Manchester’s epicentre of art and expression turns 40 – despite feeling younger than ever

By Liam Barnes

One of Manchester’s leading artistic hubs hits middle age this year. But rather than settle for the pipe and slippers, this youth-orientated organisation is pursuing an increasingly vibrant portfolio of events.

Contact Theatre started life 40 years ago as the Manchester Young People’s Theatre, before a £5million Arts Council grant helped to refurbish and rebrand the space in 1999.

Since then the theatre – with its distinctive turret and chimney pots – has focused on youth development, it has diversified to encompass dance, spoken word performance, poetry, hip-hop and a wide variety of other artistic opportunities.

Baba Israel, a 37-year-old hip-hop artist from New York, became artistic director three years ago, and has loves the opportunity to nurture an array of talented performers across a wide spectrum of theatre.

“I met [Manchester-based performer] Benji Reid at a festival in Washington DC, we got talking and just hit it off,” he said.

“I didn’t really know much about Manchester at the time, except a bit about the music scene, but he told me about Contact and I was intrigued. I came over to do a show in 2005 and fell in love with the place – I’d never had felt anything like it, it was the first time I had encountered a venue which had young people at its core.”

When outgoing director John McGrath recommended he apply for the position Baba crossed the Atlantic to take on the challenge, and strives to maintain the mix of youth and eclecticism that first excited him so much.

He said: “Our approach to the programming is centred on young people’s journeys, so we want to support them at the beginning of their careers.

“We also like to show emerging artists and really interesting, experimental ideas – we really like to focus on technology, to show that theatre is such a multi-stranded medium, and we like things which have a lot of creative risk about them.”

The upcoming roster of events bears out such bold claims, with the interactive show ‘Fortnight’ on around the city from April 16 to 28.

A bold, unfolding dramatic work involving an audience participating over two weeks through different media, Baba was enthusiastic, if a little cryptic, about the venture.

“It’s kind of challenging the expectations of what it is to pay for your ticket and go to the theatre,” he said. “We’re really excited about what’s going to happen.”

Other events have seen collaborations with organisations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Shakespeare Schools Festival and Contacting the World, which this year will see companies from Nottingham, Nigeria, Thailand and Trinidad & Tobago perform in Manchester in July.

About Contacting the World, Baba said: “For me it’s really exhilarating. Some of our companies have been able to travel to other theatres, and vice versa – it’s not just about the interaction and performances, but giving opportunities to people who otherwise don’t get them. It’s a great show of our national and international work.”

Such a wide social reach has helped to foster closer ties to the theatre’s original occupiers, and as a key funder Manchester University still plays an important role in Contact’s life.

“Our relationship with the university has really grown,” said Baba. “We work closely with the Drama Society, but now we also have a more strategic relationship – there are people who come to us who don’t think about the university, so we’re kind of like a social access point.”

Programmes in local schools and deprived areas across Greater Manchester have also seen collaboration with local councils.

Baba said: “We work very closely with regeneration teams and outreach programmes in places like Moston, for example.

“Because our workshops are free we can link up with schools and act as a bridge. We’ve done projects in parks and outdoors because sometimes we have to go to where young people who wouldn’t come to us are – we even did one outside an off-licence!”

Of course, the current climate of austerity means that government funding is vulnerable, especially in the arts; however, Contact has managed to secure steady funding from the Arts Council for the next three years and has tried to adapt to the new financial realities.

“We’ve come out better than we expected, but we’ve definitely had a reduction in funding,” said Baba. “We’ve had to address that by being more entrepreneurial, like seeking sponsorship and donations, and in some ways we’ve developed that side of things, but government and public subsidies for the arts are essential to the wellbeing of society and the economy.”

Comparing the British system of arts funding with his native New York, Baba was adamant: “I would much rather the British model to the American one – cultural things really are valued much more here than in the States, where it’s too expensive and only serves an elite.”

He also felt more favourable funding method fosters greater artistic diversity, adding: “There’s so much more creative risk-taking here – I’ve found new genres I never even knew about in New York!”

With Baba in for the long haul, Contact carries on with expanding its wide-ranging remit and providing opportunities for budding performers.

“We’ve got a few very interesting mixes to come,” he said. “We’ve been working with the BBC, and we’ll have performers from South Africa coming over in October for a special collaboration. We’re really thrilled.”

It’s come a long way in 40 years, but Contact Theatre is as full of youthful promise and vibrant new talent as ever.

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