“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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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

Keeping the options open for local young people

“We’ve got lots going on at the moment,” Pamela says as she leads me upstairs for our chat. “We’re preparing for a local parade just now.”

The Chill Out Room at The Factory Youth Zone has comfy chairs and sofas; books about anger management and sexual health, and lots of motivational posters.

I start at the beginning. “When did this place open? How long have you been here?”

“We opened in February 2012,” says Pamela Mason, “and I’ve been here from the start.”

A large colourful box of a building right in the centre of Harpurhey, The Factory Youth Zone is unusual for a youth centre. Pamela explains that it’s run by a charity and the building was paid for in part by local businesses and patrons.

“We got funding from people and organisations who wanted to invest in young people,” she says. “And there are more centres like this now open in Oldham, Wigan, Preston, all over.

“The traditional youth service provided by local authorities doesn’t exist any more. We’re the new path for that work. Our job is to keep the options open for young people.”

Pamela’s career in youth work started as a work placement at a youth club as part of a social care qualification. In her first paid role in Wythenshawe she and her colleagues toured the estate with their transit van.

“We’d park in hotspots where young people would congregate,” she recalls, “and we’d throw open the side of van where there’d be some seating, a kettle and even an X-box. It was up to us to discourage otherwise antisocial behaviour.”

Her first role at The Factory Youth Zone was as an outreach worker but has since moved through the ranks and is now Head of Youth managing a team of full and part-time staff.

“What sort of challenges do young people face in this area?” I ask.

“Well, as you know, the statistics show that Harpurhey and Moston are near the top – or the bottom, depending on which way you look at it – for things like domestic violence, child sexual exploitation, poor school attendance, poor health, drug and alcohol abuse. These all affect young people directly or indirectly.”

“And The Factory Youth Zone is making a difference?”

“Absolutely,” says Pamela. “We have up to 150 young people attending our senior sessions each week and about 140 coming to the junior sessions. And they keep coming back, so we must be doing our job well.”

But Pamela and her colleagues can’t do everything. “We often need to refer young people to other services – mental health, debt advice, housing or employment – and all these are under-resourced. It can take time before our young people get the extra help and support they need.”

The Fourteen programme has helped. The Factory Youth Zone has been awarded funding to run an 18-month project that encourages 14-19-year-olds to train as young leaders.

“We’ve been able to employ an extra member of staff who’s written the Learn2Lead programme which includes safeguarding training, a social action campaign and voluntary work placements,” says Pamela.

“It’s great to see the older ones with Young Leader printed on the back of their T-shirts, acting as role models for our junior members.”

“And what about being part of the Local Reference Group for the Fourteen programme?” I ask, “Has that been useful?”

“It’s like having a whole new group of colleagues,” enthuses Pamela, “with lots of new resources and contacts. You get to know much more about what’s happening in the area and learn new ways of working.

“It’s been great to get to know all the other community groups in our Big Meets, and we’re hoping, as part of the Learn2Lead project, to place some young volunteers with those groups.”

To find out what’s available for young people at The Factory Youth Zone, check their website or call into the reception.