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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.”

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Manchester International Festival 2021 / Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

On reading the words ‘Manchester International Festival’, you know you’re in for quite the experience. I mean, it’s not everyday you get the opportunity to attend a biennial international arts festival, during a pandemic, with a specific focus on original new work.

There is more free, outdoor public art than ever before and the city is alive with accessible, vibrant and exciting art. So with some degree of excitement, I made my way to Manchester last week, and here are some things I experienced.

First up, an impressive 42m (138ft) sculpture replica of Big Ben has crash landed in Piccadily Gardens. ‘Big Ben Lying Down With Books’ – the UK’s biggest participatory art spectacle in years – has been created by Argentine artist Marta Minujin and is covered in 12,000 politically-themed books. I fully immersed myself in this impressive and quirky statement on Brexit, disillusionment and democracy. Brilliant – and – free.

Marta Minujin’s sculpture is called Big Ben Lying Down With Political Books

The Arndale shopping centre, meanwhile, has been turned into a makeshift art gallery for Cephas Williams’ Portraits of Black Britain, which features giant banners showing high-achieving black Britons. Powerful stuff.

Playing to a socially distanced, masked audience may not be every singer’s dream but Arlo Parks gig at the cavernous Manchester Central was a performance of stunning tenderness.

Arlo Parks at Manchester Central

For the last six songs, Royal Northern College of Music string players joined Parks on stage to enrich the songs and add layers of heartfelt nuance. Parks – a 20-year old London singer-songwriter-poet bagged the Brit award this year for best new artist. She expresses herself with a rare lightness of touch on her remarkable debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams. Pure joy.

Elsewhere, Cloud Studies at the seriously trendy Whitworth Art Gallery just out of town features clouds being considered by Forensic Architecture as toxic. This gripping exhibition explores the various ways in which the air – far from being neutral or free – is witness to a lopsided world.

Another highlight of the exhibition is the first phase of an investigation on environmental racism in an area known as ‘Cancer Alley’. In a US region heavily populated with petrochemical facilities, majority-Black communities, the descendants were historically enslaved on those very lands, today contain the most toxic air in the country.

Forensic Architecture’s Cloud Studies at the Whitworth Art Gallery.

MIF has also commissioned choreographer Akram Khan to produce a stylish and moving 17 minute short film. Breathless Puppets is a 17-minute animation co-created by Khan and animator, writer and director Naaman Azhari.

This brilliant animation utilises retroscope technology; basically whereby a live action is sketched over to give a constantly moving, line-drawn aesthetic. Breathless Puppets tells the story of a young man called Nicholas who wants to be a dancer, despite his family urging him to go into medicine. 

Manchester’s beautifully restored Central Library played host to ‘I Love You Too,” This project featured Eleven Manchester-based writers that collaborated with participants, putting their words to page and composing love letters that reflected and reinterpreted the individuals. Furthermore, together with the publication, the stunning domed Reading Room played host an exhibition of Wa Lehulere’s new sculpture, created especially for the space.

Conceived with the intention of creating a global love library, “I Love You Too” marked the beginning of a new series – one that’s set to become an international encyclopaedia of devotion.

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical

I was delighted to snag a ticket to the raggedly charming “Bloody Elle” at the Royal Exchange. It has reopened with Lauryn Redding’s emotional, wild and honest ‘gig musical’. This gauche kitchen-sink theatre is smart in its portrayal of a queer love story. Right on.

Bryony Shanahan’s supple solo production makes the most of the in-the round setting of the main space – it feels like a epic late-night show at Roundabout at Summerhall during Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The songs are spry and melodic with a forthrightness that is refreshing.

Bloody Elle is a ‘semi autobiographical’ show that is simultaneously confessional, sprawling and occasionally indulgent.

It moves in the course of the evening from noise to quietness, from non-stop crassness to moments of musical tenderness and expressive gesture. Admittedly, it is all a bit drawn out, and could do with losing 30 minutes, but it is often a perky evening and during these Difficult Times, well worth the effort.

A very pleasant surprise. 

Manchester International Festival runs until Sunday 18 July

Bloody Elle – A Gig Musical runs until 17 July