Keisha Thompson is the first woman, first Mancunian and the youngest, at the age of 32, to run Contact Theatre. The new Chief Executive intends to create a ‘castle of curiosity’ and offer a ‘place of opportunity’ for young emerging artists in their sustainable new building. Thompson is a writer, performance artist and producer who has been part of Contact as an artist and leader since she was 15. Her work has been presented at high profile venues and platforms such as Tate Modern, Blue Dot Festival and the British Council Showcase in Edinburgh.
Thompson states “From the mundane to the spectacular, I will use my body, my voice, my vernacular.”
Contact theatre thrives on a vision where all young people are empowered by creativity and the arts, with the mission to change the face of UK culture through supporting the next generation of artists and creatives whilst inspiring new audiences with stories and experiences that reflect the community. After a recent re-opening following a £6.75million redevelopment which has transformed the building for the next generation of audiences, artists and young people with new performance spaces, a new recording studio, an arts and health development space and many other exciting features.
Thompson’s vision is to cultivate a culture and philosophy within the organisation where everyone feels the excitement of opportunity Contact can offer just as she did from her first years in the building. Her passion for the power of youth governance that sits at the core of Contact, will empower young people from all backgrounds to become creative leaders and agents of social change. She will continue to support the next generation of artists and creatives so they can go into the world at an international standard. She thrives on challenging people’s perception of youth and who has permission to be youthful, enabling interesting conversations and inspiring new audiences with work that reflects Contact’s community.
Who/what was it that first inspired you to create/perform/write?
I was exposed to literature and the arts in general from a very young age via my family and my school. I remember feeling quite inspired by Benjamin Zephaniah and John Agard.
Who is your latest inspiration?
Very tough question. So many artists right now are doing amazing things but if you have to pin me down, I’ll say Kojey Radical and FKA Twigs.
What’s your journey to becoming chief executive and creative director of Contact Theatre been like?
For the past 5 years I sought out leadership courses and opportunities. I took the role of Chair at Future Venture’s Foundation in 2019. I knew I wanted a more senior role at Contact but in order to do that most effectively I knew I needed to leave. I went for a more senior level job at the Arts Council and continued to develop my skills and my network. I started interacting with Contact as an artist at age 15. From then, I always knew it would be a part of my life.
What growth have you seen from Contact over your time working there?
Contact is a very versatile place so it’s hard to articulate growth as opposed to responsiveness. I’d say one thing that has always been there since I’ve known it, but has known become more formal and refined, is youth leadership and encouraging non-arts sector partnerships particularly within the realms of health and well-being.
What difficulties did yourself as an artist and Contact face during the pandemic?
We were very lucky to have a subsidised model that allowed us to continue supporting our young people. We have strong links with charities like Young Manchester that supported us in providing our young people with devices and access to the internet. We created a wonderful digital show which I am very proud of.
Some staff were furloughed but we stayed contact socially because we’re like a big family. I was able to maintain my writing, performing and facilitating work. So, in general I am super grateful. I know that was not the case for many in arts sector.
Has the building development changed the energy/intention around Contact?
Yes. But that was the intention. It needed a facelift! The most validating thing has been welcoming people back (albeit incrementally and intermittently) and them saying that it looks great, feels fresh, doesn’t feel too different or hasn’t lost its charm. I can’t wait to get in properly again.
What are you hoping to achieve in your new position at Contact?
I want to continue the good work! Championing and cultivating young artists, Mancunian artists, experimental artists. I want to create new opportunities. Build on community connections. Made stronger connections with the education sector. I’ve got a list. It’s long. It may or may not say that I want a moat filled with dark chocolate milk…
What role will contact theatre play in Manchester’s community and the broader cultural ecosystem?
We play a very active role as mentioned above. Not many artists in Manchester over the last 50 years can say that they haven’t connected with Contact in some way. That’s a legacy that I am honoured to be a part of and will strive to perpetuate.
What are you currently working on?
It’s the 50-year anniversary soon. Keep your eyes or ears out. We’ve got some juicy things in store for you.