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Matt Fenton: Theatre producing should go further into social enterprises and start-ups

Contact artistic director and chief executive Matt Fenton Contact artistic director and chief executive Matt Fenton
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We’ve inherited a wonderful, imposing and expensive resource in the form of our producing theatres. They’re a legacy of a particular means of production: their facilities and work are based mainly on an approach to theatremaking dating from a century ago.

They have also done a fairly effective job of excluding a good proportion of society. So what could we be producing today with these buildings and their facilities? And who could we produce it for?

What happens if you put the resources of a producing theatre in the hands of a community of young people? That’s what we at Contact ask. And not just handing over the stage, but its recording studio, meeting rooms, lighting box, workshop, green room, bar and cafe. With this resource, what might they produce? Can it go further? What if theatremaking processes were put to social, civic and economic uses?

Social enterprises, educational and commercial projects can emerge from the devising process if you let go of producing more theatre. Examples of things to emerge from here include: Reform Radio, which trains out-of-work young people in media production; Uniquely Us, brings together young autistic women to make friends and build confidence; while Brown Girls Do It is a podcast addressing issues affecting young women of colour.

Contact's building in Manchester. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes
Contact’s building in Manchester. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

These projects were conceived and delivered by young members of the community who we have trained, and they have a reach and legacy that a theatre outreach project could not achieve or sustain. They also work directly with those least likely to engage with the theatre’s produced work.

This thinking also informs the Agency, our partnership with Battersea Arts Centre and People’s Palace Projects, based on a Brazilian method of ‘devising’ social enterprises. Now in its sixth year in Manchester and London, and currently being rolled out in Wales and Northern Ireland, it has produced a baking programme for families accessing food banks, a book-sharing scheme for young people in care, a basketball league bringing young people together across segregated postcodes and a GCSE maths revision app. These are viable social enterprises providing real-world social action in marginalised communities, a long way from making a show about the issues.

But new shows also emerge from these projects. They change our produced work, revealing new people, narratives and perspectives. Perhaps this could be how we see the role of our producing theatres in future – no longer representing the world view of a single artistic director, but as creative hubs from which all kinds of output emerge. I’d like to see theatre keep expanding what we might consider to be our produced work. What if our aim is not just to produce shows, but also ideas, knowledge, social enterprises, start-ups or community actions?

And if the required response to our communities is a programme for young mums isolated by mental health, or a programme for young men affected by poverty and violence, or a show about honour abuse or late HIV diagnosis, then so be it – together we can support and produce all those things.

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