Oldham Coliseum’s First Break festival is returning, filling its studio from 11 to 14 May with an eclectic mix of new work from artists and companies from across the North West.
Events during the four-day festival include new writing, rehearsed readings, touring theatre and devised work, kicking off with The Stars Are Made Of Concrete on May 11 at 7.30pm. Nominated for Best Drama and Best New Writing at the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, the show follows unemployed Adam and his mum Bev (who has recently been made redundant) as they try to carry on with grace, humour…and ladyboys.
Tuesdays at Tescos, a play by Emmanuel Darley about transsexual Pauline and the difficulties she faces with her father on their weekly shopping trip, impressed many people when it was last seen in the area. It comes to the Coliseum Theatre Studio on Thursday 12 at 8.30pm, while Friday 13 at 8.30pm finds Prefer Not To Say dramatising an on-stage identity crisis as two candidates battle for the job of being Sarah and the audience are asked to fill in an application form to bring her to life.
In the run-up to the festival, Pensive Federation challenged ten writers, ten directors and 20 actors to create ten x ten minute mini-masterpieces in the space of ten days. They all had to be based on the theme of a significant other, a gender-blind term for a person’s partner in an intimate relationship, and the ten pieces will be presented at 4pm and 7.30pm on Saturday 14 as Significant Other.
Untold Stories, the First Break writing competition, was launched in October 2015, and asked writers to script an original short play based on a story or experience that someone has shared with them. The four winning scripts – Passing Through by Alexandra Taylor, The Residents by Maureen Sheerin, Peggy Verses the Big Al by David Howard and Going To Market by Claire Elshaw – are showcased as rehearsed readings on Friday 13 at 7pm.
“The new writing and fringe theatre scene in Greater Manchester and the North West is so exciting and inspiring,” says Coliseum associate director, Chris Lawson, who has programmed First Break after joining the theatre from London’s Almeida in October 2015. “With First Break and further work in the studio throughout the year, I hope that we can make a name for Oldham as a place for nurturing and showcasing upcoming talent. Lawson will host What’s Next?, a panel discussion on the new writing scene and the opportunities available, on May 12 at 7pm. The panel will include award-winning theatre-writer Cathy Crabb, actor and co-founder of Take-Back Julie Hesmondhalgh, freelance producer Hannah Ellis, and artistic director of Box Of Tricks Theatre, Adam Quayle.
“I knew that First Break was already important to the Coliseum but also that it had room to develop,” says Lawson. “Previously it had always done well and drawn interest but what I also noticed was that shows following on in the studio were few and far between. So it seemed like a great opportunity now that the Coliseum was showing even more commitment to studio shows and studio work to just push it that little bit further, to bring shows in from different stages of development and put them alongside artists from the region that are just starting out.
“So I’ve tried to strike a balance between shows like Tuesdays At Tescos and The Stars Are Made Of Concrete which have had a life elsewhere and obviously had potential appeal for audiences outside of Manchester city centre, next to completely new work. We wanted to try to offer the chance to see shows that people wouldn’t necessarily associate in their minds with the Oldham Coliseum. So I’ve just immersed myself in as much as I can, spending four or five nights a week watching something somewhere in the North West, just getting a feel for what is out there and seeing where there might be gaps we could help fill.
“I feel lucky to actually have that chance but it was a slow start because you have to be realistic about how much development support you can give. So we needed some shows that are self-sufficient and have had some life before to be able to give more attention to the new writing competition around Untold Stories and being able to support them, really from that grass roots stage where people are sending things in and you can really work with them.”
Lawson hadn’t intended to programme anything in the studio before First Break, he says, but, when an excellent piece came in called Coal Girls about the wives of the Pitmen Painters, it was impossible to resist programming it alongside the main house’s wonderful recent production of The Pitmen Painters.
“Finding stuff that does connect and has a real reason and purpose in being on like that is precisely why we try to read every single thing that comes in, which is a lot,” he says of the show written by Ashleigh Sinclair and Rachel Stockdale that played in early March. “The fact that the show sold out all three nights it was on gave me hope that there was an appetite for work like that. First Break will be the test of that. I’m just trying to encourage audiences to take risks and come with us on that journey.”
But, as important as theatre-goers must be, Lawson believes it’s as important for the future of the studio to make theatre-makers aware of it.
“We need writers and directors and actors, all sorts of theatre-makers, to see that the space is there for them and that we do have room to support them and develop work where we can,” he believes. “Significant Other is another way of showing artists that the space is here to be used, as it’s been an opportunity for ten directors, 20 actors and ten writers to come together and in ten days create work responding to a theme. That’s a tried and tested format that’s very much about the process and something that excites actors, directors and writers, as well as offering the audience an insight into how it is put together. JB Shorts and Take Back are doing similar things at the moment and Significant Other is saying ‘look at where Greater Manchester is in terms of developing new artists and new writing, this is on your doorstep.’
“I’ve tried to make it accessible, to get work looked at because I know from my own experience of making work before working in buildings that it isn’t always that way, or might not seem it. I want to make sure that when scripts are sent in they’re not sitting in a pile for six months, which I hope will be refreshing and make people feel secure when they’re sending stuff in. I try to read everything and, for the moment, I still can.”
“Generally speaking,” he says, “I’m aiming for shows around the hour mark, casts of no more than four or five and for it to be a comfortable studio experience.
“I think of it almost as box-set theatre. People might go home and watch an episode of Breaking Bad, or whatever, and the experience of being able to watch a relatively self-contained piece of theatre in an hour or so at the Coliseum where you can do things after or before will be equivalent, not like that more traditional theatre-going experience of it being a night out. You could go to a studio show on a Friday night and still have your night out afterwards,” he laughs.
“I also like to think of the studio programme as being a bit like turning the pages of a newspaper or watching TV news, and try to get things which are looking at the world around us. Not necessarily always having to have that feel-good factor of a main house show but sparking debate and discussion in the bar afterwards.”
With that spirit of in mind, the festival culminates with a closing party from 9pm until late on Saturday 14, offering the chance to network and mingle with writers, actors and directors working in the new writing scene.
The First Break Festival runs at Oldham Coliseum Theatre from May 11–14, 2016. Tickets for festival events are individually priced, or a Festival Pass ticket to see all First Break Festival events is £24. Tickets can be bought in person at Oldham Coliseum Theatre, by phone on 0161 624 2829 or online at www.coliseum.org.uk.