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Shame, shame, and shame again on Arts Council England and Oldham Council for effectively giving the finger to Oldham Coliseum, their audiences, and all the professionals who have worked there over the years, by not having the balls to come and be accountable for their decisions at the public meeting held at the theatre last night (Tuesday 21st February).

A lively audience heard speeches from Maxine Peake (right), Equity President Lynda Rooke (left) and writer Ian Kershaw (Writers Guild). Meanwhile Arts Council England snubbed the event and were rightfully ’empty chaired’ (centre).

It was a very moving event attended by well over 400 people – not just actors and technicians and creatives, but community activists, and, most importantly, life-long audience members for whom Oldham Coliseum is a totemic part of their identity. But the decision makers, and purse string holders, snubbed the event – despite being promised a fair and respectful hearing – telling the organisers that they were only prepared to have ‘private’ meetings.

Earlier in the day, Oldham Council (presumably with ACE’s blessing) rushed out a press release heralding plans for a shiny new £24m theatre.

An artist’s impression of the proposed new Coliseum building, notably without a fly tower, and reported without on site rehearsal space. There will be fewer seats and a much smaller stage.

But we’ve been here before with plans announced and shelved. If they had a coherent case to make… why not come and make it? By not turning up both bodies looked weak and rude and defensive – and worst of all it added to the sense that the new plans were to be taken with a massive pinch of salt. There is very little trust that this is going to happen, and that lack of trust was amplified by the failure of ACE and the Council to come and argue their corner.

According to Chris Lawson, the Coliseum’s Artistic Director and CEO, the new plans don’t include a rehearsal space (contrary to what is said in the press release), nor a fly tower, and has fewer seats – thus making the business model even more challenging. It really does sound like a ‘performance space’ rather than an actual theatre. There are voices at the Council who have said they are keen for it to remain a producing house, but this isn’t fully endorsed by ACE and seems to fade in and out like an old fashioned radio signal depending which reports you read. I sense that no one in charge understands the difference between a ‘performance space’ and a ‘theatre’ which is so much more.

Questions remain unanswered as to the fate of the £1.8m denied to the theatre but entrusted to Oldham Council which is yet to indicate how the money will be spent, or if there will be a transparent process by which creatives can apply for project money in the absence of the theatre itself. Indeed is there anyone on the Council with the expertise to manage such a fund? As Chris Lawson said, the Arts Council appear to have rejected the Coliseum’s plans for being ‘too risky’ – but exchanged them for ‘no plan whatsoever’ – ! – which a reasonable person might consider to be even riskier.

It was a massive misjudgement by Arts Council England and Oldham Council not to show up. It demonstrated contempt for the communities they are there to serve. How ACE have the brass neck to make people bidding for funds jump through hoops in terms of ‘engagement’ when they are too arrogant to ‘engage’ with anyone who might disagree with them.

And as for Oldham Council. It’s sickening to see a Labour Council (adopts Kinnock voice: ‘a Labour council!’) treating its constituents with such disregard. If local democracy is to mean anything, then those councillors need to feel it in the ballot box.

If ACE and Oldham Council are serious about providing a new theatre then why on earth wouldn’t they be jumping over each other to come and enthuse about the future and more importantly consult with the ‘stakeholders’ (I hate that word!) about what that space needs to be. The stakeholders were all there last night, in one place, but treated as if their views were of no relevance.

The Stakeholders were all there.

But even without the key players, it was a good meeting and genuinely inspirational as people talked about the community involvement and the theatre’s practical role as a cultural hub with regard to new writing, the South Asian and Roma communities, and its role in promoting performance skills for young people in the most deprived borough in Greater Manchester. There was a lot more of a sense of how important the theatre is beyond its core task of putting on shows than I was expecting.

The evening rounded off with Equity Campaigns Officer, Gareth Forest, reassuring the assembly that all the questions raised would not only be put to the Arts Council, but that he would remind them that anyone posing such a question ought to be in the room to do it person. He ended by directing people to the campaign website where you can scroll down for a handy guide to who to write to in support of the theatre. Please please please do click on the link and let’s fill the inboxes of everyone involved so that they can’t pretend this tsunami of passion can possibly be ignored again.

If the Marmoset seems a little out of sorts, then you’d be right. It’s hard to express quite how low my opinion of ACE is right now so if you are involved with ACE then I’m looking at you too. Grow up, show some maturity, and tell your colleagues to grow up while you’re at it. You are paid for out of the public purse, you have a duty to be fully accountable – and to ‘engage’ with the people who pay your wages.

Following Tuesday’s no-show at the public meeting to which they were invited (and since the Marmoset put paw to paper to scribble the above blog) the Arts Council has issued a formal statement which you can read in full, here. Laura Dyer, Deputy Chief Executive of ACE was also interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme on Saturday 25th February, which you can listen to here. Aside from the tin-eared nature of the following statement…

Only someone with a completely London-centric perspective, ignorant of the geography, the appalling public transport or any inkling of how a community such as Oldham works or engages with the world could write such a sentence in this context as if it somehow made the decision more acceptable.

…neither utterance adds much to the debate. It’s still baffling that the management of the Coliseum is attacked, blaming their application as ‘too risky’ and yet it’s deemed preferable to give the £1.8m to a body that neither applied for it, nor, as yet, has coherent plans for it. But more alarmingly – very alarmingly – there is no commitment, either in the written statement nor in Ms Dyer’s interview, to maintaining a resident, permanent producing company.

A ‘performing space’ is a building, not a theatre company. No one would describe the Oldham Coliseum as ‘a performance space’ because it is so so so much more than that.

It is very very hard indeed not to infer that the reason that neither ACE nor Oldham Council want to engage directly with stakeholders in a public forum is that they are unable or unwilling to address the questions around these two issues that would doubtless come their way. By issuing statements, and refusing to engage publicly with stakeholders, they project a bunker mentality which only adds to the prevailing sense of distrust. They can fix this very easily. If their ideas for the future of the Coliseum are tenable and exciting, come and tell us how great they are. If they’re as good as they believe them to be, then they will stand up to public scrutiny, and we’ll all be very happy, and go home dancing.

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