Arts: The city mission: In Manchester they're not moaning about funding crises or dwindling audiences. They're thinking 'pro-active'. Sabine Durant reports

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The Independent Culture
MANCHESTER is a site to relieve sore eyes. In Albert Square, a parade of flickering neon torches and a streak of white banner proclaim the city's hopes for 'Olympics 2000'. Down by the canal at Castlefield, the diggers are burrowing out an outdoor theatre space (a sign reads 'Shaping TOMORROW'S CITY TODAY') and at the St Peter's Square carpark, where a new concert venue is planned, the bulldozers are poised. There's thunderous activity behind the scenes too. In the town hall, clerks are at work on the fine details of the 'Regeneration of Hulme', on the ins and outs of the 1994 Global Forum, and on the opening moves for next year's World Chess Championship. Confidence is in the air, bravura, a sense of defiant optimism. Manchester's a city with its best clothes on.

And nowhere more so, perhaps, than behind the tinted windows of a shop front opposite the town hall. A temporary sign across the door reads 'Manchester City of Drama 1994', but, while the event - outlined in 1991, won by bid in 1992 - is scheduled for 1994, it's in 1993, in the hands of a small group of people and two empty wall-planners, that the real work takes place. 'It's impossible to number the events at this point, but we are envisaging a grossed- up turnover of pounds 10m,' says Christopher Barron, the project's shyly spoken director. 'I've got so much to do. This is a theatrical event with enormous repercussions. My role is to turn City of Drama 1994 into a catalyst.'

He's a quiet man, but these are loud claims for a drama festival that some, embittered by the imminent temporary closure of the Forum Theatre (while it 'sorts out its finances'), might dismiss as cultural top dressing. The claims, though, are fanned by the commitment of the council. The City of Drama trophy is the third in the Arts Council's 'City of' initiative (that each year from 1992 to the millennium, a different city should celebrate a different art form). The council's decision to bid and its continuing financial support ( pounds 212,000 plus pounds 100,000 from the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities) are based on a long-term view: that 1994 should leave the 10 districts that constitute Greater Manchester with lasting material benefits. These were partly to be economic: '2,200 people work in the theatre in Manchester. It's a growth industry,' says Kath Robinson, chair of the CoD board. 'The majority of new jobs created in the area in the last 12 / 13 years have been in the arts. We want to prove how investment in this area can create energy which in its turn filters down to other industries.'

But the movement was also, they stressed, to leave a cultural legacy. 'There's a determination in Manchester,' says David Plowright, the former chairman of Granada and now chairman of the development committee, 'to present itself as a European city, to lead the world into the 21st century in the same way as some of us think we led the world into the 20th century. City of Drama is to link into what I'm calling the Decade of Opportunity.'

Legacies take work and CoD's contribution to the 'Decade of Opportunity' currently rests, fairly heavily, on the shoulders of Barron and his team. They seem to be on top of the situation, but that might have something to do with their offices. The PR department fires off its press releases (of which there are many) from a dingy basement, but the director, the project, marketing and sponsorship managers inhabit swish, shagpiled, individually moduled work spaces with high-tech equipment on tap. The environment is a testimony to the negotiating skills of Sally-Ann Batt, Barron's personal assistant, who, after inhabiting the site (lent by a computer company), has wheedled pounds 275,000-worth of sponsorship in kind from local businesses. 'I'm really thrilled with my pot plants,' she coos, 'I sold that one to them on being florist to the stars.'

It's a hardy lesson and one that sums up the 'pro-active', 'initiative-based' (common buzzwords around here) direction of the 'project' (another one) as a whole. Barron isn't just raising money for events commissioned or organised by himself. Fifty per cent of his job is encouraging others 'how to look after themselves'. When he's not shuffling faxes, planting 'seedcorns' (trailer events) or on the phone to St Petersburg (Manchester's twin city: a fact no one will be able to avoid by the end of next year), he's mooting sponsorship seminars and meeting with theatre companies to discuss 'possible funding directions'. 'City of Drama is not just about performance,' he says, 'it's also a training ground, locating avenues for companies to explore on their own.'

'It's to do with getting money out of bricks, finding new money,' continues Wendy Stephenson, the sponsorship consultant. 'If companies can say they're backed by City of Drama it provides them with a stamp of authority, a short cut to encourage businesses to invest new money in them. Take our success with Manchester Airport. They've put in pounds 300,000 on top, not instead of, on top of, its existing pounds 250,000 sponsorship budget.'

City of Drama is also concerned that theatre companies with buildings attached should improve their existing facilities in preparation for 1994. Access is mentioned often; both metaphorically (the manifesto declares that 'every child of primary school age' should be given a trip to the theatre in 1994); and literally. A feasibility study has been set up to look into a disability arts centre and similar concerns underlie many discussions. Take these snippets from an overheard conversation between Barron and two delegates from Skylight, a small acrobatics company from Rochdale: 'Are there any disabled people involved in training, Maria?' /'Circus for special needs is certainly an area of development' / 'The toilets are a problem, they're downstairs. We need to get our heads around that'.

The CoD plan that inspires most whooping in the office, though, is probably the search for a new theatre space. A recent 'Update' leaflet, on display in the foyer, invites Mancunians to suggest 'somewhere not specifically meant to be a theatre, a place related to life'. Julian Sleath, the office sleuth (or project manager), scoots around Manchester in search of suitable architecture. So far, he's got his eye on a hydraulic pumping station, a steam-heating room, a disused Georgian theatre club and - with much waving of spirit-levels and tape measure - the vast, empty, mildewing Upper Campfield Market. 'Now this,' hums Barron on an inspection tour, 'is really Brookian . . .'

Manchester City of Drama is, as Kath Robinson admits, a controversial area. 'Of course, people will complain. Of course, at a time when things are contracting not expanding, it's a matter of choice and priority and taste. But there is so much energy behind this.' Certainly, it seems to have instigated a small, localised economic revival in the arts. Illusory or otherwise, it's giving people a sense of renewal. Later in the day, David Plowright nobbles Sleath in the hallway: 'I've got an idea for you,' he says, 'this canal junction, where canal boats used to dock, an air raid shelter during the war. It needs attention, there's a lot of water in it. But what do you say we get the key?' It's always good to find new angles.