“Leading a thriving arts organisation is always busy.”
These are some of the first words spoken to me by Kevin Shaw, artistic director of Oldham Coliseum. I do not doubt him.
In 2002, Shaw took the helm at the Coliseum. Since then, he has held Oldham’s ship very steady through waves of austerity, economic downturn and an eight-month closure. Despite this, the Coliseum continues to produce its own theatre, programme touring shows and run an impressive quantity of educational and development programmes within the community.
“I’m in the process of planning for productions,” Shaw tells me. “I look to create a balanced season. Despite being seen as a repertory theatre, we run a bit more of a mixed economy of in-house and touring. But our roots are very much in the community – it is a theatre that is integral to the community life.”
Many theatres promise this kind of dedication to their local residents. The Coliseum does not disappoint by actively engaging a diverse range of people in sincere and thorough ways. Its roots into the community are deep and wide, having numerous purposes which include fostering creativity in young people; nurturing local, emerging talent through partnership programmes; providing adults with further educational workshops that run alongside the season of productions; developing adults’ skills with practical master-classes; and imparting workplace skills to young people who have been excluded from education and employment opportunities. This is no ordinary community theatre. This is a theatre at the heart of its community.
Oldham Coliseum also has a key part to play in Greater Manchester’s theatre ecology. This is one of the oldest theatres in the region and it has a strong identity that differs considerably from other producing houses in the city such as the Royal Exchange and HOME. Often the determining factor with a theatre’s identity is its immediate community. In Oldham, diversity abounds and so too in its theatre. Past shows to grace the Coliseum’s stage in just the last few years include Hobson’s Choice, Ghost: The Musical, Happy Birthday Sunita, Phoenix Dance and Ken Dodd as well as fair few pantomimes.
“We are well known for the panto. Our audiences love the panto, it’s part of this theatre’s traditions. In addition to traditions, we need to provide as broad a range of theatrical experience as possible. The range is the important thing – obviously done at a high quality, because we aim to make work that is both popular and inspiring. But part of our subsidy is about pushing people’s theatrical experience.”
One of Oldham’s current shows is attempting to fulfil this credo while also being emblematic of the Coliseum’s local outreach commitment. Shaw has programmed a new musical that was born and bred by local writers on the Greater Manchester independent theatre circuit.
“On the one hand, it is difficult and dangerous to do a new musical,” he says. “I do a lot of musicals. People know what they like when it comes to musicals, and many new ones have failed because of the prominence of established ones. But it is important that theatre doesn’t become a museum. So 25 per cent of our work is new work and new work like this will help us to push and diversify our audiences’ experiences in the theatre.”
Dreamers is be a world première, so that’s about as new as they come. The name of the musical refers to an actual nightclub in Oldham which sadly closed down 15 years ago. Writers Cathy Crabb and Lindsay Williams used to frequent Dreamers in the 80s and 90s, and now they hope to recapture those booze-fuelled small town nights-out and the club’s former glory with the help of Carol Donaldson’s composition of 90s classics and original songs, all performed by an all-female cast and a 15-strong female community choir. All the ingredients seem to be there for a nostalgic affair, particularly for Oldham’s locals.
“It’s an Oldham story, and that is not to say that it is parochial. It is about ordinary people, but it has a universal appeal. It is definitely telling a North West story to a North West audience and it’s told by North West people.”
Committed support of local talent such as this is rare. For the last two years, the Coliseum has been providing guidance and support to Crabb and Williams as they developed Dreamers. Producing houses have a certain responsibility to nurture home-grown talent like this, as well as the capability to do so. But not often enough do they invest so much in local writers and performers like Shaw and the Coliseum have done with Dreamers.
Shaw says: “Increasingly young theatre practitioners are choosing to base themselves here, which makes the North West a very interesting place to be making theatre. There’s a lot of talent. Part of our responsibility is to support the work being created across the region and outside of our theatre. We are working hand in glove with other producing houses across the North West to create something that is really vibrant across the region.”
This sort of community ethos seems particular to Oldham Coliseum. Its focus is not just the immediate community either. In programmes such as First Break Festival there is a real desire to support and showcase talent and new writing in the whole region, not just the borough of Oldham. To maintain a thriving theatrical ecology in the North West, all the producing houses in the region must acknowledge their responsibility to the wider community. In Kevin Shaw, Oldham Coliseum has a man at the helm that recognises their place in the bigger picture. I am sure he will stay busy for some time to come.
Photos of Kevin Shaw by Chris Payne
Oldham Coliseum’s production of Dreamers is on until July 4, 2015. For more information, follow this link: www.coliseum.org.uk/plays/dreamers/