Contact has been an integral part of Manchester’s cultural scene since the 1970s. Then, in 2018, everything went dark as the theatre and arts venue embarked on a £6.75 million refurbishment project. Originally scheduled to unlock its doors this year, the pandemic has delayed said re-opening for a little while longer.
That said, the iconic Manchester theatre isn’t used to resting on its laurels. Towards the end of last year, Contact announced that Junior Akinola would be joining the organisation as chair of the board of trustees. At 28, he is the first person under the age of 30 to chair the board of a major performing arts venue in the UK.
“I will be implementing the strategy for the next three years,” explains Akinola. “If we get that right, when we are allowed to open, we can re-introduce ourselves to Manchester in the best way possible.”
To close a major venue for this length of time is a gamble and, with theatres up and down the country fighting for survival, it could be a challenging time for a relaunch.
“Manchester is constantly moving and it could look like we’ve disappeared,” says Akinola. “But the need for us is still there. Look at young creatives and what they need. We can become that hub. People can come and catch the vibe, have a drink and hear about something that’s not the norm and go and see it. I feel we are adapting to the current cultural landscape.”
Akinola will be looking further afield than Manchester for inspiration. “A few years ago I went to the Young Vic. It was a Tuesday at 5pm and it was such a vibe. People were lining up for whichever show was on during that particular day and, after they went in, the building was still buzzing. Young people need a place to hang out in. If people come anyway, it’s an easier sell for a show or a project. There is a new audience emerging who don’t always want to go to clubs. Not being open for three years gives us a blank slate.”
Many theatre fans will be keen to see what the inside of such an iconic building looks like now. “Walking in it’s completely different,” says Akinola. “The first thing you see is the bar and restaurant. When I saw the physical change I was like ‘oh my God’. I can’t wait for people to come. We would have launched already if it wasn’t for the pandemic. It’s a waiting game now.”
“My creative journey started when I was at college. I had roles in theatre, short films and commercials but, at the time, there wasn’t as much depth on offer by way of roles that would be available to me had I started today. So, when reading certain characters it inspired me to write. If I want to see more, why not write? I got onto a film scheme at the BBC that year and I wanted to learn about all the different areas in the creative world.”
This is when things started to take off for Akinola. “I then went to Manchester Metropolitan University to do drama and creative writing. After that I interned at a creative agency in London. Shortly after, I got some funding to make a film addressing social issues. I put all my skills into action and was recruiting people across the city.”
But the lure of the North was too strong and Akinola came home – to work at Contact. “I was a project manager at Contact. At the time we were trying to raise money for the building. For the Making Contact project, I interviewed about 25 people with an affiliation to the building. But then it grew to about 80 people.”
Following this project, he worked on the Manchester European Youth Capital bid. Unfortunately this was in 2016 and, with Brexit, they realised they probably weren’t going to win this one. It was time for another rethink.
“I went back to the BBC in 2017 in the Kids Department working on digital production,” says Akinola. “I also reverse mentored the director of arts. I wanted to see how they work at that level. I ran a session in Manchester where I introduced grassroots creatives to them. The session was really good. They saw that people are just creating. Not all artists are as privy to the funding pot system and the full spectrum of what’s on offer, especially at grassroots level, so this session was important.”
You might think that would be enough for Akinola but, after a change of role at the BBC to assistant content producer in the central editorial department, he felt the itch for something else.
This takes us to the present day where Akinola is ready to work his magic on Contact. “The response to my appointment has been overwhelming. People say my career journey is inspiring, but I don’t realise [that] because I’m tunnel-visioned.”
He continues: “I get messages from people asking for career advice and I always take time out to offer help. I think you need an end goal. Mine is wanting to write and produce. I think ‘what’s the full spectrum of skills I’d need and how can I learn?’ Ultimately, you have to keep a level head and you can be creative in pursuit of the skills you need for your end goal and make it exciting.”
With a new building and a dynamic chair, it is a wonderful rebirth for one of Manchester’s best loved theatres. We just need it to open.
For more information about Contact Theatre, visit the website.