Ever been to Contact Theatre on Oxford Road? It’s the kind of building that people call “iconic” and “landmark”. I call it “mad fantasy”.
It is shaped like a post-apocalyptic castle; all sheet metal and lights with four large cooling towers in the shape of medieval turrets. Inside is a wash of purple and orange and no straight edges in sight. I adore the thing.
I also hadn’t been in, ever, until I was asked to create their archive for them.
My role was part of wider project for Contact’s heritage and capital plans. They wanted to redesign and upgrade the building to suit current and projected needs of the young people that Contact works with. Very sensibly, they decided to use their previous records of the last time the building was redeveloped, 25 years ago, to help with this process.
To do that they needed to find the records first.
That’s where Making Contact comes in. Making Contact was a Heritage Lottery Funded project to create the archive and deliver an oral history project. The oral histories are extensive and fascinating and can be explored in part on a dedicated site.
The archiving was left up to me.
Archives and basements
Unsurprisingly, the archive records were in the basement so down I went. There hadn’t been much sorting of records so there was lots of go through. I spent perhaps 11 or 12 days sorting things out.
It was incredibly satisfying. It reminded me of one of the first archives I worked with which was the Co-operative Group on Shudehill in Manchester. That project can basically be summed up as: “Down to the basement for 2 years looking for old stuff.” Pretty much my heaven.
Foraging around in Contact Theatre’s basement, whilst not as extensive as the Co-op’s, was a wonderful relief. Just getting to spend the time really making an impact on the records and the space, music on (including the odd dance break), was a great pause from service development at the Royal Northern College of Music’s archive.
There were records piled up in boxes and crates on the floor with theatre curtains rolled on top. There were hundreds of posters, some A3, some A0 size rolled up squatting in the corner between shelves. Cabinets were packed with CDs, DAT tapes, DVDs, cassettes and mini discs of productions and audios. Show files and contracts were mixed in with visitor feedback and leaflets. Minutes were playing hide and seek amongst dead records.
It sounds bad but it was actually pretty good. Most organisations’ records are not dissimilar.
Contact Theatre is pretty radical at its heart. Not just the shows it programmes but the way it is actually run. Its purpose is not just to be another Manchester arts venue but to serve as a catalyst for young people in the arts, early in their career. There is the Contact Young Company which consists solely of young people. There are young people on the Contact Theatre Board. There were young people on the project. There were young people in the programming and production.
These aren’t just jobs but mentoring and career boosting opportunities. The whole place is full of friendly, passionate people. It was great to spend time there.
Glitter and To Kill A Mockingbird
I really love arts collections. They are so much fun! It’s really interesting to see what goes into making productions and how these organisations are managed. The minutes are incredibly detailed. The photographs of the building are wonderful and make it seems like an arts instillation itself.
Then there’s the glitter. There are hundreds of leaflets and posters. The artwork is brilliant and bombards the eyes with colour, shape and yes, in some instances, glitter. Ever heard of Mother’s Ruin? It’s a queer live performance act. I hadn’t heard of it before I found the leaflets and posters for its productions in Contact Theatre’s basement. There’s one leaflet that was just amazing. It was a photograph of a male face absolutely covered in glitter. Not glittery skin or shimmery skin. No. Actual glitter for skin. It was fabulous.
I learned many interesting things working on the collection. One that’s stuck with me was that Contact Theatre put on the very first UK live performance of the dramatisation of “To Kill A Mocking Bird”. Unfortunately the leaflets and programmes weren’t there but the minutes are quite detailed. Most interesting, however, were simply two sheets of music declarations. These sheets were filled out and sent to the Performing Rights Society. Whenever registered music was used in a production, you needed to declare that you were using it. To Kill A Mockingbird’s sheets declared some stonking good music. A lot of Nina Simone and other jazz and blues. At least we can now know what it sounded like. Unfortunately, there are no videos of the performance that we know of. If you went to the production it would be great to hear from you!
The archive now lives at Archives+ in Central Library. I had great fun fiddling with the digital displays in the Radicals section of their exhibition space, writing and designing a digital exhibition of the archive. If you’re in that part of town, nip in and let me know what you think. The whole interactive section there is a great playground for the mind so help yourself to an hour of that every now and again.
Depositing the archives with Archives+ was a decision based on access. Although Contact still own the collection, now it is with a well-used professional repository, other people can get access to it. Contact Theatre doesn’t have to manage that demand nor find space in its building to accommodate archive visitors.
If you are hoping to sort out your archives, have a think about their long term management. You do not have to have your collections open to the public, nor even all of them open. But if that’s something you want to do, it may be best to deposit them with somewhere that can do that for you. Ask your local archivist for advice.