When I arrived at the Exchange in 2014, Sarah Frankcom had recently taken over as sole Artistic Director and the company was in the process of being redefined to reflect a city that was more creatively ambitious and had a distinct desire to share artistic practice. One of the first provocations that came out of our conversations was ‘what would the Royal Exchange look like as a home to local artists?’ We were aware that there was a need for a more open and collaborative dialogue with artists who were making their work in Greater Manchester, we just had to find a framework that would be creatively useful and sustainable. I talked to lots of artists from across the region to find out what they wanted and what they needed to help them develop their practice, what quite quickly became apparent was an overwhelming desire for time, space and critical feedback. This was the beginning of Open Exchange.

At its simplest Open Exchange is a network of multidisciplinary artists who want to share ideas and perhaps make some work together, the Exchange is a hub for that network to meet, stay connected and find out about opportunities for theatre makers. We also wanted to make sure that we created a programme that presented a menu of development opportunities so Open Exchange has a tiered structure – artists can be as involved, or not, as they wish. Artists have the option to simply stay on the network, dipping in and out as and when, accessing free workshops, free and discounted tickets, using rehearsal space and so on, but there is also the opportunity to take part in Observer Mondays (regularly observing a rehearsal process for an individual production), participate in REACT, Co:LAB and become a Supported Artist.

REACT was born out of the artists’ desire for collaboration and development of process and craft, we wanted to create a space in which artists would feel safe to let their ideas run wild, exist beyond their comfort zone, experiment and potentially fail. In REACT we invite artists to respond to a provocation, and often create a set of parameters that the work needs to be designed around –  this might be that their response needs to be site-specific, appeal to a certain age group or be designed around a certain theatrical form – we’ve recently explored verbatim theatre and gaming mechanics. The REACT workshop happens over a week and takes place three times a year for three groups, we encourage people from different artistic disciplines to team up and explore ideas before presenting their work to Exchange staff, from producers to the marketing and development teams, for feedback. The response to this has been great and it seems to be working, bringing people together to make sustainable creative partnerships that challenge their existing practice.

Co:LAB is a summer festival that will take place for the first time this month, running from the 21 – 23 July. The festival is the chance for Open Exchange artists to apply for a small amount of funding to develop a scratch performance for a public audience, whereas REACT is about process and the making of the art, Co:LAB – or the Collision Laboratory is focused on product and the presentation of the art. Co:LAB showcases theatre made in non-traditional ways with unexpected creative collisions and collaborations. As with all of our opportunities the festival has been curated via an open call out to Open Exchange network members. In some cases, Co:LAB will further develop ideas which had their origin in REACT. The festival is a public celebration of the innovation and originality of the Open Exchange network and the collaborations and relationships formed and developed over the last 2 years.

Finally, we also wanted to offer several long-term residential opportunities as part of this programme so each year we welcome up to three artists/companies to become Supported Artists. Across a year, Sarah Frankcom, Amy Clewes (producer who also leads on Open Exchange) and I will have meetings and conversations with numerous Open Exchange members, and with theatre-makers who are creating their work in Greater Manchester, to identify those makers whose work is at a stage where it (and they) will benefit from a residency as an Open Exchange Supported Artist. These artists are invited to create a wish list, or bespoke timetable of activity which we discuss before selecting three artists to live with us for a year as we endeavour to honour their expectations. These can range from mentorship with a particular artist of interest, dramaturgical support, the covering of course fees, seeing shows or the commitment to the development of an idea. We have most recently supported Josh Coats, Testament, Mighty Heart and Knaïve Theatre.

So if you’re an artist (of any discipline) living in or making work in the Greater Manchester region then I strongly encourage you to sign up to the Open Exchange. To get a sense of the work being made and the scale of the network (as audience member or artist) pop along to any of the Co:LAB shows or workshops, drop in or spend the weekend with us – we look forward to meeting you.