A conversation between Matt Fenton, Artistic Director at Contact, Manchester, and Mandla Rae, a poet, producer and member of Re:CON, Contact’s Young Producers team.
Matt: Hi Mandla. What was your first experience at Contact?
Mandla: I didn’t know what to expect when I first went to a Young Identity spoken word session at Contact. The workshop came recommended by a friend and I ended up at Contact out of pure curiosity. This was the first theatre where, as a writer who hates sharing her work publicly, I actually wanted to do the thing I’m terrified of – performing live! At Contact my voice isn’t the only voice that sounds like mine. I have a real issue with tokenism, when diversity is more of an idea or afterthought, a way to tick a box without going very far to represent under-represented members of the LGBT community. When I came to Contact, representation and diversity weren’t just ideas or concepts.
Matt: So as a member of our young programming and producing team, Re:CON, you play a big role in what gets presented at Contact. How has that been so far?
Mandla: I suppose applying to Re:CON was also an act of curiosity. I hadn’t heard of the programme but I knew that I loved Contact. Being part of Re:CON has made me come out of my shell, slowly. It’s given me the opportunity to learn so much – Contact seems prestigious as a building, but the teams share everything, and allow us to be part of what you do, and our opinions and take on things as a young person really matter. It’s part of what Contact does, and has given me a boost so that I can actually do something that’s important and real. I’m already feeling the excitement build over a year of seeing work and programming for Contact. The Re:CON programme gives us time to fully immerse, see and experience all kinds of theatre, and see the programme take shape for next year when Contact is out of the building for refurbishment. What excites you about Re:CON Matt?
Matt: From around 2005 I was becoming more aware of my own cultural position as a venue programmer, with the question of how I could authentically support more genuine diversity in the theatres I was running. But also with this caution of ‘shopping’ for diversity by just programming more BAME or disabled artists, for example, without really challenging any underlying inequalities or my own position. It was a sense of my own privilege, and also a sense that I was culturally similar to many senior people in the arts (maybe less posh, but you get my drift).
My approach since then has been to see the Artistic Director role as one of facilitating other people to decide what they’d like to see or do on stage. What’s great about Contact is that young people take this radically enhanced role as programmers, board members and staff appointment panels. This drives our programme and the audience that come to it, which for me is endlessly exciting and unpredictable.
As your year with Re:CON comes to an end, the four of you are now working as a group of young independent producers, with support from Arts Council England – tell me a bit more about that?
Mandla: I love that our group has decided to focus on a specific project that relates to what we all said we wanted to do together a year ago – to create something as an appreciation of Manchester’s radical heritage. The anti-Section 28 protest in Manchester in the 80s was such a big thing, and importantly it was non-violent. It ended in a radical celebration of queerness, as apposed to the violence of Section 28 itself. I feel lucky to be working with a group that appreciates the impact of that 30 years on and to present our response to it as part of Contact’s Queer Contact Festival next year.
Matt: So what’s the plan, and what do you hope to achieve?
Mandla: We’ve been researching what people remember about the protest – people who came from across the country to Manchester to be out and proud that day. It was a sort of precursor to Pride, without the flags and commercialism. We’ll be exploring if there’s a difference between activism then and now. I’m so excited we’re working with the brilliant photographer Manuel Vason, who is really sensitive to the project. He has a collaborative relationship with his subjects, and I’m sure he’s going to work with us to create something we’ll be proud of – a document of our recreation of the march that day, on the 30th anniversary in February 2018.
Success for me will be bringing people together the celebrate their history, seeing diverse LGBT people and our allies come together, to be visible as a force in society, alive and kicking. It will be a good day to remember and to take part in.
For more information on Contact In the City, the year-long programme of events around Greater Manchester visit contactmcr.com. Queer Contact 2018 runs from 27 Jan – 24 Feb 2018.