Above and Beyond  

After changing their approach to school engagement six years ago, Oldham’s Coliseum Theatre’s secondary education partnership scheme is thriving, benefitting its wonderfully diverse community. Mark Glover headed to the town to find out more.

As I wait to meet Carly Barclay, Head of Learning at the Coliseum Theatre, suddenly, there’s a huge clap of thunder, an earth juddering sound that vibrates my seat.

The bang comes again. It wasn’t raining when I arrived, in fact it was rather sunny. It can’t be thunder. Starting to panic slightly I look around and my eyes fall upon the double-doors in front of me. Stupidly, I realise that this must be some sort of rehearsal. Of course, these are sound affects coming from theatre’s main stage. Feeling relieved but not a little silly I return to my phone.

When I look up Carly has come down to meet me and as she takes me through the theatre, I ask what’s taking place that had me believe it was the end of the world. “It’s Othello,” she says smiling, handing me a cup of tea. “They’re rehearsing ahead of tonight’s performance.”

The English Touring Theatre’s production of Othello has received rave reviews and is currently touring the country. It is arguably Shakespeare’s most modern play, with themes of prejudice and inequality. It feels appropriate the play is showing in one of the North West’s most diverse areas.

“It’s our biggest consideration,” says Carly explaining their audience development. “We’ve got a really diverse population; particularly Pakistani and Bangladeshi, so we do a lot of work to develop those audiences, but it’s also constantly evolving. It doesn’t stand still at all.”

Six years ago, Carly and the theatre’s learning and engagement department hit re-set on their secondary education partnership scheme, integrating their work with young people directly through the communities they were working in.

“We were putting in workshops in those communities but we weren’t really the draw of young people,” Carly recalls. “Schools provided that captive audience.”

She continues: “The way the community and the youth landscape shifted around austerity means the [youth centres] we went to weren’t there anymore. We needed to revert back to schools, to a more traditional model of going to teachers. It’s not about us going in and selling a project, it’s about a relationship.”

Central to this relationship is a programme called The Theatre Experience Morning, which is simply that. Teachers – and students – come in to the building for the morning, see a performance but also experience the inner workings of a theatre, including visits backstage and to the rehearsal rooms. “To get students to think about theatre as a place of work, to get them thinking about the labour and artistry involved in theatre-making; from lighting and prop-making to the actors actually doing their job in the rehearsal room,” Carly says.

Funded by the Andrew Lloyd Weber Foundation the programme began in 2013 and was piloted with four schools. Here, feedback from teachers shaped a more structured yet flexible approach. “It’s really bespoke,” Carly explains. “So non-mainstream schools will get something quite different and I think that’s the key to it; seeing what individual teachers need.”

This link with schools is further strengthened by a bi-annual teachers’ forum, an opportunity for teachers and the theatre to share ideas and feedback. Carly and her team may help with tweaking scripts of the interschool performance that teachers can use for their devising module, as well as offering CPD sessions delivered by visiting practitioners covering mime and stage combat, for example; techniques that can be passed on and taken back into the classroom.

Six years on the scheme has gone from strength-to-strength. The theatre works closely with 14 schools who all pay a subscription to be part of the scheme, which is ultimately subsidised by the Coliseum. It’s an exciting time generally for the building as preparations are in full-flow for a relocation in 2020.

The theatre will be moving up the road near the town’s library, the second most-visited in the North West. This new home, Carly hopes, will assist in welcoming new audiences through the doors. “The new location, near the library will make a difference,” she says. “The library is really accessible and us being next to that, hopefully will break down some of those barriers of accessibility.”

Carly is passionate about the power of the theatre and what it can bring to the area. “I believe it can be more than a place you watch shows,” she says. It can be a meeting place, a place of reflection and creation, something that will drive us into the new building.”

I look forward to coming back in two years and seeing the impact the move will have. If it’s driven by Carly and her wonderful team, I have no doubt that it will be positive one. www.coliseum.org.uk