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Maxine Peake leads the chorus of protest against Oldham Coliseum closure

“Hands off Oldham,” proclaimed actor Maxine Peake as she led a packed crowd in a chant in support of the town’s Coliseum Theatre which faces permanent closure after more than a century of performances. 

On Tuesday night (February 21) 400 people attended a public meeting at the Coliseum, organised by the acting union Equity, calling on Arts Council England (ACE) and Oldham council to save the historic theatre.

After being dropped from the Arts Council funding portfolio the Fairbottom Street venue is due to close at the end of March, with 70 staff facing losing their jobs.

The theatre has also been deemed ‘beyond its expected lifespan’ and a survey carried out in January uncovered ‘numerous’ urgent health safety works. However a replacement theatre announced by Oldham council would not open until 2026.

Actors, union members and Oldham residents delivered passionate speeches about what the Coliseum means to them, the local community and to arts in the north.

Paul Hilton, an actor from Chadderton told the packed stalls: “I can’t bear to see this place go. I had no connection with the arts, the theatre, but I did a school play here when I was 15 and I found my calling – it was my touchpaper.

“It brought many, many actors from the northwest into this business. What will happen to 13, 14, and 15-year-olds in the next three years if they don’t have this space? We have to offer this opportunity for the next generation of artists.”

Paul told the audience that Dame Vanessa Redgrave is also supporting the Coliseum – ‘she’s fighting for this theatre’, he said.

He added that the Coliseum being taken away from Oldham was ‘cultural vandalism’ and said they wanted the decision to withdraw Arts Council funding reversed.

Zoe Iqbal, an actor who has recently worked for the Coliseum highlighted its work with Asian and Roma communities in Oldham, as well as young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“The Coliseum does so much outreach work with various communities,” she said – to huge cheers from the audience. “You can’t put a price on a human connection like that.

“Often with marginalised groups, they get spoken about, but people don’t speak to them, they don’t get to know them.

“I feel like art is not only for the privileged – people round here deserve to be included as much as anyone else. We’ve got to be able to continue.”

Maxine Peake speaking out at the event

Maxine Peake told the meeting that northern theatres provided inspiration for working-class people like herself to get involved in the arts, and are the ‘lifeblood’ of towns. “There’s a saying if you can’t see it you can’t be it,” she said.

“This isn’t good enough, they have got to pull their finger out. A three-year wait? It’s people going by the wayside. Art should not be for the elite – it should be for everybody.”

Victoria Brazier, a performer and Equity North West Councillor said: “We believe that the Arts Council have made a mistake and we challenge them to change their mind.”

However, neither the Arts Council or the local authority sent representatives to the meeting, to the ‘disappointment’ of the panel, which led to ACE being empty-chaired.

The Arts Council told us it didn’t have a representative available but regardless would not give detailed reasons in a public forum about why an organisation has not been funded.

Oldham council said leader Amanda Chaddeton could not attend the meeting due to childcare issues, but had met with Equity representatives earlier that day.

The meeting coincided with an announcement by the council that a new theatre would be built in the Old Post Office and former Quaker Meeting House on Union Street, set to open by 2026 at a cost of more than £24 million.

However the audience at the theatre was told that if funding was not provided to keep the Coliseum afloat – even as a roving company outside of the Fairbottom Street building – it would not exist in three years.

There was also scepticism that the plan, the third in the last two decades for a new performance space in Oldham, would actually be brought to fruition.

“That’s where people are understandably nervous, including ourselves,” said Chris Lawson, the Coliseum’s long-standing artistic director and new chief executive who took up the role in November.

“The current plan isn’t as far along as either of the two previous iterations and they didn’t happen. I think people would feel a lot more confident in a new-build happening if we were a big part of it.”

Chris said that a proportion of the funding the Arts Council had pledged to the council of £1.85m would be needed for the Coliseum to continue to survive until a new theatre is ready, as the ticketing income would predominantly disappear.

“At the moment with the process we’re going through the outcome is zero,” he said. “There would be zero staff and zero jobs and zero ability to make work in Oldham.

“Ultimately when you move into a new theatre you do need those staff back anyway. If we’re working on the road then maybe some of the roles would be freelance, but the alternative at the moment is nothing.

“The way things are going it’s not having any money because it’s not forthcoming, it’s not having any staff and therefore it’s not being able to put on any shows.”

As things stand, he said they wouldn’t be able to pick back up in three years time. ”To be able to do that we need access to a percentage of the funds that have been ring-fenced, to be able to operate peripatetically around the town to be able to then build back up when we go into the building, and have a core which you’re starting from,” Chris added.

“We are the major producing organisation in the town so if we don’t exist is art and culture just parachuted in from elsewhere? If we’re not doing it, who is doing it?”

He told the meeting that concerns over governance and a ‘high risk’ strategy that led to the Coliseum Theatre being dropped from the ACE funding portfolio in November had been addressed with a shake-up of its executive team and board. But Chris added they would be prepared to make any further changes if the Arts council required.

In a report due to be considered by cabinet on Monday, councillors are set to ‘recommit’ to the development of a new theatre in the borough, and to formally accept £1.845m of Arts Council England funding to provide cultural activity for the next three years.

The Union Street venue would have an auditorium with between 300 and 350 seats – smaller than the current Coliseum – as well as a 120-seat studio.

It would also include enhanced back-stage facilities, and front of house areas such as a bar and a café. Education, event and rehearsal spaces would also be part of the designs, the council states.

In a statement, the Arts Council said: “Oldham Coliseum is a well-loved fixture in the town and understandably many people have strong feelings about the future of the theatre.

“Oldham Coliseum Ltd has been facing financial and governance challenges for some time and as guardians of public money we could not invest in an organisation which we assessed to be such a high risk.

“Their funding continues until the end of March after which we’ve agreed additional support of nearly £360,000 to help them with decisions about the future.

“Arts Council England is absolutely committed to supporting arts and culture for the people of Oldham, and we’re standing by our commitment to invest £1.85 million in performing arts in the town and overall our investment in the arts in Oldham will be higher than ever before.

“The Oldham Coliseum building, which is reaching its natural end, is owned by Oldham council and has never been part of our funding to the company.

“We are fully behind the plans the Council shared today (Tuesday) for a new performing space that will be informed by the legacy of the Oldham Coliseum and which will ensure there’s brilliant theatre in Oldham for people to enjoy for years to come.”

The £358,856  of funding ACE is giving the Coliseum is for ‘transition support’, the organisation said.

In a statement, Oldham council said that Councillor Chadderton as well as other council colleagues had been regularly meeting with the Coliseum, the Arts Council and other partners throughout ‘this difficult period of time; and particularly since November when the loss of Arts Council funding was announced.

“The plans for the new theatre, in heritage buildings in Union Street close to the gallery and library, have been drawn up in partnership with the Coliseum and other cultural organisations from across Oldham,” a spokesperson said.

“We are aware that misinformation is circulating regarding the new theatre not having rehearsal space or a separate studio space – this simply isn’t the case.

“The designs include a main auditorium and separate studio, better backstage facilities, space for events, education and rehearsals, and much improved front-of-house areas including bar and café areas.

“It was always the Coliseum’s plan to move out of the theatre in Fairbottom Street. They have been clear that the site is no longer fit for purpose and modern audiences need and deserve better – which is why they have helped us develop the plans for the new theatre.

“We also know the plans are being supported by other organisations including the Theatres Trust, which wrote to the leader of the council yesterday.

“In that letter, the Trust say they are supportive of the new proposals that are being developed and have met with the design team for the new theatre. They add that they ‘applaud the support’ that is being shown by Oldham Council for the project in these challenging times.”

The authority statement added: “These are not plans drawn up at haste, by the council alone. Our new theatre plans have been developed by a range of organisations over a long period of time, and designed to meet the needs of audiences now and into the future.

“We know the Coliseum is going through an extremely difficult time, particularly since the loss of Arts Council funding, and we are doing all we can to support them.

“This includes discussing how the Arts Council money can be best used over the next three years to ensure theatre remains in Oldham until the new venue opens.”

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