“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” wrote the Bard, and so it is with Chris Lawson who, with the sudden departure of Kevin Shaw, has been catapulted into the role of acting artistic director at Oldham Coliseum.
“It’s really exciting and maybe just a little bit terrifying,” says Lawson. “The Coliseum is a part of so many people’s lives, it’s a big responsibility but it’s one that I cherish.”
Lawson has been at the Coliseum for three and a half years in charge of community outreach and learning and has directed several main stage plays. I thought his production of The Kitchen Sink was one of the best shows I saw in 2018. So, what brought him to Oldham?
“A lot of little journeys led to me coming here. I trained as an actor at Bretton Hall from 2003-2006, and then I did a lot of Theatre in Education in Leeds and Bradford. That set me on a path within theatre that was very much about community. Then I worked as a drama teacher in Hackney. I took kids to see The Woman in Black eight times – I know, I know – and Blood Brothers. The kids loved it, but after eight times…”
He continues: “I left teaching after four years and got a job in the learning department at the Almeida Theatre in Islington when Rupert Gould took over and it was changing in lots of ways. Islington and Hackney are very different places and my job was how do we make this building accessible for people who don’t think it’s for them? There are ways of doing that. We did a play about the London riots with a community chorus and we took our main stage production of Our Town, with full cast and set, into schools that had no drama provision. In another project we hired buses to bring the kids from the schools to the theatre and did performances on the buses along the way. All of which is why I was so interested in coming to the Coliseum because the associate director role had the directing side but also the learning side.”
The associate posting at Oldham Coliseum was a new position. “Teaching and community theatre were Kevin’s [Shaw] background, too. I think he was looking for someone who believed in what he believed in and I guess the nature of the job of AD sometimes makes it harder to undertake all that stuff when you’re also in the meetings.”
How does Lawson feel about all those meetings now? “OK, actually. My job here is acting artistic director not acting chief exec so it’s great to be able to be able to drive through an artistic vision that has clear pathways and where I can connect all the work, without some of those other challenges.”
So, what’s coming up this season? “For us, it’s a season to give us thinking time. As communities are changing and theatre buildings are changing and the Arts Council is changing, I think it would be naïve of me just to keep the Coliseum machine going in the same way. It’s time for us to look at how we talk to the community and how we make work, and it gives us a chance for more variation on stage.”
Lawson continues: “Up until panto, we’ve got a lot of visiting work, much of it for our core audience, and we have an increased presence in the studio, which over the last three years has grown audiences with a real thirst for different types of work. I don’t just want my name on everything here. It’s a job where you have a responsibility to put people forward. I’ve tried to do that with the associate companies, and the response shows, and the main house takeover which is a new thing. It’s a platform for Greater Manchester companies so they know the Coliseum is accessible and will support them.
“I’m directing the panto which is quite a sizeable thing. I don’t want to mess with it, it isn’t broken. It’s my first time writing with Fine Time Fontayne, and Richard Fletcher is taking over as Dame. Sam Glen from The Kitchen Sink is coming in to be Jack. He did the panto I directed in Doncaster last Christmas and he’s an Oldham Theatre Workshop boy.”
Some Manchester theatres have a reputation for casting from London. Will the Coliseum be casting locally?
“We have open auditions, based in the North West, done consciously to get people seen who we might not ordinarily see. We always audition here as a first port of call then we might do a session in London. For me, there is more than enough talent in the North. We will always start here and work outwards.”
There’s an awful lot happening in the North in terms of culture, not least in the world of theatre. In a couple of years the new multi-million pound venue The Factory will be open which, when added to existing offerings, means that there will be in excess of 10,000 theatre seats to sell in Manchester every night. But Lawson isn’t concerned.
“It doesn’t worry me artistically. Greater Manchester’s theatres aren’t disconnected from each other – we communicate and we coexist. Seeing the shifts in programming at the Royal Exchange and HOME shows me that there is an important place for what we do. It comes back to relevance. We’re here for Oldham. We are not chasing the same things that the Exchange and HOME are, or The Factory will be. People in Oldham should not have to go into Manchester to experience theatre.”
It would be corny to say that the reputation of Oldham Coliseum is safe in Lawson’s hands. But he is an accomplished director with a community vision and that is exactly what the Coliseum needs. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor