These are tough times for arts institutions across the country – and Chris Lawson knows that better than most.

He was artistic director of the Coliseum Theatre in Oldham until its closure a year ago and saw the impact it had on staff, audiences and the town as a whole.

‘The Coliseum lost major funding from the Arts Council and that had a catastrophic impact,’ Chris said. ‘That. coupled with the fact that work had never started on the new theatre building that had been talked about for years led to the closure. The effect of that closure was devastating for arts in the town and for the skilled people who lost their jobs.’

But that wasn’t the end of the story – for the Coliseum, or Chris. There is now hope that a new theatre could open in Oldham in a couple of years and, after a spell at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh Chris is back in Lancashire.

He became chief executive of the Dukes Theatre in Lancaster in January, succeeding Karen O’Neill, who is now executive director at Home in Manchester.

Great British Life: The Dukes Theatre on Moor Lane in LancasterThe Dukes Theatre on Moor Lane in Lancaster (Image: The Dukes Theatre)

After training as an actor, Chris started his career at London’s Almeida Theatre but a lifetime in the theatre wasn’t an obvious choice.

‘Growing up in Rotherham, my family wasn’t really into the theatre,’ Chris said. ‘I’m not sure where it came from. I had a couple of inspirational drama teachers and I was involved in some school productions.’

He went on to train in performance and theatre-making before making the move to London. Throughout his training and during his time in the capital he worked on theatre in education productions and ran workshops. In London, he taught drama at GCSE and A-Level for four years.

‘Teaching was fantastic but if I was going to work in the theatre I realised I needed to fully commit to it and make the move. I saved up and did a Masters over two years while I was still teaching.

‘My role in Oldham was broad – a mix of education and directing – and I was fully invested in every part of the building. As a working class man from Rotherham, the opportunity to work and sustain a career long term in the arts was always the ambition and aim.

‘I enjoyed my time in Edinburgh but when this opportunity came up it felt different. I came here and felt like I had a purpose. I felt I could contribute something worthwhile and I felt at home.

‘Karen O’Neill did a fantastic job at the Dukes and to come in to an institution like this, this side of the pandemic, feels so optimistic and full of potential.

Great British Life: The play in the park is a highlight of the theatrical year in Lancashire. The play in the park is a highlight of the theatrical year in Lancashire. (Image: Mike Wilson)

‘I am utterly delighted to be joining the Dukes and to have the opportunity to lead this exciting next chapter. It is clear to me that the staff team at the Dukes is excellent at what they do. The importance of the organisation to the region and the potential for this to continue to grow are evident. I know the Dukes both as an artist touring work here and as an audience member.

‘One of the strengths of the Dukes is the flexibility in the way we work,’ Chris added. ‘We are more nimble than some and we are looking at how we can fully engage and work with audiences.

‘There is such a variety of programming in Lancaster, with us, the Grand, the Gregson and lots more going on around the city and there is a really optimistic feel about the arts here.’

The theatre on Moor Lane has a long track record of innovating – most notably in outdoor theatre. Plays in parks and in the grounds of grand homes are an established part of the British summer now, but back in the 1980s it was almost unheard of. It was a meeting at a Lancaster pub which changed the face of theatre in that city, and across the country.

After a few post-show pints at the Golden Lion next door to the theatre, Jonathan Petherbridge – then the Dukes’ artistic director – came up with a radical solution to the problem of attracting audiences indoors during the summer: take the theatre outdoors.

The Dukes summer shows in Williamson Park have become one of the theatrical highlights of the year since that first walkabout production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1987.

Great British Life: One of the Dukes' previous walkabout theatre productions in Williamson Park was Treasure IslandOne of the Dukes' previous walkabout theatre productions in Williamson Park was Treasure Island (Image: The Dukes Theatre)

This year – alongside their packed programme of stage, screen and community events – they will be staging Alice in Wonderland in the park from July 19 to August 25.

And Chris, the new chief executive at the Dukes, has ideas for further innovation, too. ‘The Dukes has a rich history and we want to give it an exciting future. There seems to be a real hunger for it,’ he said.

‘There is a real opportunity for people in Lancaster, and further afield, to engage and I am really keen to build on that and to look at how we use the different spaces. I don’t want people to have to go away from Lancaster to see certain high quality work on stage or screen.

‘Theatres can sometimes forget to look beyond their own walls – we shouldn’t just rely on people coming in, we should take work to other places and work with the community.

‘Factors combine to make the Dukes a very special place and it’s a place for everyone, where they can feel at home. Theatres and arts buildings can be intimidating places but I want people to know they belong.’

And Roddy Gauld, chair of the Dukes, added: 'Chris brings a fantastic reputation as a leader, producer, and director. He impressed us with his experience and his drive to connect the Dukes with communities, artists, and audiences from Lancaster and beyond. The trustees are sure that under his leadership, the Dukes will thrive.’

3 to see

Three of the shows on the programme this month at the Dukes

May 2. Emergence. The postgraduate dance company of Joss Arnott Dance and the University of Salford showcase emerging talent.

May 9. National Theatre Live: Nye. A screening of Tim Price’s play starring Michael Sheen as Nye Bevan.

May 15-16. Rotten. A darkly comic thriller about the cost of living crisis influenced by Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie.

For full listings and more information, go to