The new space at CONTACT Interview with Matt Fenton. 

I recently met with Matt Fenton Artistic Director and Chief Executive of CONTACT. He was brimming with enthusiasm over news that the global charitable foundation Wellcome was funding £600k towards a special new venue  within the £6.5 million redevelopment of the building. This additional funding is intended to create a space for health and wellbeing projects and will also fund an new production post for the next three years.

For the last 10 years CONTACT has been producing work around health challenges and inequality, particularly young peoples issues where their voice is quiet but the issue really affects them. Shows like Crystal Kisses about child sexual exploitation really gave a voice to the experience of one of the young people. Rites was co-produced with National Theatre of Scotland. About F.G.M (Female Genital Mutilation) it tried to look at the issue without demonising or alienating communities where it is practised but still viewing it as a young peoples Human Rights issue putting their voices at the foreground of the conversation about F.G.M. Our Young Company have made numerous works supported by Wellcome -e.g. one about sexuality with Stacy Makishi Under The Covers, another about the experience of young people around cancer  care- There is a Light.

Ah that was with Brian Lobel. I did some stuff with him for The Sick of The Fringe.

Yes. We also made a piece about honour abuse called Not In My Honour by Aisha Zia which was developed with Levenshulme High School. There are numerous shows about Arts and Mental Health – currently one with Demi Landro charting mental health isssues affecting 3 generations of women in her family. Wellcome have supported quite a few of those and we were in conversation with Wellcome saying how we see them as a really strong partner- they have connected us to researchers who have often been in the room when we are developing shows. They’ve brought ethicists to the process, medical specialists and other health professionals so they’ve been this connector for us not just a Funder. In talking to them about our ambitions with our projects and about the new building, it was Wellcome who suggested we scale up our plans and come back to them with a really ambitious proposal- a new arts and health space.

So where will that be in the building?

Its going to use the space we are sat in now. This whole café space will be workshop space making the best use of our location. We are right next to the N.H.S hospitals, the Universities and the local communities so we are perfectly placed to bring all those people together to talk about health inequalities, health challenges……workshops, with Artists, R&D, scratch events etc. All these different ideas populating the space with a new specific Arts and Health Producer on the team.

The old 1969 building is coming down with the new building having a larger floor plan. The pillar in the café will go, as will all the offices over there and the space will be dividable off from the main space with the new café and bar in the centre.

So CONTACT will have a bar space that is no longer hidden!

We get that so often!! Lunchtime today the café was packed but from the front door the place looked empty with nothing happening! There is that thing of threshold anxiety especially in Arts organisations and CONTACT does so much to counter that. It has young people up front at the doors to make sure you get a welcoming smile. The use  of glazing in the new space will ensure you can see “there’s people in there, we can go in”.

Where do you find the young people to bring in and engage with?

CONTACT has a huge throughput of young people and it happens in lots of different ways. We run weekly free workshops – some delivered core and in-house :- in technical theatre and in drama drop-in, in musical production, media production. Social workers, pupil referral units, teachers, charities, young carers, homelessness charities and a whole host of organisations in the city signpost young people to our activities. A lot of young people come with support workers if they need extra help to come. We also work in partnership with organisations like Young Identity who are based here and we host their activities. Their young writers and poets do workshops in schools and in Assemblies which also signpost back here.

We also run creative leadership projects like Future Fires which is for Community Arts practitioners who want to skill up and deliver an Arts project in their local community. The Agency is a social entrepreneur project which we run in North  Manchester. A lot of these projects are roughly 50% recruited from within the free week in/week out activities and the other 50% audition or apply – the same with Contact Young Company. This means the groups are highly diverse and often include a large number of young people who are not in educational training but have come through other referrals or recommendations. The groups are absolutely diverse in terms of social economics but they all thrive and excel equally within the building. If you look at Reece Williams and Afreena Islam who are now on our Board they have been with CONTACT for years as young people – Reece since he was 13. Keisha Thompson who runs CYC, first performed with us when she was about 14. These are long progression experiences which become taking on leadership roles.

It sounds almost like a big extended family.

Yeah I guess for some people it feels like that, but its also constantly refreshed with new people auditioning. I think we do the really difficult bit which is getting young people involved and engaged early on, when their teenage peers are not doing music, acting, poetry or spoken word. Its not a new thing though- we have always done it. Look at  Lemn Sissay and Louise Wallwein and Yusra Warsama. This model works brilliantly because it does exactly what it says on the tin. We put faith in young people as decision-makers. My role is to facilitate that, not to tell them what to do.

They are developing a wide range of skill sets. Its not just an opportunity to go somewhere, to do something, to be heard….. It is also real opportunities that can lead to other things.

I think that’s it. Totally. If you look at the Future Fires or The Agency cohorts have gone on to do over the years. Loads stay in the Arts, but lots don’t, but they still take that agency, those skills they’ve developed, that confidence, those networks for young people……they take all of that and engage politically as social workers, teachers, politicians, you name it. CONTACT classically does not make it all about making more theatre. If something is going to become a radio project about homelessness or a baking project for families who access food banks or a basketball project then that’s what gets creatively developed. We never go “Lets make a play about that.”

Is a lot of the work delivered outside the building?

The Agency is primarily in Moston and Harpurhey. With Future Fires the training and development happens here but the actual projects happen where those young people live. The premise being that they know best what is or is not available in that community so they are the best people to deliver and fill that gap. For example Lucy wanted to run a female only poetry slam so she created LipSync’d. Reform Radio are two women who met on Future Fires and wanted to tackle homelessness- 4 years later they have a fully funded operation. Amazing.Its interesting to think about what is our audience at CONTACT. It is the people listening to that radio station or at that poetry slam – we can’t report those numbers because they’re not bums on seats but actually that is part of our reach as we are integral to supporting those projects in their early stages. For us that’s as important as producing new shows, though we like to do that as well!!

Are there ever tensions in communities delivering projects that certain local people might not want?

In Future Fires we ask them to get 100 signatures from their local community which is a brilliant methodology. It forces them to go to their local shop, or pub or neighbours on their street.

So its about connection and validation?

Yes. They have to explain their idea so by the 100th time the idea is clearer and you have heard 100 people say that’s a good idea. The Agency projects are warmly received as young people are seen doing something creative and positive and its real world – they each get £2000 to develop their project, a business plan to attract further funding so the projects quickly become real, and in some cases very impressive. That’s a very positive thing within that community. I think there can be tension with some of the shows we present. Mawaan Rizwan who made the BBC show How Gay Is Pakistan? is very out and vocal as a British Asian comedian. Demi Nandhra explores taboos around mental health and medication when some people feel she should stay quiet. R.E Trip was a piece about unplanned pregnancies. I just watched the rushes of the television version and that’s going to be broadcast very soon. To see those young women saying those verbatim words about those experiences. We haven’t seen that before in a mainstream media context and we’re aware that will stir up debate and criticism.

Is there safeguarding in place if tensions arise and individuals need support?

Yes, we have very clearly defined safe guarding measures in place so we can protect young people in all our projects. We’re not healthcare professionals or social workers but we seek out the appropriate help when needed. Suzie Henderson who is our Head of Creative Development heads up all our staff working in direct engagement with young people, and is very experienced around safeguarding.

Will the new space be geared to meet a wide range of special needs?

Throughout the design stage we have consulted with the Manchester Disabled Peoples Group and with Graeae Theatre in London to ensure that the new part of the building will be up to purpose and also to ensure we incorporate any adaptations we can make to the part that’s not being touched. This is actually a very confusing building that is visually overloading and has barriers everywhere. We are using capital to address this to make the new building much more open, clear and accessible. Our young peoples group working on the capital project is called Construct and we have young disabled people in that group advising us. We went to Lodon to see the Graeae building which was brilliant – an Arts building designed by disabled artists, so we came back with loads of ideas.

So what will happen while the building is closed next year….. to programming and to the weekly projects you deliver?

They will continue to run. Our brief for the location of our new base is not a performance space but somewhere to house all of our young peoples activities and it will be in walking distance of CONTACT. The much bigger impact is to our What’s On programme – the ticket buying bit. That will be much smaller than normal so we will do about 10 events where we might normally do 100 in a year, but they will be much bigger, higher profile events in some unexpected places.

So you won’t consider something site specific on the building site with the audience in hard hats?

No. We won’t be doing that! However we are doing two really exciting site specific pieces in Spring and we’re nearly ready to announce that….

A few weeks after this interview I met Matt again at Central Reference Library for the big reveal for the closure plans and the FebMay 2018 programme. The old building closes at Christmas for the renovation work which will run throughout 2018. The staff and all projects they run and host will relocate to the Millennium Powerhouse in Moss Side.

IN THE CITY Part One is packed full of great events. The 10 year anniversary of Queer Contact festival includes large scale productions at The Palace Theatre with Dancing Bear by Jamie Fletcher & Company and a House of Suarez Vogue Ball at Manchester Academy. Contact Young Company are working with the brilliant Sh!t Theatre to bring a largescale immersive performance to The Museum of Science and Industry. She Bangs the Drums will celebrate the 100 year anniversary of women and working men getting the right to vote. The second site specific production will happen in an actual working sari shop on Curry Mile in Rusholme. Handlooms by RASA sounded wonderful when Rani Moorthy was describing it. Award winning show BRANDED by Sophie Willan will have a oneoff gala performance hosted by The Lowry.

In writing up this interview, I’m recalling the absolute passion and commitment of Matt Fenton to every aspect of CONTACT’s programming and youth projects, and thinking about the exciting plans for CONTACT in 2018 and beyond. In the context of Austerity measures and the savage funding cuts to the Arts, Mental Health Services and provision for Young Peoples Services, it is a real testament to the range and quality of services delivered by CONTACT that this redevelopment project has been funded. There is still a remaining portion to be fundraised throughout 2018 so dig deep Manchester is really lucky to have CONTACT. 







Dark, In Darkness always comes the question,Where is the light?”

Lemn  Sissay literally bounces unto the stage as though about to launch into a stand up routine. The first twenty minutes are indeed a stand up routine in the sense that this is a connection process. Who are we, how do we respond, are we accepting or rejecting? This is the quicksilver poet, the actor, performer, public speaker and private man and inner child. In giving the audience an extra bonus introduction before the play there is an unspoken understanding that this connection is about boundaries and safety.  In therapy we talk about the three Ps- Protection, Permission and Potency. In this instance they seem vital to this piece.

During the performance he remarks, that  “You shouldn’t tell your story in the way that I’ve told mine if you’ve not come to terms with it. Your well-being has got to be in mind.” On stage he exudes strength, confidence and a wickedly playful sense of humour. He creates a safe space for himself and for the audience in how he performs his own life experience. I sincerely hope that when he steps away from the stage those carefully constructed and honed inner strengths remain robust.
Something Dark is Lemn Sissays one man play telling the extraordinary and shocking story of his childhood in foster care from birth and in four  state childrens homes from age eleven to eighteen. It seems impossible to believe that Wigan Social Services countenanced such appalling disregard for a Mothers wishes for her child’s well being and safety. The second half of the play follows his journey to seek out his birth mother living in The Gambia and find a sense of family both there and in his parents homeland, Ethiopia. 

Any sense of family however dysfunctional is a gift for a man who at twenty had no one in his life that had known him more than two years. “I was the only proof of my own existence,” As he reminds us family gives us reference points, family provides  a set of disputed memories over a lifetime which inform how we see ourselves in Society. As someone who once stood pregnant for the first time at a parents graveside I can connect with that acute sense of being adrift and unknown without parents or siblings  to validate my stories and memories. 

The performance is rich and full of life, full of resilience and persistence. This work embodies our need in Society to embrace acceptance and tolerance. It eloquently screams out our need to address how we view young people in care and ensure that every aspect of their well-being is paramount while they are being parented by the State.

The performance is both uplifting and painful to watch as this clever, engaging and quite beautiful man reads his story and leads us on a journey so very dark and yet so brilliantly light. Light- because standing on that stage telling his story so poetically and advocating so passionately for young people in the care system, he radiates a light much brighter than the spotlight upon him.

For a human being born into such a dark place he epitomises nothing but light and has certainly fought long and hard “for the right to light.”

Journeys Festival International/ Orbit Festival

13th October 2017