by Susan Wildman, Interim Chief Executive, Oldham Coliseum Theatre
Oldham Coliseum was recently named one of the most accessible theatres in the UK in an article by Age UK, but with a theatre building that was built in 1887 that accolade is not down to the bricks and mortar. Recognising the restrictions of our building, our entire team does everything possible to make the theatre as accessible as it can be for our audiences, participants and visitors.
The biggest access challenge is that our building spreads over many levels. We’re fortunate that our foyer, Box Office, education and hospitality space, shop, accessible toilets, bar and the Stalls area of our auditorium all enjoy level access and we have six wheelchair spaces in the Stalls. Upstairs, whilst there is a lift to our Studio Theatre, it’s not ideal as it doesn’t provide wheelchair access to the upstairs bar or toilet facilities.
We’re fortunate that our stage is accessible, which means we’re able to present productions with actors who use wheelchairs, converting our education and hospitality space - which also contains an accessible toilet - into an actor’s private area. We’re thrilled that - despite its age - our building allows us to do this, but we’re aware that it isn’t perfect for the actors as the workshop and hospitality space is adjacent to a public bar.
We’ve listened to our audiences and we know that for many people with access requirements the first step to visiting the theatre is to research the best way to travel to and from the venue and the facilities available once they’re here; so we seek to empower audiences and prospective audiences with knowledge before they attend. Coliseum staff can advise by phone and we have a dedicated access email address. Our website details not only our access facilities, but useful additional information including accessible transport options, the exact number of steps to each area of the building not on ground level and the best places to sit in our auditorium if you’d like to use the Infrared Assisted Listening or Loop system.
We’re always on the lookout for ways in which we can improve the experience of visiting the Coliseum. With one BSL and one Audio Described performance per production as standard, we recently collaborated with other theatres across Greater Manchester in a successful bid for funds to purchase captioning equipment, including portable sets which can be used in the Studio Theatre.
We adopted the Family Arts Campaign’s Age Friendly Standards when they launched in 2017 and collaborated with Age UK and The Dukes, Lancaster, having been inspired by Leeds Playhouse, to provide staff across all departments with Dementia Friendly training ahead of our first Dementia Friendly Performance that year. We now hold a well-attended Dementia Friendly performance each season and a Relaxed Performance of our popular pantomime each year, tailored by our technicians in real time for their individual audiences. Dementia Friendly trained staff throughout the company means that not only are we all aware of best practice, but customers at a Dementia Friendly or Relaxed performance can ask anyone - be it a member of our Front of House team or a member of the Admin team passing through the foyer - for guidance without being passed on to another member of staff. A theatre’s work is not just on stage, and so as part of our participation programme we collaborate with Horse + Bamboo Theatre, with funding from the National Lottery Big Communities Fund, to provide Dementia Friendly creative workshops both in the theatre and in care home environments for those who are unable to travel to the venue.
With advancing technology we know that in future audiences will have access to apps on their smartphones for access features such as audio description and amplified sound, which means those who would like to use these features will no longer need to make themselves known in asking for access equipment if they don’t wish to. Our ideal is to enable all people to attend the Coliseum unannounced and with constantly improving technology, a people focus and a little bit of luck, the only future restriction to this will be wheelchair access.