“We’re from North Manchester, we don’t normally get strings.”

“Can we just do it again? Big smiles. Give it 100% now. Then we’re going to get into our costumes and perform it to parents.”

Mad Theatre’s Creative Director Rob is firing encouragement at the nine young actors on the small stage in Manchester Communication Academy’s drama studio. Tomorrow is the big day. Now one final run through before tonight’s dress rehearsal.

Ten minutes later they all come off stage and I get the chance to ask Rob what it’s all about.

“We did some work with Seddons, the construction people, last year,” he explains. “We performed a piece about Manchester’s industrial past at some swanky do at the People’s History Museum in town.

“We must have done all right because they asked us to come back and do it again this year. This time to work with the Manchester Camerata and perform a piece about the city’s cultural history.

Rob tells me this year’s do is in the Whispering Room at Manchester’s Central Library. Mad Theatre will perform their tribute to ‘Madchester’ music accompanied by a string quartet, keyboard player and a percussionist.

Specially-printed T shirts, trainers and Stone Roses-inspired ‘bucket hats’ are handed out and the performers disappear to get changed.

“So I wrote a piece starting from when the Sex Pistols played at the Lower Free Trade Hall,” continues Rob, “fast-forwarding through the whole Madchester scene with a bit of Shelagh Delaney thrown in.”

I love Mad Theatre’s approach. Time and again they produce wonderful performances about real life, about things that matter. It’s very well done and a pleasure to watch.

“And what’s also been great,” says Rob, “is that, just like we do with our Forever Manchester partners in Harpurhey and Moston, we’re making a joint bid with the Camerata for a totally new project.”

Once the performers have changed and parents start to arrive for the dress rehearsal, I put my tape recorder in front of 15-year-old James. “You sing about the bomb?” I say.

“There’s a line in the Smiths’ song which goes, ‘If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together.’

“And, as young people, this performance been a really good way for us to express how we feel about the most recent Manchester bombing.

“It’s saying, there is nothing that’s going to stop us. We’re Mancs, we’re strong.”

“And what’s this been like?” I ask, nodding towards the string quartet.

“It’s been absolutely amazing because we’ve never worked with an orchestra before. It’s been eye-opening. Today is the first time we’ve performed live with them. Until now we’ve been working with a recording. It’s a real kick with the live performers.”

17-year-old Jake is tonight’s frontman. Apparently he fronts his own band too, at the music college he attends. Tonight he’s Johnny Rotten, Morrissey and Shaun Ryder, in quick succession. “Have you had to watch a lot of music videos to get into the roles?”

“No, not at all. I’m really passionate about Morrissey and the Manchester bands. This is the sort of music I listen to, so I know all the words.”

The parents have now arrived. Jake, James and the rest of the young people are back on stage as Rob finishes a short introduction.

With a nod to the musicians, Jake kicks them all off: “A one, a two, a one, two, three, four…”

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“We’ve got an enormous range of skills and expertise in the area.”

Community Builder Graeme Urlwin tells more about his work in Harpurhey and Moston. Continued from Awards With a Difference at Forever Manchester

I’m out in the community every week visiting places where people get together. For me, it’s an opportunity to meet new people who aren’t involved in community activity.

One of those places is the Wellbeing Centre where one of our LRG members, Joan Tipping, oversees a range of mostly creativity-based activities.

There’s a restaurant run by Mind, staffed by people who have been through the mental health system. People stay for lunch so it’s a good time to chat.

I met Danny who plays pool with a group of men three lunchtimes a week. They have all survived the mental health system and are keen to set up a football team.  A Cash 4 Graft has enabled them to buy a little bit of equipment and be independent from local football teams which are all a little too competitive for where they are at.

Val’s husband has dementia. She wanted to start a support group for people with dementia and their carers. A Cash 4 Graft helped fund some much needed resources to run the sessions.

Tom had recently been diagnosed with diabetes, and has found it difficult to get his head around. He used a Cash 4 Graft to get word out to people in a similar position and started a support group.

Larger grants from the Fourteen programme, still only £1,000, have helped support the many therapeutic sessions that take place at the centre.

All of these activities have stemmed from me ‘hanging about’, chatting to people and having a funding system that has no bureaucracy attached to it. Small amounts of money leading to significant benefits for a significant number of people.

So what happens when a bit more money is needed and the Fourteen programme has finished in the area? How are these new initiatives sustained?

People have been supported to think beyond just a financial need. Networks have been created where people are now more aware of small scale streams of cash such as those distributed by Forever Manchester, and the Neighbourhood Investments Funds from the City Council.

More significantly, the LRG has a new initiative developing called ‘The Big Meet,’ which will grow and grow even after Forever Manchester has left the area.

The Big Meet brings together all of the community-based activity – about 70 groups in Harpurhey and Moston –  to support each other with governance, the law, policy-making, fundraising, marketing and social media.

Seventy groups equates to hundreds of people and an enormous range of skills and expertise that can be pooled and shared. It’s not all about money.

Graeme is pictured at The WellBeing Centre, Harpurhey with Joan Tipping, left and Val Meakin.

Encouraging and empowering local people

I can’t believe how much is going on at Manchester Communication Academy.

This afternoon I’m chatting with Jane Ellis who has been with the school’s community department for the last four years.

“I’d worked as a dental nurse for 20 years and was looking for a career change when I applied to work at the school when it first opened in 2010. Back then there were just three staff working on the community programme.”

Now Jane is one of a team of 11 whose job it is to support and outreach in to the school’s wider community.

They hire the school’s facilities to local sports and community groups, including a visually-impaired football team and the local scout group. They put on Adult Education courses where English and maths are in high demand.

There’s a ‘Once Upon A Time’ project for older people where you can drop in for a chat and a look back at local history. Jane’s team even includes a resident archaeologist.

“Why does a school like yours get so involved with its community?” I ask.

“As you know, this area is near the top of all the deprivation statistics,” says Jane. “And there are few other resources in this area.”

“It’s as if you’re a community centre within a school,” I suggest.

“We see our job as removing the barriers that people might have to make changes in their lifestyle,” she says. “That way we can help to improve those statistics.”

“It must be very different from being a dental nurse?” I suggest.

“It’s very rewarding. When you see someone come to, say, one of the classes for the first time, they might be quiet and nervous and think they’re not capable. But then you witness a real change.

“One lady, I remember, said the hardest thing was coming though the doors – it can be daunting for some people to just walk in to the building – but now she volunteers for us and has even got back into employment.”

Jane is currently setting up a ‘time bank’ for the area where local people can share their skills, offering to do small jobs for others.

“It could be doing some shopping for an older person,” she says, “or just sitting, having a conversation. There are a million opportunities.”

I ask why people might want to get involved. “Time banking can be a great stepping stone,” Jane explains. “Some people will do it to get volunteering experience, it will give them the edge when applying for jobs. For others it’ll be a chance to build their confidence.

“And anyone will be able to join without having to give back,” she explains, “no one will be in ‘time debt’.”

Jane is one of the newest members of Forever Manchester’s Local Reference Group, overseeing the allocation of funding from the Fourteen programme. “I got to know the Forever Manchester team when I applied for funding for the Frank Cohen alcohol support centre,” she says.

“What Forever Manchester is doing is amazing. They’re bringing people together, like we’re trying to do, and making people aware of what help and support is out there.”

By spending just a short time with Jane I can tell she is a real ‘people person’. She loves to be able to help and outside of her busy job with the Academy she still finds time to support her local food bank.

To get involved with Jane’s time bank, or any of the other activities on offer, give her a call on 0161 202 0161