YEOVIL NEWS: Questions and answers over £23m Octagon Theatre revamp
PROPOSALS for a possible £23million revamp of the Octagon Theatre in Yeovil will lead to people having numerous questions about the scheme – but here South Somerset District Council tries to pre-empt those queries with a series of answers.
Councillors meet early in the New Year on Thursday, January 7, 2021, to discuss the proposals and to decide whether they support the scheme “in principle.”
Why are councillors only looking to agree the project in principle at present?
The council is currently seeking detailed advice on VAT implications with this project and await a full response from HMRC.
Currently it has a strong financial forecast for the scale of the proposals and a sound business case for how it could be delivered and paid back.
PHOTO - TOP: An artist's impression of how the new entrance to the new-look Octagon Theatre would appear alongside the existing entrance, which can also be seen (right) in this photo.
However, the council cannot finalise the financial commitments for the project to the authority just yet without more detailed VAT advice. When it is available a financial decision can be taken by the council. However, if an agreement in principle is received in January to the concepts and proposals developed to date, this will enable further time and resource to be invested in moving ing the project forward.
How is the project set to be funded?
A large capital development like this proposal is an expensive undertaking and there are, of course, risks involved that will need to be carefully managed.
At South Somerset District Council, there are robust business plans and development plans in place and the council has an excellent track-record of delivering large scale build projects for the community. The total cost, including architects and consultants’ fees/charges and a contingency fund is £23million. “We know this is no small sum to be found and this would mark a major investment for the area,” said a council spokesman.
“The council will look to secure around £5million from national funding bodies like Arts Council England."
PHOTO - RIGHT: An artist's impression of the new-look Octagon Theatre auditorium with upper-tier circle which would increase capacity from 622 people to 900.
The council spokesman added: “It would be great to see national funding coming into our district rather than being spent elsewhere and we are confident that our commitment to the project will attract this level of funding to support our bid.”
Through local funding the council is aiming to raise £250,000 and this has already begun with the Octagon’s Name A Seat campaign and successful fundraising from The Foyer Club charity which has been fundraising to support the ongoing development of the theatre.
The council will secure funding from other grant making bodies, including recovery grants, Section 106, Community Investment Levy and other sources.
The council 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 itself and the project will not have cost the tax payer anything.
PHOTO - RIGHT: The new-look entrance to the Octagon Theatre - as per an artist's impression - would see people enter the theatre via a side entrance on the first floor of the theatre.
The council does also have a capital grants scheme so a portion could also be made as a capital grant that would not be repayable.
What are capacity rates now for the venue?
The Octagon Theatre currently plays to 83 per cent capacity throughout the year with an average of 250 performances staged annually, well above the national averages for theatres.
The theatre is popular with artists and producers who appreciate the friendly welcome from its technicians and warm and responsive audiences.
Over the last ten years the Octagon audiences have increased dramatically from 78,546 in 2009-10 to 125,331 in 2019-20 and, put simply, the current facility has been outgrown and the record usage is taking its toll on the near 50-year-old building.
PHOTO - RIGHT: The existing Octagon Theatre auditorium can seat 622 people. The revamped theatre would sit 900.
For example, while 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 the theatre currently only has 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.
But a council spokesman added: “All of this aside, it is a very well loved and used venue, but could be so much more to communities and visitors.”
Why make the investment now?
This project has been in development for some time now, pre-Covid, and although the pandemic has affected the way it operates, it has not slowed down the ambitious plans to invest for the future.
A council spokesman said: “Whilst it is important to be prudent it is also important to have hope and optimism for the future.
“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 cinemas 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 construction of the development and larger operation will create and establish jobs. It is estimated that the developed Octagon Theatre would create an additional £9.2million that would be retained locally every year.
“Visitors to the Octagon Theatre support our ‘night-time economy’ including hotels, restaurants, car parks, and shops in the area. Businesses will also be more attracted to an area with a stronger cultural offering.
“This project offers a compelling economic case and significant improvements for the health and well-being of our residents.”
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.
What about South Somerset District Council’s other venue in Yeovil - the Westlands Entertainment Venue?
A council spokesman said: “We are very fortunate in Yeovil to have two great entertainment venues. The team who manage the Octagon Theatre took on the management of the 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 with seating for 870.
“The venue has meeting and function rooms which are used for both smaller regular events and larger scale events like the Yeovil Beer Festival. Having a joint management team means that the programme and activities complement each other.”
The spokesman added: “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 and further support the local economy.”
If councillors decide to go ahead with this, what is the next stage?
Councillors of South Somerset District Council will decide whether to take this project forward, subject to a final financial case being presented to include VAT implications.
A council spokesman said: “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.”
When can the public have their say?
A council spokesman said: “We are a little way off any consultation stages yet, but rest assured that when the time is right, we will share plans with you and fully make sure you have the opportunity to have your say.
“We have a dedicated consultation section set up on the council’s website and we’ll post all details there and make sure any consultations are well advertised and look forward to receiving feedback from all in due course.”
Where can I see more about the plans?
A council spokesman said: “Our proposals are at the very early stages of development and if councillors decide they would like to progress with the project, we will develop and release further information as and when we can to keep all informed.”