Article published: Saturday, February 27th 2010
Manchester’s Contact Theatre has been at the forefront of cultural life in the city since it opened in 1999. Thanks to its DNA project it is reaching beyond its Oxford Road base and beginning to have a positive influence in other areas of Manchester.
Last year the Contact Theatre was commissioned by the Council to start creative projects in eight of what the Council and police like to call “crime and disorder hotspots”.
After months of outreach and planning, activities such as photography, DJing, film and drama were launched. The programmes took an innovative approach with an emphasis on new technologies that most people own.
“We use materials that anyone can access, like a mobile phone rather than a professional camera to make a film,” says Project Manager Danny Fahey. “We want to empower people to be creative with tools they have rather than having to wait for funding. There’s no point learning skills you can’t use again.”
This policy did not prevent them using professional equipment though. Fahey continues, “For DJ sessions we use equipment that’s in a realm they can afford. It still delivers quality but we’re saying that you don’t have to spend a massive amount to work. It encourages people to form collectives and put in together.”
In the preceding months the DNA team had met with young people outside off licences, chip shops and parks, asking them what they wanted in their area. They used their connections with popular local MCs and DJs to provoke interest in the project. The feedback was simple: most young people felt disconnected from existing youth centres and other official services because they had never been consulted on them.
Fahey was weary of replicating failed initiatives: “Youth clubs in Manchester are usually rooms with, at best, a pool table, plastic chairs and enthusiastic youth workers who have to work under really structured remits. We put the time in to offer something fresh.”
Contact were offered funding to continue the project in one area. They chose Moston, keen to build on positive outcomes already achieved there. The project is based in the old Co-op building on Moston Lane, a site chosen for its neutrality, visibility and standing in the community. In the 1950s the building housed an under-16s dancehall, before the Co-op moved in as a local insurer and employer. The company allowed Contact to use the derelict space for free and DNA participants decorated the outside with banners, attracting people out of curiosity who then stayed to get involved.
New workshops emerged, dictated by what participants wanted to learn, with bike maintenance and customisation proving popular. Another group set up their own dance troupe within the space, inviting in new faces and introducing skill share sessions. Kelly Morgan, 21, is a Project Manager at Contact. Having a similar background to the people she works with at DNA, she feels that an ability to connect with participants in peer-to-peer roles is invaluable. She highlighted the sense of ownership that emerged in Moston: “It’s a free space but with boundaries set by the users themselves. They decided not to smoke or drink inside. They wanted to look after space and took small steps to say what is appropriate behaviour.”
The creative output has been impressive. Murals around the building reflect debates surrounding regeneration and the shifting history of the area. A collaborative short film was made about the murder of Connor Black, a Moston youth. According to Fahey, the space has facilitated a positive mixing of participants in terms of age, race and religion. “They’ve heard opinions from their parents and end up airing their frustrations because they want to create together.”
DNA Moston last took place in summer 2009 but Contact plan to return in May. They have set the ground work for an eagerly anticipated project. As Morgan attests, “we know people there now. Word has spread that we’re not there to tick boxes and just go away again.” It’s an invaluable promise.
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