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Let’s Hope Oldham Coliseum Survives Levelling Up

Artistic Director of Oldham Coliseum theatre, Chris Lawson (Image: Kenny Brown | Manchester Evening News)

Let’s face it, Arts Council England’s attempt to reframe England’s cultural life has come at a price. One of the North’s leading producing theatres is going dark.
The curtain will fall in late March at Oldham Coliseum, one of only 32 regularly producing theatres in England, with its board blaming removal of Arts Council funding for the decision. The theatre is now in consultation with its 20 strong team of full-time staff and extended freelancers.
By way of a reminder, The Coliseum dates to 1885, it had been funded by ACE for decades and had asked for £615,182 a year over the next three-year funding period, totalling £1,845,546. It was one of several arts and culture organisations not to be included in the National Portfolio for 2023-26.
Oldham’s artistic director Chris Lawson, (who also recently became its chief executive) has warned that the venue, which is in a priority area for the government’s Levelling Up fund, may never open its doors again.
The Coliseum says it has been “working hard to find a solution to this reduction in funding” but that “the current financial situation is not sustainable for the season as planned”.
Speaking to The Stage, Lawson said: “They [the artists] understand the climate we operate in and our financial commitment to them remains, as we are determined to be able to protect them and ensure those artists are looked after regardless of whether the work is happening or not.”
Alarmingly, Arts Council England’s grant-in-aid budget of £341m represents a decline in value of between 30% and 50% since 2010. So, in 12 years of Tory government, the arts have staggeringly lost between a third and a half of their real-term income. Bastards. And by cancelling all its shows from March, the Oldham Coliseum has thrown down a challenge to both central and local government.

“These are difficult times, but arts and culture are in the lifeblood of our town and remain very much a part of our Coliseum,” said the thunderstruck leader of Oldham Council, Cllr Amanda Chadderton, who at least appears keen to be part of the ongoing discussions.
She continued: “This will not be the end of Oldham Coliseum. A new theatre is a key part of our regeneration plans for the town centre, and this has not changed.” 
But the bigger, unanswered question after this mess is surely: what does it say about us? What does it say about our fractured values? How has ACE and DCMS allowed it to get to this point? On an immediate level, the past week has presented as another way for British theatre and the state to look in decline, thoughtless and chaotic on the world stage, too. So sad and senseless.

We know that a higher spend on the arts (particularly when it is going to deprived communities) can save many times that amount from the budgets of the NHS and other public institutions. Culture is not a burden.
It goes almost without saying then, that this bombshell development reminds us of the precariousness of many theatres (even those with reserves). The grief of the profession has been palpable and the shock loud. Because the truth is that everyone knows that while Oldham Coliseum is one of the first major causalities of ACE’s decision-making, it is unlikely to be the last.

This week the International Monetary Fund predicted the UK would be the worst-performing major economy of the year, and the only one to plunge into recession. 

Oldham Coliseum

Elsewhere, a recent report published by the House of Lords condemned the government’s approach to the arts, describing it as complacent and at risk of “jeopardising the sector’s commercial potential”.

Before we conclude, the £120m so-called Festival of Brexit ‘Unboxed’ could have funded the Oldham Coliseum for another 135 years. A third of audiences for this appalling waste of money came from viewers watching Countryfile on the BBC. I kid you not, reader.

A multi-layered disaster zone.

An Arts Council England spokesperson said: “We appreciate how difficult it has been for the team at Oldham Coliseum to come to a decision to cancel forthcoming events, and how unsettling this must be for the staff and all those who work with the theatre, as well as how disappointing this is for audiences.”

To which there is only one possible response. No s**t.

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Factory International, Manchester: Should It Exist?

RIGHT now, we’ve got gas bubbling into the Baltic Sea, a Russian psychopath threatening nuclear war in Europe, a worrying Autumn wave of Covid-19, escalating train strikes, runaway inflation, and a severe cost of living crisis. 

And while financial markets are in a mess, the economy is in a rough patch, too. 

But guess what? Theatre continues to play a key role in the government’s so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda.

The venue will open in summer 2023, four years late and £100 million over budget

Last week I attended Factory International’s Opening Programme Launch (it opens officially in October 2023). An immersive Matrix films-themed dance, music and visual effects experience directed by Danny Boyle is to be the opening production. 

However, news that Factory International itself is £100 million over its initial budget – and opening four years late – will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed this particular story.

Factory International opens to the public in October 2023

Now, Manchester City council will have to cover the extra £25.2m over spend, with £10m coming from a contingency fund and the rest from borrowing. It’s public money: we should know where and why it’s being spent.

Additionally, a council report stated: “The ongoing impacts of Covid-19 – with precautionary measures still in place across the construction industry – and challenges associated with the one-off and complex nature of the design have also contributed to budget pressures.”

But critics, especially those from the north of England, rightly wonder what that extra £100 million could have achieved elsewhere. 

Indeed, it is the largest investment in a national cultural project since the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, thanks to initial Government investment and backing from Manchester City Council and Arts Council England. Still, Factory International is predicted to boost the city’s economy £1.1 billion over the next decade and predicted to support as many as 1,500 jobs. Hm.

Under construction: Factory International

All in all, the 13,350 square metre building includes a 21m high warehouse with capacity for up to 5,000 people standing, which can also be divided by a movable, full-height acoustic wall, and a hall with a flexible stage with a seating capacity of 1,600 or 2,000 standing, as well as other spaces inside and out. 

Alas, Factory International isn’t the only shiny new cultural building opening in northwest England. While I was out and about last week, I also went to see Northern Stage’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the beautiful Shakespeare North Playhouse — now open in Prescot in Knowsley on Merseyside. This dazzling cultural venue sits in one of the most deprived boroughs in England. 

Inside the timber built cockpit theatre at the Shakespeare North Playhouse

Shakespeare North is a £30 million Elizabethan-style hilltop venue, built around a stunning 470 seat recreation of a Jacobean ‘Cockpit’ theatre also houses a 55-seat studio theatre, exhibition gallery and performance garden.

The Shakespearean venue – boasting an oak-framed, octagonal, two-level main auditorium – aims to attract 140,000 visitors per year. Businesses are now preparing to welcome a boost for trade and tourism in the area.

Find Shakespeare North Playhouse at Prospero Place in Prescot

Against this backdrop, we have a new Culture Secretary. Michelle Donelan is the 11th culture secretary in 12 years, replacing historical footnote Nadine Dorries. Yet, there is little hope that we can really tackle the divide between north and south, rich, and poor – which all too often are really the same things.

Either way, the Arts Council England’s monumentally stupid decision to move current and new portfolio organisations out of the capital by October 2024 has been created after the government ordered ACE to take £24 million of funding (15%) out of the portfolio in London and reinvest it outside of the capital. It also requires commitment from large organisations working with communities in these areas of low engagement – especially the Midlands and the North of England. 

Unfortunately, it’s only going one way; in a recent update to organisations, ACE said: “This programme will be particularly competitive, and it is likely that we will be unable to fund many good applications, including from those organisations currently in the National Portfolio, as well as those that are not.”

A fool’s errand, given their track record, (a shifting of neglect from one place to another – see ‘Creative People and Places’) but the CEO Darren Henley, also present at Factory International’s Launch, felt confident enough to make this statement. “We need a capital city that punches on the world stage, but levelling up is a bout increasing everywhere else… Within straitened times we have more money from the government, and we are investing that outside of London.” 

The cast of The Doncastrian Chalk Circle at Cast, Doncaster

Sorry, what? Quite how many parsnips any of that will butter in a couple of weeks’ time is unclear. The ongoing pandemic means more organisations than ever have applied for money – 1,730, requesting £2bn. There will be casualties.

Even more alarming, new data raise more questions than answers about failure of this government to reach the poorest areas of the UK. The southeast of England, the most affluent region in Britain outside London received almost twice as much money as the north-east from the fund aimed at boosting deprived areas. The £4.8 billion levelling up fund only delivered £107 million in its first year of operation. 

Crucially, rising costs and inflation threaten key projects with councils handing back money to government, scaling back projects or fund the shortfall of dwindling budgets amid fears schemes could become undeliverable.

The above, of course, barely scratches the surface of the past few years, in which the UK has repeatedly tried and failed to do better by the freelance workforce.

Don’t get me wrong, these two new cultural venues in the North of England are remarkably ambitious and exciting. I think that Shakespeare North will truly transform the fortunes of communities in Prescott.

So, should they exist? I can’t help thinking that one of them should and the other should not.

Hundreds of millions of pounds of bricks and mortar at a time when self-employed freelance workers – the lifeblood of UK theatre- are facing a catastrophic winter.

The recent Big Freelancer Survey showcased ongoing concerns within the theatre workforce, with 16% of respondents saying they were still considering leaving the entertainment industry.

In the meantime, however, decisions about the next ACE portfolio round – guided by the redistribution of funding from London to the rest of the UK into priority areas such as West Lancashire, Wigan, the Isles of Scilly and Preston – are expected on Wednesday 26 October.