devising and running the course and he beams with pleasure at his students’ achievements.
“It is our job to help people to be the best version of themselves that they can be and I hope we have done that in the past three years.”
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