Manchester Theatre 2019 – the increasing influence of young companies

RXTheatre - Elli Kypriadi - MIXTAPE images by Joel C Fildes

When Leeds Playhouse announced the formation of its first young company in April last year it was a bit of a wake up call for me. The Playhouse were looking to support a group of young people to collaborate in “making and producing bold and socially resonant work”, as well providing opportunities for them to learn from professional theatre artists, and use the theatre’s resources to learn and develop their own skills. As a Manchester theatre-goer, with regular opportunities to see the work of young theatre-makers at both Contact and the Royal Exchange, I hadn’t fully appreciated that such initiatives weren’t already a standard part of the work of most publicly funded theatres. I felt extremely fortunate to live in a city where the work of young theatre-makers is not only supported but celebrated.

In recent years the Royal Exchange and Contact‘s young companies have not only become an established part of Manchester’s theatre landscape, but the quality of their work has resulted in them winning awards and their shows being reviewed in the national press. Both theatres have announced their young company shows for 2019 and, in what can only be a positive development, this year will also see them joined by two other new groups of young theatre makers who will be premiering work locally over the coming months.

Switch MCR Theatre Collective‘s first full production (comprising two new plays The House and 8055, both written by company members, and performed as a two-act show) will open in February at 53two. Switch MCR is a great example of the impact that projects to support young theatre makers can have. Formed from a group of Royal Exchange Young Company alumni, they describe themselves as “a theatre collective made up of young people aiming to create new and accessible theatre”. Things have moved quickly for them. In November 2018 they produced Voluntold, a well-received ‘curtain raiser’ for 53two’s show The Glasshouse. As a result, 53two invited them to become a resident company – an offer which Switch MCR accepted. The arrangement, seems to be benefiting both organisations already, with the new company of young creatives supporting the venue to make its shows more accessible to new audiences, and 53two providing opportunities for members of Switch MCR to develop their skills.

Salford’s The Lowry are currently piloting “a new pathway for young creatives to form an ensemble, creating bold, innovative and non-traditional theatre” called Young Theatre Makers. The Lowry’s new group, who have named themselves The Offstage Ensemble, are made up of young people aged 13 to 19 living in Salford who are interested in performance, design or directing. For their first production, they’ll be working with professional theatre company Dante or Die (whose show Take On Me comes to Broughton Leisure Centre in February) to create an original piece of work that will be performed in a non-theatre space in May.

The involvement of established practitioners like Dante or Die in the pilot project is a smart move by The Lowry. Part of the success of the two established Manchester companies is almost certainly due to the emphasis on collaboration and the high quality of the professional artists that the young people get to work with. This not only supports the participants in developing skills but helps to create work that attracts and engages an audience.

This season sees the Royal Exchange Young Company working with writer Guleraana Mir on We’re Just Getting Started a play about “what it means to speak up & speak out”. It premiers in February. Following that, the group will also be developing a piece with the Exchange’s Elders Company and Associate Artistic Director Bryony Shanahan for performance in April. The show, called Adieu, looks likely to be a cross-generational response to Brexit.

The same issue will also partly inspire Contact Young Company’s new show in May. Ramping Up will be a cross-city co-production with young creatives from Battersea Arts Centre’s Homegrown Company. Developed in collaboration with artists David Cumming (Kill the Beast) and Jess Thom (Touretteshero) it will “explore issues around accessibility in a post-Brexit society”. The piece will premiere at Battersea’s Homegrown Festival in April before heading to The Bread Shed in Manchester. This season will also see Contact Young Company partner up with Young Identity (Contact’s young poets and performers group) to develop Old Tools>New Masters≠New Futures. The show, which will take place at a secret location in June, will use both poetry and theatre as creative tools to explore what it means to decolonize public culture. It will be directed by Tunde Adefioye, a dramaturg at KVS, the Royal Flemish Theatre in Brussels.

In the midst of this burst activity from Greater Manchester based young theatre makers, Contact will be bringing an international perspective to the mix in May, when Brazilian company coletivA ocupação will arrive in the city. Composed of students from different districts of São Paulo, coletivA ocupação make projects that “sit between art, activism and education”. When It Breaks It Burns will tell the story of the 2015/16 high school occupations in São Paulo when, in response to a government proposal to shut down over 100 public schools, high school students rebelled and eventually occupied over 200 schools in protest. The students will share their experiences, in their own words, using dance, live music and performance. When It Breaks It Burns will be performed (in Portuguese with English surtitles) at a secret location in Manchester.

The story behind When It Breaks It Burns offers a timely reminder that resources can be cut and routes to self-improvement closed down. That young people who aspire to be theatre makers should have access to the type of opportunities on offer in Greater Manchester is something we shouldn’t take for granted. Contact and the Royal Exchange’s continued commitment to their young companies is to be applauded, and The Lowry’s decision to invest in a new similar scheme for young Salfordians can only be a good thing. Perhaps what is most heartening, is to see a group of artists who have benefited from being part of a young company emerging from that experience to set up a collective like Switch MCR, and for that to be so readily supported by a smaller theatre like 53two.

ColetivA ocupação’s show also highlights that the work of young companies can be most transformative (for both the participants and the audience) when it is telling stories rooted in the experiences and thoughts of the theatre makers themselves. As Matt Fenton, Contact’s Chief Executive says, “Young people-led work is as valid an artistic proposition for audiences as the work presented on any main stage across the country. Why would audiences not want to hear about the issues and realities facing young people, and the new understandings of society, technology, race, sexuality and politics they are forging?”.

So, let’s hope that Manchester (and Greater Manchester) continues to be somewhere that values its aspiring performers, writers, designers and directors – and maybe even a place where all local theatres (big and small) recognise they have a role to play in both supporting young people to develop theatre-making skills and providing them with a platform for their voices to be heard.

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Photo credits

Mixtape (Royal Exchange) by Joel Chester Fildes

Oh Man (Contact) by the Ape Ninja

When it Breaks it Burns (coletivA ocupação) by Mayra Azzi

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