Founded in 1972 as Manchester Young People’s Theatre, since 1997 Contact has expanded its remit beyond theatre to cross-disciplinary arts, while retaining a core commitment to working with young people. Integral to this is its governance structure, with young people on the board, and with equal say in programming and decision-making. Artistic director and CEO Matt Fenton joined in 2013 and leads a team of 41 full- and part-time staff, with another 30-plus casual staff. Its annual turnover of roughly £1.8m is heavily dependent on public subsidy, with almost 60% received from core funders Arts Council England, Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Manchester City Council and the University of Manchester.
Mission: empowering young people through the arts
Asked to describe the mission of Contact, Matt Fenton nods to his fellow interviewee Reece Williams, a trustee at Contact, and says: “The mission’s right here.” Williams first came to Contact aged 13, with a school play; he’s from a family “where reading was available, but the idea of going to the theatre and engaging with culture wasn’t a thing, mainly because of economics”. He began taking part in workshops and projects at Contact and rapidly found that: “I didn’t see Contact as a theatre any more. It became part of my wider life: my extended friendship networks were all here.” He became so committed that, aged 21, he was invited to join the board: “My first response was no, because boards don’t look like me and they don’t speak like me – but I was told I was already carrying out a lot of the roles expected of a board member, in that I advocated for Contact and raised challenge where necessary.”
My first response was no, because boards don’t look like me and they don’t speak like me – but I was told I was already carrying out a lot of the roles expected of a board member, in that I advocated for Contact and raised challenge where necessary.”
Now 28, he’s coming to the end of his term; he now acts as a mentor to other young people at Contact, works on Contact’s Agency programme, and is the administrator for Young Identity, the spoken-word collective based at the theatre.
For Fenton, Williams’ trajectory is typical of the three key statements guiding all activity at Contact: “Firstly, it’s a theatre of the future, concerned with the next generation of artists, audiences and arts leaders; secondly, it’s an organisation where young people lead every aspect of our operation, from programming to staffing; thirdly, it’s a place where everyone is welcome, reflected in the diversity of our audiences, and the socially engaged theatre we produce.” And because these things have been true for two decades now, he sees Contact as “a 20-year case study” in what can happen when an organisation commits to a mission “to empower young people through the arts to have agency in their communities”.
Commitment is the word Fenton chooses where others might opt for sustainability; in fact, Contact’s achievements (70% of its audience is aged under 35, and almost 40% are from BAME backgrounds) are sustainable precisely because: “That commitment stretches right through the whole organisation, in the way that we work, and the way that we interact with each other. I could call it a methodology but that’s a grand word for such a simple thing. If you just say that young people who engage with Contact should have an equal decision-making role in what we do, you can apply that to everything. So, for staff recruitment we have two panels, an independent young people’s panel and an executive panel, with equal weight. Four young programmers and four members of staff collectively decide the public theatre programme. We’re currently doing a capital redevelopment, so we set up a young people’s group, Construct, to appoint the architects. It’s applicable to everything we do, and we commit to that. What we don’t do is worry too much about what comes out the other end of that commitment: we have faith that it will be diverse, representative and relevant, but we’re not trying to engineer that.”
Fenton argues that the advantage of Contact’s public subsidy is the possibilities it opens up for generosity: “All our engagement and training programmes are free, our ticket prices are really low, and the resource that other theatres might hire for commercial use, we give over to young people to use on their terms.” Often Contact’s role in its relationships with young people is to act “as a mentor. We inspire, empower and equip young professionals at their beginning of their careers, and we won’t always see the full benefit of their potential and their progress within our organisation – but that’s something we’re OK with, because Contact’s impact is felt in the wider creative economy, across Greater Manchester and nationally, as well as in film, TV and radio.”
Most programmes at Contact end at the age of 25; board membership being the exception depending on length of term. Numbers of participants on some programmes is intentionally low, with the emphasis on depth of engagement; and because all Contact’s programmes “have a similar ethos and approach, over time young people put together progression routes that are very powerful, and that rocket them on to really interesting things”. For instance, says Fenton, “they might engage with Drama Drop aged 13, just turn up and do some fun drama improvisation games; from that they might ‘graduate’ to Contact Young Company and make and tour shows nationally with the likes of Stacy Makishi, Adura Onashile or Forced Entertainment; from which they might get interested in performing professionally, or in programming, or in community arts through one of our leadership programmes; and then they might become a board member or join the Creative Experts, our pool of young professional arts practitioners”. Although all its programmes are rooted in art-making, Contact is “interested in what art can do beyond the arts: if you look at the kinds of careers that our young people go on to, some of them enter theatre, film or TV, but lots of them do other exciting stuff – in politics, activism, social care, education or business”.
Fenton and Williams identify two specific programmes that seek to “change young people’s experience, and how they see their agency in the world”:
1: The Agency
Delivered in Manchester and London in collaboration with Battersea Arts Centre and People’s Palace Projects, and imported from a model developed in the favelas of Brazil by artist Marcus Faustini, The Agency uses “creativity to solve social issues,” says Williams. Designed to “work in areas associated with crime, low educational attainment, and low physical and mental health”, it supports young people in “devising start-ups or social enterprises, through a total-theatre devising process. So, you’re devising a baking project for families who can’t access ingredients, or a project that teaches English as a second language through football, or an ethical fashion line that uses African fabrics.” Already highly successful in Manchester and London, the Agency is now “being scaled up to Wales and Northern Ireland, and we’re talking about whether we can run it in other parts of Manchester and London”.
2: Future Fires
A “community arts leaders programme”, Future Fires “supports young people who want to deliver arts activity in their own communities, because there’s a cultural gap they feel they can fill”. Community in this case could be a community of interest, of identity or of need, as well as geographic: among the current Future Fires projects are a podcast for young women of colour, clowning sessions for young mothers and toddlers, and a theatre project for women on the autistic spectrum. A year-long programme, Contact is also offering “weekend taster versions across Greater Manchester, and we are now funded to develop a model to roll it out to other places nationally”.
In terms of Contact’s theatre programme, a significant strand of its produced work deals with social and health issues affecting young people from diverse communities. For instance, Greater Manchester Police commissioned a piece looking at honour violence; the result, Not in My Honour, was part-developed in an all-female, 90% Muslim school, but also depicts “a young trans person who has ‘brought shame’ on their white family because of their gender transition”. Another piece, about young people’s experience of cancer care, has played at the Royal College of Nursing and Teenage Cancer Trust; a Contact and 20 Stories High show about unplanned pregnancy and abortion was recently broadcast by BBCTV; and Contact is currently making a show about late HIV diagnosis. For Fenton, this work “brings us into connection with a range of different people, and we’re increasingly taking our work to industry conferences and health contexts, and wrapping round the shows with discussion, debates and training opportunities for health professionals. All of which sounds a bit instrumental, but they’re not public information shows: none of the shows are designed to be anything other than interesting, relevant theatre.”
Fenton and Williams identify two key challenges Contact faces in its work:
1: The vagaries of young people
“Young people don’t always reply to emails, or they mightn’t have an email address: it’s super difficult sometimes to get hold of all the young people on a project, each of whom uses a different means of communication, none of which I’ve heard of.” Fenton is wry, but also honest. Which is another challenge, says Williams: “Young people are brutally honest. Many times that can push a deadline or schedule, because the young people have got concerns, or there’s disagreement somewhere.”
More seriously, both talk about the challenges faced by young people in their lives: “the economic pressures, the difficulty of finding affordable housing, the mental health epidemic, all at the same time as care and young people’s services are withering because of austerity, and cultural provision in the curriculum is disappearing”. Where it becomes particularly difficult is when “young people present issues that we’re not trained to deal with beyond basic safeguarding; we don’t have specialists on the staff team and sometimes can only signpost professional services or charities”. Fenton is wary that this could have “an impact on capacity” as already “our staff often go above and beyond” in terms of pastoral care.
2: Telling the story
Fenton admits that Contact has “been guilty of underselling its story: we underrepresent how exciting our history is, because we’re always looking forwards”. A parallel problem lies in explaining programmes such as The Agency to potential funders: “It can be hard to describe what we do in a way that arts funders or stakeholders can really get their head round. It’s not like a traditional young directors scheme, or formal actor training: it doesn’t fit those models.”
That challenge in mind, a priority for Contact is to become “a national household name”. Fenton is unashamedly ambitious on this point:
“We have a National Theatre of Wales, a National Theatre of Scotland, a National Theatre in London – and I think provocatively that we’re the National Theatre of Young People. Because if you were going to establish such a theatre now, many of the things Contact does you would design in from the start, in relation to who makes decisions, how staff are appointed, what governance looks like, how young people are represented in programming and decision-making, with diversity central to everything. And obviously, it would be in the North.”
He sees the current capital development project, through which the building is being fully reconfigured, to include music studios and an arts and health space funded by the Wellcome Trust that will “bring together researchers, clinical professionals, young people and local communities to address health inequalities”, as central to this raising of profile. Contact, he argues, is “well placed to advise and be part of policy debate around cultural provision, cultural education and cultural democracy – discussions and decisions at governmental level that, partly because we’re not in London, we’re not always at those tables”.
Photo: Joel Chester Fildes