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Oldham Theatre Workshop

Philip Hamer talks to the TV stars who learnt their trade at the North West's answer to Sylvia Young's

Published on July 30th 2008.


Oldham Theatre Workshop

Long before today's youth became obsessed with fame, the Oldham Theatre Workshop was nurturing the North West's acting talent by offering free drama classes to young people.

Despite the big names, it was never a child star conveyor belt (unlike many stage schools with high fees). Instead it was a creative haven that gave thousands of young people a confidence and assuredness that they would take into all walks of life.

Its luminaries form an illustrious roll call that rivals the main London stage schools: young stars from Coronation Street, Brookside and Hollyoaks all attended, as well as the international actors Anna Friel and Marsha Thomason.

Despite the big names, it was never a child star conveyor belt (unlike many stage schools with high fees). Instead it was a creative haven that gave thousands of young people a confidence and assuredness that they would take into all walks of life.

The youth theatre workshop was the brainchild of local drama teacher David Johnson. For 25 years he led with a distinctive style, giving students the fundamental roots that complement talent and make for durable working actors.

“He replicated many of the situations that I have encountered as an actor”, says Walkden-born Jason Done who is currently starring as English teacher Tom Clarkson in the BBC school drama Waterloo Road. “I spent a brief stint with the workshop in 1989, appearing in a small part in a production called Chalky. Though David Johnson was a hard task-master, he taught me a lot.”

Anna Friel’s father Des endorses this view: “David had a remarkable ability to prepare his pupils for a very demanding profession.” Anna’s early success illustrates well how the workshop propelled talented youngsters into the theatrical limelight. She was 12-years-old when she was spotted at the workshop by casting agents looking for young people to play Michael Palin’s children in the 1988 drama GBH. A few years later she was sharing the famous Brookside lesbian kiss with Nicola Stephenson – another workshop member.

Workshop veterans such as Bury-born Anthony Cotton who plays Sean Tully, Coronation Street’s iconic gay character, remembers ten marvellous years at the workshop. “I had a terrible dread of appearing in front of large audiences,” he says, “and the workshop helped me cope with that.”

Many feared for its future after Johnson left to eventually develop his own Salford-based drama school. In 2004 a local press campaign moved into gear to save it when Oldham's local authority threatened to pull funding, even though 400 youngsters were attending classes.

It was saved but at a cost; one of David Johnson’s guiding principles was abandoned when charges were introduced. Bizarrely after 40 impressive years, the workshop is still threatened with a 46 per cent cut in funding. The attendance level has dropped dramatically in recent years, even though pupils are still fiercely defensive of the workshop’s aims.

“You get a pretty unique chance to see exactly how demanding the acting business is. This is not a quick route to fame.“ These words from a current member show how the ethos established in David Johnson’s heyday still lives on.

Contact Oldham Coliseum's box office on 0161 624 2829 for details about Alice, the workshop’s fortieth anniversary production.
Click here for more information.

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david newtonJuly 30th 2008.

as many actors will tell you this very good website. I myself as singer and actor and entertainer many years now I think great website.

DAVID STEVENSJuly 30th 2008.

David Johnson Dramahttp://www.davidjohnsondrama.com/

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