In the old days, they would have called Oldham Theatre a “rep theatre”. They are a building-based producing theatre in the centre of Oldham in East Lancashire. But they are also much more than just a lot of seating and a proscenium arch. They produce themselves most of the theatre that appears on their stage, and at present make eight shows a year.
But they also have workshops, 45 staff who are a mix of production and education staff, marketing staff and front of house, and they even run an annual festival, The Festival of Diversity, a 4 to 5 week community festival which is about community involvement in arts and other cultural activity.
“Far more than just a theatre”
Administrative Director Liz Wilson’s office looks out over the old town of Oldham and over the moors that climb above it. She is keen to stress that they are an arts organisation in the round, not just ‘a venue’.
“As well as our studio we have a main theatre of 585 seats. We have around 300 performances annually; most of which we hold in the main theatre. In addition to that we run a programme of children’s theatre outside the building in two venues which is bringing in international theatre companies to perform, so that we have an ongoing programme targeted at families: our pantomime, which is a big production for us, plays to 38,000 people. In addition to that we run an education and outreach programme in children’s centres, community centres, and primary and secondary schools; in the last financial year we ran just over 800 sessions through that programme with around 19,000 participant attendances, and different kinds of activity; from very young, to much older. And there’s a mix of regular things that happen here every week: acting groups, writing groups, that sort of activity. A lot of out-reach work happens in community settings, schools, and project based work happens in lots of different places. So our current attendance is around 100,000 annually. We are far more then just a theatre”.
In fact, Liz feels the organisation has a big civic role, especially through the festival (which is a big event in Oldham, involving many different partners).
“We think we should be that kind of community resource, and in fact there is little else in Oldham in term of cultural institutions to play that kind of role and we believe in access to those opportunities as being essential to the development of this town; that is why we play that kind of part and have picked up initiatives where many other theatres might have thought ‘not for us’.’’
“I would say that despite all that progressive thinking regarding what kind of role a theatre should play within its community, we were not terribly progressive as regards the role of new technologies in any aspect of what we did, and there was a certain amount of suspicion of technology undermining what was at our heart; the engagement between actor, performance and audience. That was one of the things we wanted to challenge within the organisation. Also the view and reputation of the organisation as a theatre being quite an ‘old-fashioned’ theatre, doing relatively conventional work. So we felt it was important to shift our reputation to doing other things but also doing them on our main stage as well.
The other thing we felt we needed to address was to make information technology development sustainable in an organisation of this scale. We have no technology experts; we are not going to have any experts! So we wanted to look at a model that other people could learn from and how an organisation that is unlikely to have the money to have an expert in this area continues to develop in this area and use its IT and improve its business efficiency. 6 years ago we had 3 computers, one of which had access to the internet, that was it! We have moved on a lot from there; with a network 30 computers and everybody having access to the internet.
So it was trying to look at where we were in 2004 and where we had moved to in 2007 and knowing how to reflect on how we have improved and to find what input of expertise we needed to take us where we are heading.
We also wanted to look at our communication tools; again going back to the view of who is the theatre, who are their target audience, what do we produce, and challenge that. And to do so, we need to talk to different audiences in different ways”.
An emphasis on self sufficiency
“It wanted a planned approach to development, and as part of that we wanted it to have a real emphasis on self sufficiency as regards the use of technology. We wanted our staff to have more spirit of enquiry with how technology can serve them. We concentrated on the training- in the very basics of what we do, skills analysis and so on, including an audit of hardware and software and basic training of Word so as to hit a minimum standard within the organisation. From there we looked at the under-lying areas we felt we were poor on, building something that is about self sufficiency and not needing to bring in an expert.
“What we found from the audit was simply that when we sat down and talked to people, it became clear that people were not even using what we have, and they didn’t know how, let alone them being in the position of imagining what more we could do”.
While some members of the theatre staff have only just been given computers – some for the first time in their working lives – Liz and the team have developed a strategy to raise everyone’s boats. If that seems maybe harder to do, it is at least more inclusive, which for Liz is a key criterion. Liz took this position for both practical and principled reasons.
“Practically speaking, a small admin team of two people couldn’t cope with bundles of calls asking about empty printer toner and other basic things. We needed everybody to feel comfortable knowing that they could deal with such everyday issues themselves. Experience and understanding will help. But then how do we get people to stop and work out how to solve the problem without resorting to phoning someone else? It needs empowerment. I do think there is a philosophical side as well, I didn’t want our use of technology to be something that was imposed, but rather grew from staff demands themselves. However, this has meant the staff have started making these demands, and inevitably we need to try and meet them. Putting in faster broadband due to staff demands for example has cost us £1000. But you can see the difference it has made. Not every body has embraced it, but the majority has. And the Office software package is more accessible across the board”.
This process of training and empowerment took a clear form, starting with asking people where they were already. “We had a very detailed questionnaire to gage current technology-literacy levels. Then where necessary we brought in training in seminars. We’ve used more than one training provider that we found through our normal training suppliers; we also went through our local chamber of commerce, our FE college, and talked to other arts organisations.
“We also looked at our induction process for new recruits. We found we needed visual aids to show how computers ‘talk’ to each other; we produced trouble-shooting documents…. It has been a mix of ways to ensure people understand how the system works.
We are currently rewriting our job specs to include what level of IT literacy is expected of new recruits, and of course there are different levels for different positions.
The audit also threw up that we had a huge range of different specs throughout our machines – some were very slow, some unnecessarily fast – and it showed up the mistakes we had made in the past in buying computers”.
One small but important practical issue that the organisation has changed is filing. Filing does not sound like an exciting operational challenge, but having everybody’s work filed on their own computers, under their own headings, became an issue. The staff were sure they wanted to move away from everything being filed under “Person Y’s files” to a shared system. The task has been complicated enough that they still have not resolved it: “We have got a concept we are working on, and an aim we would like to achieve. We know we have to do this. We are dealing with a working way of the last 30 years for some people”.
In some senses these changes are part of ongoing professional development for the staff; for a small organisation the Coliseum seem to have done pretty well.
“One thing we have kept an eye on though” says Liz Wilson “is that we do not want to become corporate. We don’t want to have a big-brother type ‘you must do it this way’ approach. We are still individuals; a collection of experts from different areas. So we try to come at it by knowing that what is valuable is that we all have access to everything. There is a philosophy in this, an openness. There is no need to be defensive about it or secretive. But we are careful not to force people to do things that are really alien to them”.
In order to really enhance how the staff worked together and could all see what each other were working on, the initial idea was to have an Extranet, where staff could log in, post progress reports, diaries, schedules and so on; it would also be available for the many outside contractors to access and fit into. For example an external set designer could know the what, where, and when; get plans, and find out about a progress meeting.
“It came from an extension of what we thought the characteristics of the organisation were; friendly and welcoming, but also professional. We wanted to extend that to our family of people that we work with. We have 45-50 staff, but we also have a large extension of actors, designers etc that we work with all the time and we re-use people so there is a whole network of people we refer to as the extranet that we want to have access to information about the organisation; they would know more and be part of a communication loop.
“We moved away from this project because, well, we felt we need to address something else first, and that was to take a look at our own online communication to our audience and potential audience. So we de-prioritised the extranet and made a new part time post of ‘online marketing officer’”.
Some of the work that such a system would do is essential to communicate anyway. The team is having to find slightly more time consuming, if familiar, ways to communicate that information.
“We do it in a central way, in terms of a shared drive. So-and-so will go away and write up some notes from a meeting, they will appear on the shared drive, and people will know where to go to look for them. Somebody will email them to the designer, so that process already happens in some way, it’s just that it’s trying to cut out some of those tasks; so the information is just ‘there’ and available”.
It is relatively unusual for a theatre that they do not have event management software already installed.
“We did look at some programmes like Artifax [which the New Wolsey theatre and Liverpool Philharmonic use, for example]. But Artifax is really designed for receiving venues rather then producing venues. We felt it would cover an element of what we do, but it’s not developed up for a producing theatre.
“Instead we have a booking system, using Office tools, that kind of works. It is in Excel and called the “space diary”. It’s kept on our shared drive and you can consult it but you cannot change it. If you want to make a change, you have to email a single person, and there is a commitment for any changes to be updated into the space diary within a day. We muddle through”.
The staff have considered free software such as Base Camp, but have not progressed due to a combination of the lack of features in Base Camp, the time needed to establish it, and the fact the existing system works tolerably and they have other priorities at the moment. As much as it might be possible for them to pay to have Artifax or some other commercial system tailored for their needs, that would definitely be the super-expensive option; not only would some of the functionality need to be changed, to develop it to be what they want it to be – an Extranet that other people could access – would require licenses that would cost thousands, perhaps tens of thousands.
Instead, they have concentrated on an altogether more human element.
The new youth-led theatre project is centred around doing whatever it takes to make it genuinely youth-led. As Liz says “It is one thing to put on a youth theatre project; theatres do it all the time. What we wanted to do, predominantly through social media, was to generate ideas and concepts and contributions to the generation of a piece of work, as well as the networks that surrounded it and continued to contribute to what it could be and how it is marketed. So it wasn’t just a youth theatre play that used social media technology on stage, although that was a part of it; it was how the piece was developed, and how a wide a network of people could contribute to it.
It has influenced how we operate as an organisation, how young people might feature in what we do in the future. And it has changed our thinking in the sense that now it could be a contribution of thousands from a social networking system compared to a group of people in a class room.
It has at its core a group of individuals in what we call our ‘digi-lab’, who are predominantly people we know already from University Campus Oldham doing performance arts, quite old young people, mainly 18+. Those people have been working with a social media practitioner Christian Payne, and have worked with other AV artists to build up their knowledge base of how to generate ideas from social media.
And the theatre piece has come from ideas centred around identity; how you see yourself, the different relationships in your life. So not only have the ways in which people contribute to the theatre piece been influenced, but also the nature of the piece itself.
“The crucial thing is, not ‘wow, here is a different way to communicate, let’s just use Facebook to tell me about this show’ but what new ideas are coming out of the concepts of social networking. We are still in the middle of that, so we cannot say if it has been a viable way to generate ideas, or if anything coherent enough to create art has been evinced. It’s still got to create a piece of theatre, which is what we want out of it in the end.
The idea is that the piece will be presented through the use of new technology. I suppose it will still use some of the more conventional methods used to produce theatre, actors, sets and so on. But we want to experiment and have fun with new technology. It’s a chance to play. And it’s speaking to digital natives in their mother tongue”.
Online Marketing Officer
Part of the Oldham Coliseum’s digital progression included a new online marketing officer post.
“She has been bringing the theatre’s regular marketing practice up to date with the understanding that the object is to engage and relate our core attendees. Our audience is defined by being regular. A small number of people who come alot. But we are also aware there a number of smaller niche audiences that need to see our sub-brands, and social networking is ideal for that.
“The officer has also set out to improve the functionality of our website, and the look of it. They will make sure that there are more reasons to come back, and more awareness of what we do. They also try to take the risk element out of coming here so people can think to themselves ‘oh, that’s what it’s like to go to the Oldham Coliseum’ rather then making pre-judgements. We want to allow people to place a value on us that they themselves can understand. We want them to know that the Oldham Coliseum is for them”.
One of the ways to show people literally that the theatre is “for them” is through video. The Coliseum staff have had specific training with the Adobe Creative Suite, including Photoshop and design packages. They have also had a basic level of training on video equipment.
Students from the University Campus Oldham cover the main base of their outsourced video work. But the staff also purchased Kodak Zi6 handheld camcorders that they can work themselves for quick interviews to put on the website: “they’re easy and quick, but really not great quality. We also use them for rehearsal, interviews, and talking to the audience after a show to get some feed back.
That happens after every show now. In addition, the education department use them: acting lab with weekly adults, the education out-reach use them as a teaching tool to show progression. We will also use them as an evaluation tool as well. And as a way of communicating with designers”.
Liz personally has some reservations about the quality of the footage “I think we decided there is a limitation to the range of skills we can expect from the staff. Our staff aren’t experts in video editing or presentation, and we can’t expect them to be. Instead we have a very good source of individuals who know what they are doing from the digital media MA. They do our mainstream stuff when we really need to professional”.
The human angle
Liz is pleased with all the changes that have taken place (whilst wishing the extranet had advanced more) but, she says, it has been hard work.
“There were no obvious digital pioneers in the organisation. And it has been met with some suspicion; are we just ticking boxes, jumping on the digital bandwagon and spending newly acquired funds? And I understand that people would feel this; any change causes problems. Nobody has the answer on day one to everybody embracing it at the same speed.
Now, I think there are mixed reviews really. There is still a difference in ability at people’s desks, and of what they can do self sufficiently, but the standard has improved. There is definitely a difference in the number of people coming back for more; people saying ‘thank god for that, it’s about time we moved into the 21st century’. We had to work out a way that an organisation of this size could plan for its development: this was vital for feeling in control in the future.
On the whole, people feel we have taken control, rather then wondering what crisis will arise next week, and that’s a good thing for the whole organisation to feel.
People were worried that we were moving away from a social organisation. And that is one of the important things here, that we enjoy each other and we enjoy that social aspect. We don’t get paid that well, we work long hours and are asked to commit to an awful lot, but this is much more then just a job for a lot of people. But I think initially people thought we were throwing a lot of that out and saying that from now on we will only communicate via the computer. That’s not it at all.
We have found a balance with that, to ensure we are the social organisation we want to be, but also more efficient in the way we work”.
Liz’s advice for other arts organisations in the same positions is “Do not fight the pace of change. You cannot shift peoples’ understanding of this stuff overnight, it is always going to be a long process; there are no short cuts. We were hoping there might be some ‘eureka’ moments, there were possibly some mini ones, but change is always going to be gradual, if it is to last.
You can challenge the pace of change, but you can’t fight it. By which I mean that things won’t happen at the click of a finger, or a button”.