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Brief Encounter With ... Baba Israel

Baba Israel is the new Artistic Director at the Contact Theatre in Manchester.Well known for its innovative programming and unique spaces, the venue continues to offer audiences something different. Israel hopes to continue with this tradition, as he brings with him a New York state of mind, teaching experience and a career in hip hop. We met him to discuss his plans for Manchester's platform for new theatre.

What attracted you to Contact?

I first came to Contact in 2005 as a performer as a part of a double-bill, with my father, Steve Ben Israel. We were both amazed by the space, the staff and the people we encountered. The audience was culturally diverse, engaged and most were under thirty. This was not the usual theatre experience. We met rappers who wrote plays, ex-prisoners who quoted Shakespeare and highly intelligent and motivated artists. Over the years I came back to Contact as both director and educator and now I am thrilled to be taking the reigns as Artistic Director.

What’s been the most interesting aspect of the job?
Contact contains all my passions in one place. I grew up surrounded by the theatre. I have worked as an actor, producer, hip-hop artist, poet, director and educator. Contact gives me a creative home for all this experience. Each day is filled with exiting new tasks and connections and, having a diverse background, allows me to input and relate to all aspects of the organisation. Coming from New York, where many artists self-produce, means I bring an entrepreneurial sensibility.

Contact has a great reputation for reaching out to young people via the programming. What highlights are you looking forward to in the new season?
Our 10th anniversary season reflects the journey Contact and its young people have been on. Keith Saha, who performed in one of the very first shows at Contact, returns this autumn with a new play Blackberry Trout Face, which follows the lives of three teenagers whose mother has abandoned them. We also have Frisko, who I met on my first trip to Contact as a member of our Young Actors Company, returning with is first solo work, Contradictions. We are also continuing our links with established companies such as Quarantine, whose new show Make-Believe, features Contact favourites Yusra Warsama, Marcus Hercules and their two-year old son Jeziel. I am also excited to see Benji Reids’ new show, The Devil Has Quentin’s Heart. Benji is a brilliant talent and superb ambassador for Manchester; he is the reason I heard about Contact. I am also looking forward to the opening of the season.  I am bringing members of my old company Playback NYC to train out emerging artists in Playback theatre. Playback is an improvisational form where audience’s memories, stories and emotions are transformed into theatre. Launching on September 25th I am inviting the alumni of our Young Actors Company, artistic collaborators and members of the public to share then years of stories about Contact. It should be a humorous and moving night.

What do you hope to bring the venue?
Ten years ago Contact was re-imagined as not just a theatre but a platform for music, spoken word, visual art, dance and hip hop. I want to grow and expand Contact’s role as a multi-disciplinary venue. I imagine each night as a mini-festival with plays blurring with club nights; music with art events and promenade pieces with spoken word. I am also starting to program ongoing events that provide a consistent outlet for local artists. These events will function as laboratories where artists can develop skills, create communities and gain experience. For example, we recently held a night called Mixed Movement, which is an event of improvisational dance and music that mixes genres and styles. It gives a spontaneous outlet for dance and choreography. We had our first one this month and we had 200 people turn up, all via word-of-mouth. The energy was amazing and incredibly inclusive with the age range of the dancers stretching from eight to 50. My experience as an international artist and background as New Yorker will also lead to new international collaborations, residencies, exchanges and touring. I also plan to develop the skills and opportunities for young people in areas besides performance, including tech, marketing, producing and programming.

What would you say Contact offers a young person who is put off by the middle-class image theatre often puts across?
Contact is, above all, inclusive and welcoming. I have been to many theatres where young people are herded in on a school trip then, immediately, ushered out again! When I first came to Contact I immediately felt that I was on their ground. Young people come to Contact to socialise, research, jam and create. They own the space and it’s something I will ensure remains to be true. Young people interview all our staff; they play a role in our board and give tours of the building. They create events, manage projects, develop ideas and facilitate training. We are not just a service for young people, we are in collaboration with them.

Finally, what’s in store in terms of the theatre’s 10th anniversary celebrations?
Expect exciting new work that will fill the building. We have a rich mix of theatre, spoken word, dance and site-specific pieces coming with a mixture of established companies, bold new artists and international collaborations. There will be parties, performance and exciting new projects. It’s going to be a celebration of a brilliant ten years of this futuristic castle and the young people, staff and artists who ensure there is no moat, just a welcoming, creative and magic place.

Baba Israel was speaking to Glenn Meads

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