Changes in artistic directors are polite, staid events. Press releases pay tribute to predecessors and make rosy promises for the future. Keisha Thompson, newly appointed Artistic Director/ Chief Executive of Contact, prefers to hold a party. Typical of a theatre that sets out to over-achieve, Cocktails and Cinquains also celebrates the fiftieth anniversaries of Contact and the Manchester Caribbean Carnival which Thompson credits as influencing her artistic development.
While looking to the future, Thompson has not forgotten her origins. She has been associated with Contact since age 15, starting by reciting in the foyer and moving on to writing and producing plays and is the first black woman, first Mancunian and, at 32, the youngest person to run Contact. A steel band comprising pupils from the Co-op Academy Manchester in Blackley, taught by her former music teacher, greets the audience with Caribbean versions of soft rock classics. They are not the least deterred by the noise of a helicopter hovering over a nearby hospital.
The evening has an informal, relaxed atmosphere. I am offered a non-alcoholic cocktail but cannot understand the concept. There are a lot of speeches with Thompson at one point wondering if a City Councillor’s promise to support the venue amounted to a verbal contract. Thompson’s vision for the venue is lyrical, paying tribute to the external ‘castle ‘design by Alan Short and Associates (which I’ve never liked, since you asked) as a ‘castle of curiosity’. She points out the potential of castles for ceremonies that attract people who feel anything can happen.
The speeches are followed by the formal performance of Cocktails and Cinquains. Well, formal in the sense there is a strong atmosphere of improvisation or under-rehearsal—in a ‘Spinal Tap’ moment, one of the acts gets lost on the way to the stage. The structure of the show, with Thompson and Rory Aaron introducing the sequences and performing, is inspired by the four parts of a cocktail: mixer, spirit, shot and garnish; in other words, very similar to what once would have been called a variety show.
Cocktails and Cinquains demonstrates the strengths and limitations of the ideals of Contact. The theatre emphasises the value of securing the involvement of people who would not normally see themselves as performers and so developing the next generation of artists, actors and leaders. Thus, Cocktails and Cinquains gives local dance group Jet Black an opportunity to perform in public and members to the audience the chance to compose and recite their own cinquain.
Customers who do not get involved might, however, have to acknowledge, no matter how high-minded the ideals, the professional performers stand out as more polished. There is a notable difference between the non-professional contributions and, say, the recitation from Rory Aaron and a colleague backed by a heavy bass-line and a filmed cityscape of images from Salford’s Chapel Street.
Keisha Thompson will be taking a hands-on approach to the 50th anniversary season, writing and directing respectively 14% and Halo, the former examining Britishness and football culture. The new season showcases brand new Contact supported works, new work from Contact’s Young Company and the best of the UK’s new touring shows and emerging artists.
Contact’s emphasis on promoting youth leadership and creativity challenges audiences to step outside their comfort zone. I’m hardly the target audience for Contact and some of the scheduled productions seem, at face value, outside my interest range. Despite irrefutable evidence (just look at the editor of The BTG) that smartphones cause physical, mental and moral deterioration, participation in While We Were Waiting… something changed (scheduled for July) depends on the use of such devices. So that’s me out.
However, although productions may seem to appeal to a limited audience, experience is that they often surprise. Shows at Contact offer the chance to try something new or to look at established formats in a fresh way. News, News, News performed entirely by local schoolchildren was a refreshing combination of gravitas and downright silliness while The Bread We Break was a demanding mixture of the personal with the political and the lyrical with the mundane. The idealistic approach taken by Contact makes demands of the audience, but the outcome is often unexpectedly rewarding.
With Cocktails and Cinquains, Keisha Thompson starts Contact on the path towards their 100th anniversary.
(Keisha Thompson spoke to us about her appointment at Contact on the BTG podcast.)