50 Years of Contact: From a Professor's Dream to Britain’s Most Extraordinary Youth Arts Centre

Contact Theatre celebrates its 50th birthday this week, and it all started with the passions of two men...

By Ben Brown | August 23rd '22

When someone says 50 years ago I instantly think of the 1950s. But I’m showing my age there, as 50 years ago was in fact 1972, which doesn’t feel like 50 years at all and actually makes me want to cry.

Back in the early 70s (which was 50 years ago), Manchester’s art scene was a much different place than it was today, and in fact, the University of Manchester had only had a Drama department for ten years, and was the second to be set up in the UK at the time. The department was founded by a man called Hugh Hunt who had already had a rather extraordinary life by that point, with more to come.

Born in 1911 in Camberley in Surrey, he was the son of an officer in the Indian Army and his brother was Lord Hunt, who led the first successful expedition to Everest in 1953. So, not much to live up to there then.

Hunt studied at Oxford and became, as John Gregory noted in his obituary in The Independent; “a very fine character actor, [who] did not like acting, and only accepted parts to prove his abilities.” Hunt’s passions lay elsewhere – going on to produce and direct some of the UK’s most successful (and critically acclaimed) shows ever throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s.

After service in the war and then a spell in Australia, Hunt returned to Britain and headed to Manchester, founding the drama department at the university and instigating the building of the University Theatre building, which opened in 1965.

During his tenure he introduced a professional practice-based curriculum that became a model for other drama departments across the world, and resumed his directing career on a part time basis. By 1972, Hunt teamed up with Barry Shepherd, General Manager of the theatre to create the Manchester Young People’s Theatre – which later became Contact Theatre in the 90s.

As part of the university, the idea was that this was a place where young people could change their lives through the arts, placing them at the heart of everything including programming, decision-making and even staff appointments. It was all rather revolutionary at the time, and still is – as these are values that Contact hold on to dearly to this very day – exactly 50 years later.

As you’d expect, Contact are celebrating their half-century with some pretty spectacular events, 50 of them in fact, each one with inclusion, sustainability and affordability at its heart. Contact will also share its vision for the future through launching new fundraising initiatives across corporate partners and public donations, ensuring the legacy for another 50 years.

Contact will carry out events, activities, competitions and giveaways to mark the anniversary, including a fun series of stunts including a 50m walk to give a £50 ticket voucher to the first person seen and 50% off shows for Contact members. It will all culminate in a sensational finale – a Big Banquet hosted by comedian Sophie Willan.

On a day in November, anyone who calls Contact on the 50th minute of the hour gets a 50p ticket to a show and on National Hot Chocolate Day there will be one free hot chocolate given to the first 50 people in the building.

Artists and alumni joining in the celebration include renowned and award-winning poet, playwright and performer from Manchester Louise Wallwein MBE, theatre maker, writer and comedian Amy Vreeke and artist Jenny Gaskell plus many more.

This week saw Contact host a ‘Poet Lock-In‘ with Georgie Brooke, who agreed to be locked in the building for 50 hours, (where they were given a bed, fed and watered throughout), to write a 50-word poem.

Here is the poem:

Contact, by Georgie Brooke

I wish I could see this castle of curiosity
with fresh eyes. Wonder ‘what
the hell is that?’. Squint,
until panels become palms
pressed together, calloused from 50 years
of first touches. Isn’t that
what ‘Contact’ means?
Thinking what we feel is ours alone,
until another hand reaches out, and grips.

Georgie said: “It’s been a long couple of days, but I’m so excited to share my piece with the world. It really captures the fact that Contact is a place that reaches out to people. But I’m also nervous, as I’ve written this in complete isolation. Usually a poem forms over weeks, and with other poets, rather than in 50 solo hours.

The hardest part of the process was fitting it into 50 words – there’s so much that I want to write about Contact, and it means so much to me, everyone who works here, and everyone who’s contributed to the 50-year legacy.

Then I realised all I was trying to say was that Contact has a way of communicating, and this way of coaxing out something from people and making them feel held so that they can grow is the message that matters the most.”

For the listings of all of Contact’s 50th birthday celebrations, including exclusive productions, events, workshops and more, head on over to their website below.

Keisha Thompson, Artistic Director and CEO of Contact said: “Contact has been a huge part of my life for almost two decades, but our organisation’s incredible history, and its impact on Manchester, reaches far beyond that.

“For 50 years Contact has nurtured artists, celebrated curiosity and carved out a safe space for young people to express themselves creatively. I’m so excited to look back at our achievements during our birthday, but even more excited to set the vision for what the next 50 years of Contact could look like.”

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Contact 50th Birthday