Matt Hassall

The director of the Royal Exchange Theatre Young Company on Mixtape, part play, part gig, part party – and all about identity and the city

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Imagine Market Street on a Saturday. The hustle and bustle of the shoppers. The buskers. The street artists. The charity workers. The protesters. Imagine the shop fronts. The escalators leading up to the food court. The trees. The tram stop. The tracks leading off to Piccadilly Gardens. This is the heart of Manchester. Now imagine if all the people disappeared. Is it still Manchester? The buildings and the landmarks are still the same. So it must be, right?

Last year, someone introduced me to the concept of “sonder”. Defined by The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows (dramatic name!) as the realisation that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own – populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness – an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an ant hill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

It really struck me. It felt like a really simple concept. Of course everyone’s lives are complicated and detailed in their own way but it’s something I had never considered, despite being surrounded by thousands of people every day working in the city centre.

At a similar time, we began to create our next production, Mixtape, with the Royal Exchange Theatre Young Company – our resident company for young people aged 14-25. We started to talk about our city, and how it shapes our identity or how we shape its. We all have this almost tourist board depiction of Manchester – it’s a great night out, it’s steeped in political and social movements, brilliant architecture, influential icons. The A side to Manchester, if we’re talking in Mixtape terms. But what does that really tell us about the city we live in today? If we’re going to turn to sonder we’ll need to dig a little deeper to discover the city’s B side.

And to do that, we have to turn to the people. The people who exist here, who live and breathe the Manchester air. Would it still be Manchester if all those people weren’t here? This then became a really exciting concept and when we posed these questions to the Young Company, we started to discover sides to the city we never knew existed. When we asked each of them what made Manchester what it is, every answer was different. Manchester is a mixtape.

There is such a galvanised energy running through the city at the moment and we wanted to harness that

From these discussions we knew we wanted to use music as a starting point and transform the RET Studio into a gig-theatre event – a collision of live music, stories and performance (and we’ll be throwing a party on the stage each night after the show too!) The Young Company brings such vibrancy and energy that will be a catalyst for that frenetic feeling you get at a gig. There is also such a galvanised energy running through the city at the moment and we wanted to harness that too.

What we have created is an eclectic blend of stories, each bringing the city to life in their own way and each based on the experiences of our company. We hope it’ll be like hovering above the city, zooming in and out on a myriad of characters.

A mixtape is a set of songs that wouldn’t normally be placed together but it works because they have a new purpose and that purpose is to pay tribute to particular person. A musical ode. What happens if we consider applying that thinking to the wider world? Can we celebrate difference being side by side rather than using this as a reason for adversity? To think about it we have to again turn to sonder – think outside of ourselves and think bigger. If we could all invite ourselves to do that, the possibilities could be endless.

The Young Company is for anyone aged 14-25 to be part of the Royal Exchange, with exclusive access to workshops, masterclasses, production opportunities and free tickets to all our main house shows.

Each year we work with 120 young people as digital content creators, directors, facilitators, performers, producers, technicians and writers. Over the year we provide in-depth training and practical opportunities supporting company members to develop, create and grow at the heart of this producing theatre.

Mixtape is on 11-14 April. Contact 0161 833 9833 or see

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