National Youth Theatre and Contact, Manchester: Putting young people centre stage
In this age of extremes, I often find myself at the sharp end of funding squeezes, local authority cuts, and am continually alarmed by the devastating demise of arts in our state schools.
As you can imagine, it truly depresses me.
So, I was delighted to be invited to a soft-launch of the National Youth Theatre’s award-worthy £4m refurbished premises on Holloway Road.
The organisation nurtured Daniel Craig, Helen Mirren, Zawe Ashton and many more of our theatre legends.
Speaking at the supporters event, dynamic NYT CEO and Artistic Director Paul Roseby said: “Cuts to the arts in our state schools have led to a significant pressure on organisations like ours that work with young people to bridge the gap. What’s going on across these revitalised spaces here are all about giving young people the chance to start again. Failure is what we are about, and we embrace that as much as success.”
He continued: “If you are a youth organisation you have to stick your neck out; it’s now more important than ever before.”
Certainly, school reforms have caused pupils to move away from arts subjects such as dance, music and art, and towards more traditional academic subjects such as geography and English. What’s more, recent analysis of government data shows that the number of GCSE music and drama students has fallen by a fifth over the last decade.
Outside the M25, Manchester’s Contact Theatre on Oxford Road, closed in 2017 but has also just reopened following a £6m ‘youth led’ revamp.
First established as a theatre in 1972, in 1999 Contact reinvented itself as a multi-disciplinary creative space specialising in producing work with, and providing opportunities for, young people aged 13 to 30.
What’s so brilliant about Contact is under Artistic Director and Chief Executive, Matt Fenton, this significant refurbishment was led by a dedicated team of young people at Contact – who had their say on everything from light fittings to consultations with the architects.
Speaking at the Press Night of Contact Young Company’s excellent show Everything All of the Time, Fenton said: “Young people should have access to free, high-quality and world-class creative resources to express themselves, to find their politics, find themselves and to then go out into the world and do amazing things. Contact has always done that, but this building now allows us to do that at such a higher level.”
There has been a radical growth in the knowledge economy and creative industries over the past decade. It goes without saying that an education that includes creative subjects facilitates critical thinking and increases emotional resilience.
Quite simply, it is a proven fact how small investments return massively more than was spent and the cultural impact it has on our children is huge. What might a viable, authentic, enduring kind of ‘levelling up’ look like?
Nobody I speak to understands what it means – despite the government’s levelling-up fund of £4.8bn, and places now bidding for help with “town and high street regeneration, local transport projects, and cultural heritage assets”.
Anyway, according to a recent report UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre cultural organisations across the UK save the NHS £102 million a year thanks to the physical and mental health benefits to attendees.
Remarkably, the report found that the NHS saves a yearly total of £11.91 for every person partaking in such an activity, from a reduction in GP visits and use of psychotherapy services.
But as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, the National Youth Theatre and Contact investing in these spaces for the next generation of dramatic talent offers us all hope. I left both occasions feeling a sense of optimism that I had not felt for some years.
There is an overwhelming sense, too, that we are at a turning point and that the arts can and must play a leading role in developing talent, protecting communities, as well as in fighting cuts in higher education and cultural education in schools.
It demonstrates, quite pertinently, that in order avoid widening inequality of access to the arts, that theatres across the country must enact their civic duty – not only to plug the gaps, but to truly level up every part of the UK.