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CONTACT’s new boss Keisha Thompson: “The doors will be open, and everyone is welcome. That’s what CONTACT is there to do.” 

“The doors will be open, and everyone is welcome. That’s what CONTACT is there to do,” says Keisha Thompson, its new chief executive and artistic director,

Thompson, 32, is a Manchester based poet, performance artist and producer. From June, she will be the first black woman, Mancunian, and the youngest to run the organisation in its 50-year history. She has both the experience and the confidence to redefine what an artistic director does and how a youth led arts venue might work for the city.  

Keisha Thompson
Keisha Thompson

She was supported through CONTACT’s dynamic engagement programme as a young poet, writer, and performance artist and in 2015 became part of the core staff team after being encouraged by a fellow staff member to see herself as a producer. 

Thompson bubbles with energy, and beams when I congratulate her and ask her what the best thing about theatre is? “The beautiful thing about working in this sector is the care and the freedom. I like to call it tangible ambition – being around people who speak amazing things and bring things into existence. I really enjoy that.” 

And the worst? “I suppose people who are outside of theatre can often feel very excluded, and that makes me feel very sad… The fact it can seem so insular, or esoteric to people. That upsets me.” 

She expands on the role the institution has played in her career: “CONTACT is very much an organisation that took me under its wing and never let me go. Growing up, I was one of those young people that engaged with culture across the city, bursting with creative people. CONTACT gives you that infinite sense that you can be an artist, you can collaborate with likeminded people – it has given me that understanding of the sector and of myself.” 

CONTACT, Manchester

She says she was greatly inspired by creative practitioner Gaylene Gould. “I remember Gaylene saying two things that landed with me. In fact, one of the things I did to get this role. Firstly, the need to be your full self; don’t be in any situation, role, or place if you are not allowed to bring your authentic self. That’s where you are in your power and that is when you thrive. Secondly, to get into a senior role at BFI Gaylene realised that she needed to leave. To step away, get experience elsewhere and come back. I was the Young People’s Producer at Contact for 5 years – and I loved it – but I could feel that I was starting to outgrow the role. I went away to the Arts Council to do the job that I am doing currently with the World Reimagined project and returned.”

Thompson answers my questions thoughtfully and her soft Mancunian accent, is just as compelling in its studied cadence and tone. “I remember being a teenager and I knew all the cool young people went to CONTACT. I didn’t always feel comfortable when I went into theatre buildings. CONTACT was different. It immediately gave me that sense that you could just be an artist, collaborate with people who looked like you. It taught me that understanding of the sector and of myself,” says Thompson. 

We talk about community, she tells me that arts organisations “need to be responsive to its communities,” and that it requires listening and sensitivity, as well being engaging. “It’s not enough to just put on a show, really. You must honour the stories that you choose to tell. Ask yourself if you are, in fact, the right venue to tell it and if you are going to do so maybe understand what things need to be in place. Make sure that those people and those stories are fully taken care of.” 

Keisha Thompson

As for the future, prioritising youth voice has meant CONTACT is always at the forefront of important issues; local young people and artists lead decision-making, the board of trustees is 50 percent under 30. The chair is 28. “Theatre can change lives,” she says. “I want CONTACT to feel like a second home, where people can spend time, watch shows and have fun. I want individuals to walk in and just get stuck in. I cannot wait to have a big party with everyone. The doors will be open, so come and say hello.”

Manchester’s Keisha Thompson announced as UK’s first poet to run a multi-arts venue

Keisha Thompson

The UK’s first poet to run a multi-arts venue as Keisha Thompson is announced as Artistic Director and CEO of Contact in Manchester
Keisha Thompson is a writer, performance artist and producer who has been associated with Contact as an artist and leader since she was 15. She will be the first woman, first Mancunian and at 32, the youngest to run Contact. Starting work in June 2022 as Contact celebrates its 50th year, Thompson will create a ‘castle of curiosity’ and ‘place of opportunity’ for young Mancunians in their visionary and sustainable new building.  

Keisha Thompson

Contact is a vibrant multidisciplinary arts venue in Manchester, recognised nationally and internationally as a game-changer in the field of youth leadership and creativity. Former young participants at Contact often go on to found or lead other organisations and now Contact boasts two of them in senior leadership positions, Keisha Thompson as Artistic Director and CEO and Chair of the board Junior Akinola.
Keisha Thompson first performed as an artist at Contact aged 15. She was supported through Contact’s engagement programme as a young poet, writer and performance artist and in 2015 became part of the core staff team after being nudged by a fellow staff member to see herself as a producer. 
Thompson said: “I met so many different people at Contact and had my perspective changed and just really got that sense of what youth leadership can be. I want to make sure that this ethos, culture and environment is protected because it was so beneficial for me and so many people that I know. It is how I became such a natural advocate for what Contact is about.”
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.
Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said: “This is a brilliant appointment. Contact is one of the most exciting theatres in the country, and we are proud to support them through the Greater Manchester Culture fund in recognition of the opportunities they provide for young people from across our city-region. Keisha is a great example of the impact of this support, having developed her career with Contact over the past decade to get to a point where she is ready to lead the organisation.  “Keisha is a valued member of the Greater Manchester Culture and Heritage Steering Group and brings passion and insight to all our discussions, especially around how we can support our young people to fulfil their potential. I know she will do the same for Contact and can’t wait to see what she achieves.”
Thompson studied philosophy and politics at the University of Manchester and later trained as a Mathematics teacher whilst touring her first show for Contact ‘I Wish I had a Moustache’. Her favourite place to be in Manchester was in Contact’s lounge where she was often found ‘bashing out essays’.
Keisha Thompson said: “I cannot wait to invite everyone into the castle. I like using the word curiosity because it is agile. It can mean you want to be playful. It can mean you want to be academic and interrogate something. It can mean you want to explore your identity. Or it can mean that you want to walk in an odd-shaped building and experience something new and experimental. So that’s why I like ‘Castle of Curiosity’. It’s the 50 year anniversary. It’s time to celebrate then elevate. Bring on the trumpets!”
Thompson plans to develop ways for Contact to be more commercially viable through new partnerships outside the arts sector. She will develop her role to be accessible to support new artists, encouraging more young people to be future cultural leaders through creative risk-taking.
Junior Akinola, Chair of the Board for Contact said: “We’re so excited to welcome Keisha Thompson as our new Artistic Director and Chief Exec. Keisha has shown her dedication and commitment to Contact through her years of experience working with and being an artist here. Keisha’s extensive CV and artistic profile speak for themselves, she is a trailblazer and an individual who consistently over the years has not only pushed the envelope with her creative ideas but also in the way and manner that she’s executed them. We support Keisha’s vision and look forward to welcoming her into the post in June. To have an individual of Keisha’s stature join us is truly priceless and we all can’t wait to see her flourish in the role, exciting times ahead for sure.”
Keisha Thompson succeeds Artistic Director and Chief Executive Matt Fenton from June 2022 who has been in the role since 2013. 
For more information about Contact and Keisha Thompson visit

NOTES TO EDITORS: For more information and interviews contact PR: Binita Walia 07734 507799 
Images: Google Drive Link credit Audrey Albert
Contextual information:Keisha Thompson is the first Black artist to be a full-time, permanent Artistic Director of Contact. Former Artistic Directors at Contact are; Matt Fenton (2013 to 2022), Baba Israel (2009 to 2012), Kully Thiarai (Interim AD Jan 2009 – Sep 2009), John McGrath (1999 to 2008) and Paul Clements (pre-1999).
Manchester is UNESCO City of Literature. University of Manchester’s Chancellor is poet Lemn Sissay OBE. Poet and Professor Jackie Kay CBE is Chancellor and Writer in Residence at the University of Salford.
About Keisha ThompsonKeisha Thompson is a Manchester based writer, performance artist and producer. She attained a BA in Philosophy and Politics and a PGCE in Secondary Mathematics from the University of Manchester.Keisha is Senior Learning Programme Manager for The World Reimagined, chair of radical arts funding body, Future’s Venture Foundation, a MOBO x London Theatre Consortium Fellow and a member of Greater Manchester Cultural and Heritage Group, and recipient of The Arts Foundation Theatre Makers Award 2021. She is a graduate of Re:Con, Contact’s Young Programming and Producing Team and Contact commissioned her first show I Wish I Had A Moustache.She is currently working with commissioners Eclipse Theatre, York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre to stage new play, The Bell Curves. The script was made in development with Box of Tricks. She is also working with Fuel Theatre and Alan Lane (Slung Low) to create new children’s show, Issy, BOSSS & Fractal. In August 2020, she released a new mini-album, Ephemera, in collaboration with Tom “Werkha” Leah and featuring riveting cellist, Abel Selaocoe.In 2020, she finished touring award-winning solo show, Man on the Moon. Her debut book, Lunar, features her poetry and the show script. Whilst Moonwhile is a poetic mini-album featuring music from the show. She has supported artists such as Kae Tempest, Hollie McNish, The Last Poets, Saul Williams, Amiri Baraka and has performed in Brave New Voices festivals 2008 & 2009. Her work has been presented at venues high profile venues and platforms such as Tate Modern, Blue Dot Festival and the British Council Showcase in Edinburgh. 
About Contact MCR Contact is a vibrant multidisciplinary arts venue in Manchester, recognised nationally and internationally as a game-changer in the field of youth leadership and creativity. At Contact young people aged 13-30 genuinely lead, working alongside staff in deciding the artistic programme, making staff appointments and act as full Board members. This model is seen as a national exemplar of best practice in relation to young people and diversity and accessibility, influencing organisations nationwide.
Contact recently reopened 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.
Contact receives core funding from Arts Council England, Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Manchester City Council and The University of Manchester and is also supported by charitable trusts & foundations and individual donors.

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National Youth Theatre and Contact, Manchester: Putting young people centre stage

With National Youth Theatre Chair Dawn Airey and Artistic Director Paul Roseby
With National Youth Theatre Chair Dawn Airey and Artistic Director Paul Roseby

In this age of extremes, I often find myself at the sharp end of funding squeezes, local authority cuts, and am continually alarmed by the devastating demise of arts in our state schools.

As you can imagine, it truly depresses me. 

So, I was delighted to be invited to a soft-launch of the National Youth Theatre’s award-worthy £4m refurbished premises on Holloway Road.

The National Youth Theatre’s HQ, Holloway Road, London

The organisation nurtured Daniel Craig, Helen Mirren, Zawe Ashton and many more of our theatre legends.

Speaking at the supporters event, dynamic NYT CEO and Artistic Director Paul Roseby said: “Cuts to the arts in our state schools have led to a significant pressure on organisations like ours that work with young people to bridge the gap. What’s going on across these revitalised spaces here are all about giving young people the chance to start again. Failure is what we are about, and we embrace that as much as success.”

He continued: “If you are a youth organisation you have to stick your neck out; it’s now more important than ever before.” 

Certainly, school reforms have caused pupils to move away from arts subjects such as dance, music and art, and towards more traditional academic subjects such as geography and English. What’s more, recent analysis of government data shows that the number of GCSE music and drama students has fallen by a fifth over the last decade.

Outside the M25, Manchester’s Contact Theatre on Oxford Road, closed in 2017 but has also just reopened following a £6m ‘youth led’ revamp. 

First established as a theatre in 1972, in 1999 Contact reinvented itself as a multi-disciplinary creative space specialising in producing work with, and providing opportunities for, young people aged 13 to 30. 

Contact Young Company, Everything All of the Time

What’s so brilliant about Contact is under Artistic Director and Chief Executive, Matt Fenton, this significant refurbishment was led by a dedicated team of young people at Contact – who had their say on everything from light fittings to consultations with the architects.  

Speaking at the Press Night of Contact Young Company’s excellent show Everything All of the Time, Fenton said: “Young people should have access to free, high-quality and world-class creative resources to express themselves, to find their politics, find themselves and to then go out into the world and do amazing things. Contact has always done that, but this building now allows us to do that at such a higher level.” 

The iconic Contact, Oxford Road in Manchester

There has been a radical growth in the knowledge economy and creative industries over the past decade. It goes without saying that an education that includes creative subjects facilitates critical thinking and increases emotional resilience.

Quite simply, it is a proven fact how small investments return massively more than was spent and the cultural impact it has on our children is huge. What might a viable, authentic, enduring kind of ‘levelling up’ look like?

Nobody I speak to understands what it means – despite the government’s levelling-up fund of £4.8bn, and places now bidding for help with “town and high street regeneration, local transport projects, and cultural heritage assets”. 

Anyway, according to a recent report UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre cultural organisations across the UK save the NHS £102 million a year thanks to the physical and mental health benefits to attendees.

Remarkably, the report found that the NHS saves a yearly total of £11.91 for every person partaking in such an activity, from a reduction in GP visits and use of psychotherapy services.

But as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, the National Youth Theatre and Contact investing in these spaces for the next generation of dramatic talent offers us all hope. I left both occasions feeling a sense of optimism that I had not felt for some years.

There is an overwhelming sense, too, that we are at a turning point and that the arts can and must play a leading role in developing talent, protecting communities, as well as in fighting cuts in higher education and cultural education in schools.

It demonstrates, quite pertinently, that in order avoid widening inequality of access to the arts, that theatres across the country must enact their civic duty – not only to plug the gaps, but to truly level up every part of the UK.