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.
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.”
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.”
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.”