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Cultural Democracy

With a theatrical history going back to the 60s, and a long-standing commitment to diversity, since 1997 Contact has placed young people under the age of 25 on its board of trustees, as independent staff appointment panels, and as young programmers informing what the theatre presents.

It’s a 20-year case study in cultural democracy. And, as with so many ideas from the north, it has served as a blueprint (not always credited) for countless cultural programmes nationally and internationally.

Contact provides compelling evidence that artistic programmes attract the kinds of people who curate them. Contact’s audience is consistently 70% under 35 and one third BAME because it’s decision-makers are; in stark contrast to a cultural sector still struggling to engage authentically with young, diverse or so-called ‘hard to reach’ audiences. Inevitably Contact can sometimes be viewed with suspicion by the wider sector. We’ve been called a kid’s theatre, a hip-hop theatre and a theatre that doesn’t make any theatre, all a strange kind of misunderstanding of what society has to gain from listening to what young people have to say and giving them the skills and resources to say it.

Perhaps most exciting, and most challenging, is how Contact questions the use and purpose of art itself. Exploring what can be produced by the theatre-making process is the underpinning of our Agency programme.

Delivered in Manchester and London for the last 6 years by Contact, Battersea Arts Centre and People’s Palace Projects, the Agency uses a Brazilian theatre-making method to ‘devise’ social enterprises. It produces unique projects conceived and led by young people in response to the circumstances in which they are living. These have included a baking project for families accessing food banks, a maths revision app, and a basketball project bringing together young people from across postcodes.

This thinking also informs the shows we produce, seen in the health and social issues they explore, and in who gets to tell their own story. Recent shows have addressed child sexual exploitation, cancer care, FGM, honor abuse and HIV stigma. This year a show about young women’s experiences of unplanned pregnancy and abortion was televised by the BBC. As well as diverse young audiences, these shows have been seen by large numbers of health and social care providers, lawyers, teachers, police and policy makers.

We’re currently taking our work out across Greater Manchester while we refurbish and extend our building on Manchester’s Oxford Road. It’s a useful moment to think about how we can work in partnership across the north to ensure a more responsive, representative and diverse cultural sector. One that not only produces radical and relevant new art, but that engages with health, wellbeing and entrepreneurship, and above all invites people from all backgrounds to help decide what our cultural programmes should look like.

VISIT THE CONTACT WEBSITE

 

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