By Doreen Crowther, Showbusiness Correspondent CAROLINE Smith is as far removed from an autocratic theatrical director as it is possible to be.

Imposing rigid concepts on a production is not her style at all.

"I believe in pooling ideas," she said. "If the 'lowest of the low' in the theatre has a good suggestion then I will take it up," she said.

"And you would be mad not to listen to actors," she added. They are the ones who will have to get up there on stage and do it. You are trying to be there as an audience."

I talked to Caroline during a break in rehearsals for the play Staircase which she is directing. It runs from tonight until October 9 at the Oldham Coliseum.

The play, written by Charles Dyer, stars Roy Barraclough and Kenneth Alan Taylor. It's more than 30 years since they worked together on stage and they are thoroughly enjoying it.

"We've done TV together and we've directed each other, but for some reason we've not acted together, " Kenneth said. "It seemed the perfect year in which to do it with the town celebrating its 150th anniversary and the rep company celebrating 60 years at theColiseum."

Roy is equally enthusiastic. "I always enjoy working at the Coliseum, partly because it's the theatre I did my training in, but also because the audiences are so warm and welcoming," he said.

"Staircase is very funny but has hugely sad moments too and I'm sure it'll prove a popular choice with which to open the new season."

The play is set in a barbershop and the play starts with Roy finishing shaving Kenneth. For Staircase Kenneth will lose his trademark beard.

"They are both very good," Caroline said. "It's great to be working with people who respect each other so much."

Caroline who is married to actor Christopher Ravenscroft who plays Burden in the Ruth Rendell Wexford series, does not come from a theatrical family.

She was born in Egypt where her father was in the medical service. The family returned to live in Hampshire where she was sent to what Caroline described as "a baby drama school".

Her father dissuaded her from following her first ambition to be a nurse and she went to drama school.

But she knew straight away that she wanted to direct not act.

She began directing at the Theatre in the Round, Stoke-On-Trent, and in 1964 won a Thames Television Theatre Bursary.

She has worked in regional theatre across the country, commercial theatre in London and Europe and in radio drama for the BBC.

MUCH of her work has been in the fostering and pioneering of new plays, adaptations and translations. She is an Olivier Award nominee.

Caroline was Artistic Director of Manchester's's Contact Theatre from 1975-78 and acting Artistic Director at the Oldham Coliseum in 1982.

In 1999 she returned to the Coliseum to direct a special season to mark the reopening of the Studio and she directed Rebecca in the main house.

She believes Staircase has the perfect ingredients for a good play.

"It has a very serious and moving theme," she said."But there are lots of laughs."

Staircase is one of the first plays that presented a gay couple in a permanent relationship.

Despite her love of the theatre Caroline is taking a break for a year to set up a one to one reading scheme between professional actors and people who have had strokes.

She conceived the idea when she nursed her dying brother and she realised how much enjoyment he got from her reading to him.

"That could sound morbid, but it really isn't," Caroline said.

It may not be the nursing profession that Caroline wanted to join, but she is definitely moving in that direction.

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