Contact Theatre & Ockham’s Razor

This case study is from our Sharing the Stage initiative, which was part of the Foundation's Participatory Performing Arts strand (2014-18)

Switch

“An amazing chance to work with people of different backgrounds. To improve on skills and develop ways of devising and to add to my toolbox.” Participant

This case study looks at Switch, by Contact and Ockham’s Razor. Switch brought circus, dance and martial arts training to young people in Manchester, along with newfound confidence and friendships. Find out more about Switch by watching the film and reading the project summary below.

The UK Branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s Sharing the Stage initiative ran from 2014-2018. It supported arts projects in which vulnerable and under-served groups of people 'share the stage' with professional performers, and projects that are based on partnerships between arts organisations and social partners.

Phase One supported the research and development (R&D) stage of 14 consortia projects. Phase Two ran from 2016-18, supporting 10 consortia projects to full production of the work created through the participatory process. 

Founded in 1972 as Manchester Young People’s Theatre, since 1997 Contact has expanded its remit beyond theatre to cross-disciplinary arts, while retaining a core commitment to working with young people. Integral to this is its governance structure, with young people on the board, and with equal say in programming and decision-making.  

Ockham’s Razor is an aerial theatre company which combines circus and visual theatre. It specialises in creating physical theatre on original pieces of aerial equipment and creating stories from the vulnerability, trust and reliance that exist between people in the air.

This project had two distinct phases within the second phase of Sharing the Stage:

  • Three rehearsal and development periods working intensively with young people in North Manchester in 2015-16
  • Bringing the collaboration with Ockham’s Razor to fruition in the creation of a high-quality show, devised and performed by young people in August 2018

The R&D initiated in 2015 continued throughout 2016, as Contact drew upon this and its experience of delivering The Agency (with a focus on young entrepreneurship activity) in culturally underserved wards in North Manchester, developing connections, relationships and knowledge of the area to present an exciting, high quality and high-profile arts offer.

In the first phase, through three rehearsal and development periods, 32 young people aged 13-25, worked with Ockham's Razor to explore its unique approach to contemporary circus. Recruiting a locally known young free runner increased engagement.  Contact also built in peer-to-peer learning, bringing in participants in Contact Young Company, which had a positive effect on the mixed group:

"An amazing chance to work with people of different backgrounds. To improve on skills and develop ways of devising and to add to my toolbox". Participant

During the residencies Ockham's Razor and digital projection specialists Imitating The Dog worked intensively with the young participants to develop skills, explore themes and devise material. The final week in October 2016 culminated in an informal sharing of the performance content generated.

"Over the course of the workshops those who have returned have shown an understanding of how to be present and connected in performance and they have helped push the whole group further. 11 Charlotte Mooney (Co-Artistic Director Ockham's Razor)

A reoccurring positive outcome of the project and engagement with this new arts activity was a growth in self-confidence and trust in others:

"I have learnt skills on the stave (aerial equipment). How to push myself. The ability to work as a team. How to embrace a challenge." (Participant)

"They were so supportive of each other and willing to push themselves into sometimes uncomfortable territory on stage." Alex Harvey (Co-Artistic Director Ockham's Razor)

This phase fulfilled its key intended outcomes: to work with young people who do not traditionally engage with the arts by bringing a high-quality arts offer to North Manchester, with a number of impacts identified by participants and practitioners around participating in the arts, gaining new skills, making friends and building self-confidence.

The second phase saw the creation of a new piece of work, SWITCH, which had a number of aims:

  • Engage up to 15 young people new to physical theatre and aerial performance, delivering increased confidence and self-awareness as a group and as individuals, recruiting participants and delivering development/rehearsals in underserved wards in North Manchester.
  • Increase public awareness locally of contemporary circus/aerial work, bringing new and young audiences to experience contemporary circus and aerial performance through targeted groups engagement.
  • Provide awareness of progression routes/opportunities for young people in this field. Establish a group of young people interested in taking these skills further, individually and as a group, post-Contact’s reopening in 2019.
  • Present the show in an unusual venue or specific site, ideally in North Manchester, in a double-bill with an existing piece of contemporary circus as part of Contact In The City programme during building refurbishment.

Following taster sessions at Circus House in Manchester, and on the ground recruitment in North Manchester, Contact selected 12 young performers under 25 years old to form the ensemble. A two-week development period at Manchester Youth Zone in Harpurhey, North Manchester, saw co-artistic director, Charlotte Mooney, work alongside beat-boxer and musician Bellatrix, to facilitate a collaborative devising process. In the third week, the company transferred to the stunning Upper Campfield Market, a Victorian building in central Manchester, which was transformed by Contact’s production team and Ockham’s Razor from a semi-derelict former market to a beautiful contemporary circus environment.  The double-bill of SWITCH, and professional piece Tipping Point, was performed to over 1,000 people over 6 shows from 15-19 August 2018.

Participant experience, confidence and pastoral care

Participant feedback on their experience was overwhelmingly positive, citing the level of care, pastoral support, creative facilitation and producer support as excellent. Travel expenses, food and per diems were appreciated by young people balancing other employment, and most noted improvements to their mental and physical wellbeing.

“I have had better mental and physical health, being productive and waking up early each day.” Participant

“I am really energised to have been part of the project… I feel fitter and stronger.” Participant

“Money for food meant I didn’t have to worry about having a job.” Participant

The project succeeded in creating a supportive and trusting ensemble of young people from different backgrounds and ages, and very different levels of experience (from first-time performers to young people already engaged with circus training), all feeding in creatively to the final piece.

“The emphasis on play and improvisation is very different to how I’m used to training.” Participant

“The way that Bell taught us was incredible – I can use these skills going forward in my career.” Participant

Several members of the group defined an interest in studying contemporary circus, and all stated they were more likely to engage with this area of practice.

“It has been amazingly helpful speaking to professionals, and has helped me make decisions about what to do in future.” Participant

Locating the process in North Manchester

Contact were keen to work in the North Manchester ward of Harpurhey, where it has delivered the Contact/BAC social enterprise programme, The Agency, (originally funded by the Foundation) for the last seven years. The partnership with Manchester Youth Zone was critical to this as its dance studio and gymnasium provided the ideal location for rehearsals. Of the final 10 performers in the public shows, five were from under-served North Manchester or northern Greater Manchester areas (2 from Moston, 1 from Harpurhey, 2 from Rochdale). A further three came from lower-income wards of central Manchester close to Contact: Rusholme and Moss Side.

“Being based in North Manchester was a great help for me.” Participant

Awareness of contemporary circus: audience reaction and press coverage

Responses to the double bill were extremely positive, with some 5-star reviews. All reviewers covered both shows equally, which was important to show two pieces in dialogue, one professional and one amateur.

Switch feels young at heart; there is the thrill of experimentation and the joy of learning running throughout. The final scene of the cast gleefully regarding a stage turned into a shambles by their behaviour is a lovely moment of closure... Tipping Point is astonishing... but combined with Switch it currently offers the best value in town. 5 STARS” Manchester Theatre Awards

“It is a major creative challenge to work with non-circus trained young people to develop work that has its basis in the challenging and innovative style of Ockham’s Razor… With a soundtrack by Bellatrix, this new work has charm and style in abundance… (Tipping Point) is a stunning spectacle of just how good modern cutting-edge circus can be.” Manchester Evening News

The show was featured on ITV Granada News, reaching a very wide mainstream audience and every show was followed by capturing audience feedback on a comments chalk-wall and by roving front of house staff. Comments were predominantly positive:

‘Exhilarating’   ‘Immersive’     ‘Terrifying!’     ‘10/10’            

‘Amazing experience being sat at ground level and so close to the performers!’

‘The young people moved with such skill.’    ‘Absolute beauty to watch’   

‘Best Circus show I've ever seen’       ‘Mummy - can we go to the theatre every day?’

‘It was great to get local young people involved with such a high-profile company.’

Reaching the audience: profile and demographics

Through successful targeted outreach and groups engagement the audience was notable in its youth and diversity. 74% were under 35 (52% under 25), and 38% Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic. The project benefited from subsidised tickets from Contact corporate supporter, Mills and Reeve, supported by the newly appointed Contact post of Audience Development Producer.

Timing and recruitment

The long gap between earlier phase one activity and production phase meant a lot of drop-off of participants, and therefore not as much skills progression as hoped.  The challenge of needing consistent availability for a three-week period in August was a major challenge for recruitment and many young people engaged with could not commit due to work or holidays. Of the 12 young performers in the cast, two subsequently dropped out (one due to work commitments but who remained in most rehearsals, and one due to safeguarding issues relating to the rehearsal venue).

The ensemble was notably less racially diverse than traditional for Contact projects and casts, which Contact felt was possibly due to the nature of the art-form being explored, and the focus of recruitment in a more traditionally white working class part of the city.

Finding the ideal venue

For several months, Contact tried to find an ideal site in North Manchester and visited many possible locations. Manchester International Festival was also supportive in location hunting, but it proved unsuccessful.  With the support of Manchester City Council, Contact secured Upper Campfield Market.  Although a stunning venue in the city centre, it did not have the sense of something special coming to an unexpected part of the north of the city.

Performances in August

August proved a challenge for sales, without schools, colleges or youth groups able to organise trips at this time. Box office yield was also lower than target, a result of large numbers of funded tickets, a large proportion of young person concessions, and strong take-up of VIP tickets for press night. Although Contact reached 75% of total tickets available, total box office and ticket yield was only 57% of target (£8.22 per ticket).

Organisational learning

It was a steep learning curve for Contact’s marketing team to communicate carefully around circus that did not conform to a general public’s sense of what circus is, and they drew upon Ockham’s Razor’s experience.  Team feedback post-show was that the fun, amusement and joy within the performance had not come across in the marketing assets as much as had been hoped.

It is hard for Contact to gauge the success beyond the project itself as it is still some time before it returns to its building and programmes more contemporary circus within the reopening programme. However, Contact is exploring an aerial performance based family Christmas show for 2020.

The young people’s stated desire to take their training and engagement further can only be gauged in time, and Contact has proposed a follow-up social and reunion to see a piece of contemporary circus at the Lowry and re-interview the group at this point.

One key outcome from the project has been a young participant, Josh Wilkinson, who first engaged with Contact through the Agency and subsequently in each phase of SWITCH, has now become a full board member at Contact. He is currently the only board member of a Manchester cultural organisation from Harpurhey.

 

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