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While the fate of a small auditorium in the North of England may hardly seems like headline grabbing material, the recent announcement that Oldham’s Coliseum theatre is to lose its long term Arts Council funding has made national news in the UK, not just because it has a 135 year history and been pivotal in the careers of dozens of actors treasured by TV audiences around the world; not just because it is a keystone of Oldham’s cultural history; but because the decision rings an ominous, warning bell to vulnerable theatres across the country.

It may be humble in appearance, but who wouldn’t want to go to a theatre located on Fairbottom Street?

Such is the affection for the building amongst theatre professionals and audiences alike, there have been howls of protest. In the wake of this considerable outcry, finding its way to national press and TV news platforms, Jen Cleary, from Arts Council North, braved the airwaves on Sunday morning (5th February) to face questions from Andrew Edwards on allFM’s Artbeat show (Part 2 of that interview can be heard here).

The main takeaway was that, when funds are stretched like never before, the theatre’s application for three-year NPO (National Portfolio Organisation) funding simply wasn’t up to muster, leaving the listener to infer that there were wider concerns about the Coliseum’s overall management and governance. Instead, £1.8m has been ‘ring-fenced’ for Oldham Council to spend on arts provision in the town while plans for a new ‘performing space’ are developed. 

Oldham Council for their part has been vocal on Twitter making it clear that they ‘don’t have the ability to transfer or give this funding to the Coliseum’.

But before the dust could settle on any of this, Sarah Maxfield, ACE’s Area North Director told the Oldham Times on Wednesday morning that while the theatre’s NPO bid has been deemed too much of a ‘risk’, there will be seven months of transitional ‘project’ funding available from April to October on a pro-rata basis equaling just under £359,000. 

Confused? Yes, you and a good deal of the North-West’s theatre community. Whether Ms. Cleary knew about this partial U-turn when she argued so decisively for the withdrawal of funds just three days earlier is impossible to ascertain, only adding to the sense that all the bodies in question are pulling in different directions at the same time, with an incoherent narrative changing almost daily.

Of course, it’s a positive that there seems to be some small stay of execution (although we are yet to hear from the Coliseum itself who are keeping a respectful silence following the sad death of their much-loved general manager, Lesley Chenery at the weekend) but these statements seem to pose more questions than they answer.

Whether the Coliseum’s 3-year NPO application was genuinely unfit for purpose none of us can know without details being made public, but it strikes me that’s hardly the point. Both Ms. Maxfield and Ms. Cleary argue that there was stiff competition and all applications are held to the same standard which the theatre didn’t meet. 

But are they the same standards? Should they be? If, for example, Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre went through a rough patch, messed up the money, struggled to maintain audience numbers, put in an unsuitable NPO application would ACE withdraw their funding? Of course they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t dare, and for good reason. They would recognise the Exchange’s crucial role in the artistic infrastructure of the North West and send in a hit squad to fix it. They would value its artistic critical mass and do everything possible to preserve it despite any short-term failure. They would respect a heritage spanning decades, not to mention the livelihoods dependent on it. But, for some reason, the Coliseum, at the heart of a far more deprived community, and with a much longer heritage, when ‘levelling-up’ is supposedly a priority, hasn’t earned that kind of pro-active intervention. 

Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre is an extraordinary building, and the Marmoset can’t see it being allowed to fail. Different standards apply.

And all of this is in the context of the soon-to-be-opened Factory International in Manchester city centre, already amply served for cultural venues, which has run £100m over budget and is predicted to cost well over £200m in total.

So is one reputedly poor NPO application for £1.8m over three years really worth more than all of that? It seems very hard to argue that it is.

Equally, it’s hard not to infer that the NPO argument is an excuse, cover for another, perhaps unstated agenda of some sort. If that sounds over the top, all I can say is that I started my theatre career in 1983 and if every building I’ve worked for that ran into trouble had lost its Arts Council funding then the whole idea of building based theatre would have collapsed decades ago. It is accepted that buildings – historic companies – have a value that goes beyond process. In my (frighteningly long) experience, ‘process’ is nearly always used as an excuse for other, often political agendas.

Oldham Council claim they are developing a new £24m theatre for the town, which will be fantastic if it happens, but these plans have been on and off since 2017 and there is no clear timetable for when construction will start let alone when the venue will open. Indeed, the report in The Oldham Times makes it sound like a very distant prospect indeed. When the old Leeds Playhouse was replaced by the shiny new West Yorkshire Playhouse, Jude Kelly was in place as artistic director to oversee a seamless transition (or so it seemed to a young Marmoset working there at the time). Leeds Council recognised that it needed a theatre-maker’s expertise to help design the building and define its purpose and, crucially, to preserve the company’s continuity in the city. When Manchester’s Library Theatre closed to make way for HOME, that closure was planned years in advance. As transitions go, what’s happening in Oldham seems decidedly clumsy by comparison.

ACE says that the Coliseum’s application wasn’t adequate but does that mean that Oldham Council put in a better application of their own? It’s hard to believe that a local authority would bid against its own theatre. So did they or didn’t they? 

If they did, what were its objectives, which every other public body applying for cash has to define? We have a right to know. Crucially, what are the processes by which practitioners can access the council’s new project fund to provide the promised arts and culture to the town? If the council’s application sparkled above the theatre’s own, it seems odd that no mechanism has yet been disclosed as to how the money will be allocated. And when the council tweets that it ‘does not have the ability to give this funding to the Coliseum’ does they mean they don’t wish to for internal reasons, or that ACE has told them they can’t? Who is pulling the strings here? It seems to the casual observer like a very peculiar and unwieldy arrangement.

But, if the council didn’t make a formal application, but now, at the Arts Council’s behest have access to the £1.8m, that’s hardly a level playing field contingent on objective criteria. How on earth did that come to pass? It’s contradictory to argue for the withholding of funds from one organisation because their application wasn’t good enough, if the body you then give the funds to made no formal application at all. 

If artists – and taxpayers – all around the country – are to trust the decisions made by Arts Council England and local authorities, at the very least, we need transparency. I don’t have a problem with change, but I desperately want to have confidence that if a precious cultural resource is to be allowed to die, there is a rock solid plan – more than just a vague proposition! – to replace it with something better.

Until we get that transparency, it’s very hard to have that kind of confidence.

If you’re in the area, and you care about the future of locally based theatre, click here for details

A public meeting has been scheduled for 21st February, organised by the actors’ union, Equity, so hopefully all the bodies involved will be ready with the answers that we, as practitioners, taxpayers and audiences, deserve.

At the very least it should be a lively evening.

(If you’re new to the Marmoset and interested in anything you read on the blog page please find out more by clicking here and having a little explore)