Contact Theatre, Manchester: New artistic director, stunning new season

Kate Feld
Photo of a female Muslim boxer in red gloves

Contact is back on the radar. We chatted to new artistic director Matt Fenton about Manchester’s most progressive theatre programme.

Think of theatres in Manchester and you’ll likely name three or four others before you come to Contact. It’s long occupied a spot on the fringes of things, both geographically and in terms of its programme, which in recent years has leaned hard on touring productions, workshop-driven activity and spoken word showcases – work that plays an important role in the cultural ecosystem without exactly setting the world on fire. But the arrival of Artistic Director and Chief Executive Matt Fenton a year ago has unquestionably recharged the place.

Fenton, 39, came to Manchester from the Nuffield Theatre in Lancaster, which, during his time there, merged with two other organisations to become Live at LICA, a cross-art form centre like HOME and heavily involved in site-specific and community based work including a long-term project in which local residents programmed the Nuffield. It’s that background that drew him to Contact, a theatre with young audiences and community projects in its DNA.

“This is national-standard work… It has to stand on its own.”

“What’s unique about Contact is that young people are putting the programme together, they’re not just doing a two-day festival. They’re involved in every aspect of what we do – producing, tech, leadership, outreach,” Fenton says, pointing out that two young people serve on the board as full members. “They’re getting incredible training, but this also delivers a programme that is contemporary and exciting.”

It’s certainly proving popular with their base – 75 percent of their audience is under 35 (and 40 percent black or minority ethnic). The challenge for Contact, as Fenton sees it, is communicating how radical their artist-led approach to theatre is to the rest of the Mancunian audience, who believe the place isn’t for them. For there is a perception out there that you can do diverse theatre for young people, or you can do high quality theatre, but it’s uncommon to find both in the same place. Fenton, however, believes Contact is achieving this. “I absolutely see this programme sitting alongside the Royal Exchange, The Lowry, HOME – this is national-standard work…” he argues. “It has to stand on its own.”

““Kate Tempest is a really good example of an artist who was exciting Contact and young audiences nationally a few years ago,” says Fenton, citing the spoken word artist and musician of the moment. “I think she’s great, especially because she’s completely unconstrained by art form – our young audiences are not bothered by what these definitions are, and Contact is definitely not bothered.” Tempest’s return to the Contact stage in her poet incarnation for Manchester Literature Festival has sold out, but she’s back to town, performing her Mercury Prize-nominated music at Gorilla in February.

Fenton is very clear about his role in all this: he’s there to raise the theatre’s profile nationally, and he’s committed to staying for the next three to five years to see this through. His approach is to develop more original theatre, in partnership with other organisations also doing excellent work, such as London’s Southbank Centre and the National Theatre of Scotland in Glasgow, two of Contact’s current collaborators.

Exhibit A is the first production created during Fenton’s tenure: Common Wealth: No Guts, No Heart, No Glory. It’s a knockout drama from immersive theatre company Common Wealth, exploring the lives of young amateur boxers in Bradford – all female, all Muslim – and performed in a Moss Side boxing gym. The show won a Fringe First at Edinburgh and comes to Manchester 5-8 November. “It’s exciting and important, and it’s a really useful signpost for the kind of theatre we want to be making,” Fenton says.

Touring productions and performers will still be Contact’s bread and butter, and, as long as they’re good, that’s as it should be. The Afrovibes Festival (27 October – 1 November) brings a host of great African and African-heritage dancers, theatre makers, musicians and poets to Contact from all over the world. This year’s instalment also features Action Hero: Hoke’s Bluff (24-25 October). Presented with Mancunian collective Word of Warning, it’s a performance that slyly subverts the hackneyed tropes of high school sports, to unpick our mythology of winners and losers.

Other good things at Contact this season include the excellent Bryony Kimmings with That Catherine Bennett Show (22 November). It’s a project that the artist developed with her eleven-year-old niece Taylor, creating together an alternative pop star to combat the over sexualised and commodified bubblegum churned out by the pre-teen celebrity industry. Acclaimed company imitating the dog’s multiplatform adaptation of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (co-presented by Contact at The Lowry, 13-15 Nov) also looks good, as does performance artist Peter McMaster’s all-male version of Wuthering Heights (25-27 November, alternative ending alert).

It’s great to see a real buzz about Contact. Fenton believes that some of this positivity and sense of regeneration comes from its hometown’s current love affair with culture. Fenton, who has settled happily in Levenshulme, says Manchester International Festival and HOME’s rapturously-received site-specific season have raised the bar for everyone in the arts. He calls Manchester “the ideal city. I love it. It’s really down to earth and accessible, but there’s a great energy. People are still coming out and want to see live events, the theatres are full. It feels like an exciting time in Manchester.” And so say all of us.

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