The audience at Oldham Coliseum Theatre, holding up banners and signs to save the theatre

Kevin Leach worked at Oldham Coliseum since June 2006. For about 14 years he was a stage technician before becoming technical manager just before the pandemic. Though having to deal with redundancy himself, he campaigned to save the theatre too, and has posed questions to Oldham Council in his fight for answers and assurances for his colleagues.

Kevin thankfully managed to secure a new position for himself as Stage Manager at Manchester Opera House, luckily keeping one of our most skilled theatre technicians in the North West, but some of his colleagues are still facing an uncertain future. The Meteor spoke with him at the conclusion of the redundancy consultation period to hear his thoughts on the situation.

Can you tell me about your role at the Coliseum?

For many, many years, we were producing eight shows a year, self-produced, we toured work around the UK to partner venues and we had a studio season. We then also received work. So we would receive one night or weekly shows and on top of that we had amateur groups come to us – Oldham Theatre Workshop came to us, and then all the LED community work. So the landscape pre-pandemic was very different to what it is today, and that’s for a number of reasons. It’s for funding and it’s bums on seats. There was also a change in the Arts Council‘s direction in terms of what they wanted us to produce and put on stage. But back when we were producing eight shows a year from rock ‘n’ roll musicals to straight down-the-line drama pieces, we had a tech team of 15, now we have 6. It’s my job to manage anything that comes to us and that we produce. So anything that goes on the main stage we’ll have a hand in that, and anything that comes into our studio we’ll have a hand in that, and I manage two technicians who’re multi-skilled, as opposed to pre-pandemic, we were very much departmentalised. So anything that goes in the air set-wise or lighting-wise or sound-wise or video-wise, we look after that. We also do some maintenance of the building, so if there’s a tap leaking, toilet not working, we’ll step in and look after that.

When it comes to the wider building maintenance, that’s the council’s responsibility. What’s your response to Amanda Chadderton’s claim that it’s riddled with asbestos despite the majority of it being removed in the last refurbishment? Do you help to look after the remaining bit that couldn’t be removed?

It’s not directly my job to manage the asbestos. We have an asbestos report every year but that’s managed by the production manager in liaison with the council. It’s logged where the asbestos is left, it’s mainly in inaccessible areas and it would only become an issue if you decided to go anywhere near it, or damage it. So for example, if you needed to remove a wall, and there was encapsulated asbestos in that wall, then obviously, you would need the specialists to come in. But in the refurb, the vast, vast majority of the asbestos got removed. The asbestos that’s still remaining in the building is encapsulated and it’s not in areas where we would ever need to go. For example, the safety curtain, the fire curtain, that’s got asbestos in it but that’s a sealed unit. There may be traces in the material but it’s all been treated so unless you took a grinder to the safety curtain which you would never do, there’s no threat. The rhetoric that came from the council, which I thought was a silly word to use – riddled – it’s just a throwaway word really, she didn’t know anything about it. She’s just been told that by somebody very misinformed. At the time that that comment was made, we had children on stage, we had performances visiting us from around the country and comments like that, not only that comment about the asbestos, but also the comment about walls falling down, it’s just ill-informed.

Can you tell me anything about that second comment?

I witnessed the wall falling down and two weeks previous to this we contacted the council because they maintain the building. The reason it fell down is because there was a tree growing out the top of it. We mentioned this to the council who had started to set the ball rolling on getting repairs done, but had not done so quick enough. So then the wall did fall down, it was an extremity wall, which is adjoined to the property next door. So it’s like a boundary wall as it were. The comment that came from Councillor Mushtaq, I believe, was that there was a wall that fell down at the back of stage and that’s totally untrue.

So any sort of maintenance issues with the building when they’re saying that it’s unsafe, are either not true, or the council’s responsibility to fix?

I would agree with that. I certainly wouldn’t work in a building that is unsafe, and I wouldn’t allow anybody to come into the building if the building was unsafe. That’s not just a statement from me, that’s every single staff member in the Coliseum. We’re all intelligent people, we wouldn’t let that happen. Obviously, theatre is a dangerous environment in terms of some of the work that we do; we work at height, we work with heavy loads, so we have to have a health and safety hat on all the time. So I would not let anybody in, either working for me, or visitors into the building if it was unsafe. And indeed, yes, the council as they are landlords to the building, it is their responsibility on the whole to upkeep the building. One thing to bear in mind though, is that this ten years of life that was given to the current building was agreed because we should have been in the new space, the new theatre by the end of that 10 year lifespan. The reason why we’re seeing more issues arise now is because we’re not in that new space because it’s not been built.

I wondered if you knew anything about why it all fell through in 2018?

I think it was spiralling costs. The Southgate Street site was fantastic, in my opinion. We had a lot of meetings with the architects, and we made it totally a brilliant space, not only the main theatre, but the studio space would have been a fantastic space. It was a like-for-like in terms of capacity, but the studio space was a much, much bigger space, which would have allowed us to try and generate new works of theatre in that studio space. It would have been a fantastic space for the LED team to engage with the community. The cost spiralled and as far as I’m aware, that was the main reason. There was an issue at one point with the road which is between the old library and the car park on Southgate. The numbers just did not add up because the toll was just getting higher and higher.

What do you think of the new plans?

Well, it’s an interesting one, because the last time I saw them will have been probably when we were just coming out of the pandemic. I’m sure the plans have changed since then, I haven’t seen them. All I can say is the plans that I did see, you could not physically fit 300 seats in that space. I think at the last count it was about 298, the stage is half the size of our current footprint, it’s got practically no wingspan. It has about two metres wide scene dock and we have about five metres wide currently, and it has no flying facilities. So, in my opinion, it is not fit for purpose as a like-for-like replacement, it will be a very different space. The management here had to draw up a business plan to move forward into that new space and that was based on a reduced capacity. I think if the new theatre ever gets built, they will lose more money than what we currently lose here. The reason why is because the scale of shows that they would be able to receive would be much less. So a lot of the sets that we get in here we can accommodate because of the size of our stage and we have counterweights flied, we wouldn’t be able to take those in the new theatre. It would be a very different space. The studio in the latest plans that I saw, there wasn’t one because they couldn’t physically fit one in. The front-of-house areas were a lot better equipped in terms of bars and a little cafe but back-of-house – very little on-site storage, not a great technical set-up. It’s a lot of money for what they’re doing. We had a refurb in 2013 at a cost of £1.9 million. I think close to a million pounds of that was for the removal of asbestos. So if you say it was £2 million, £1 million on asbestos removal, £1 million to do the front-of-house remedial repairs and put ventilation in, I just shudder to think how much you could achieve in the current site with even half of the amount of money that they’re proposing to spend on the new build. It’s clear Oldham Council don’t want a theatre on this site.

We’ve talked a lot over the last few months about flying systems in theatres but I wondered if you could explain to our readers why that is so important?

The counterweight flying system, some theatres have hemp flying, some theatres have automation for their flying systems. The counterweight flying system allows you to rig heavy equipment easily. It also allows for you to put scenery or any drapes on and fly it out of view. So very quickly you can change a scene by using flying. Most people will have seen the front-of-house tabs, the big red tabs that come in so that things can be set up behind or to reveal things. If you didn’t have them, your stage would just be open constantly unless you had something on a track, which you could pull across. To fly your show is an art form. When we talk about the pantomime, the flying is a big part of pantomime. It sets the scene behind the front cloth, the show cloth. And then you can very quickly change the scenes with the use of flying. The people who do it, it’s a skill that you amass over a number of years. When I first came to the Coliseum, I didn’t know how to fly but very quickly learned and I’ve been the resident fly man for 17 years. So yeah, it gives you the ability to change things very quickly. Whereas if you didn’t have it, it would all just be very static.

Thank you. Do you know anything about the governance report that has been mentioned in conjunction with why the Coliseum was rejected for funding?

All I can say is that there is a new board in place now. The old board and the old chief executive stepped down in November when the application was rejected. I think there were mistakes made, I think there was a bit of transparency that wasn’t given back to the larger staff members [from the old board]. I think the old chief exec was blindsided by the new build in particular and I think there were a few closed doors. Things were being agreed and sent to the council, which actually, if it would have been taken to the wider staff base, they would have had different opinions. I think the board didn’t govern strongly enough under that chief executive.  I think more could have been done by the old chief executive to make a stronger case for the NPO funding.

What happens next?

My last day of working will be 28 April. I start my new position in the middle of May. So the next four weeks we’ll be starting to decommission equipment and start to empty the buildings and the wider staff base, everybody’s scrambling around trying to secure work, some have already. There’s 130 years’ worth of equipment here. We also have offsite storage that we need to clear. In the first instance, we’re trying to keep it recycled within the industry. But there’s a hell of a lot to sort out. I think it’s worth bearing in mind that throughout the whole of this process, the skeleton staff members that still remain here, have had to deal not only with the fact that they have been made redundant, a lot of these staff members have been here for a long, long time. They love the building, they love the people, they love the audiences just as much as the general public. We’ve been going through the same thing. But also on top of that, we’ve had to try and work through everything as well as continuing to put shows on and be professional to the visiting companies. So it’s been really, really difficult because of all the external noise as well.

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  • Zoe Hodges

    Zoe has been a journalist for over eight years specialising primarily in music and sports. She has had the pleasure of interviewing some of the biggest artists in the country music genre and covering major sporting events such as the Women's Euros and the Commonwealth Games. In her spare time she enjoys writing and composing her own music.

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