Thompson is set to reign as the first female, Black and Mancunian CEO of Contact theatre
Becoming a CEO at the age of 32 is one of those occurrences that seemingly happens to people who "just fall into it" or "meet a guy at a networking event in Knightsbridge". Then they write about it in books with titles like The CEO Next Door - no offence Elena Botelho.
I just want this achievement to stand as a symbol so that so many other young people in the city can feel represented and included
For Keisha Thompson - who has today been announced as the new Artistic Director and CEO of Manchester's Contact theatre, her 17-year stint as an artist, performer, and producer at Contact meant that this position simply became another string to her ever-evolving bow.
The youngest, the first female, the first poet, the first Black artist, and the first Mancunian to take on the full-time role of Artistic Director and CEO, the whole narrative is pretty poetic in itself.
Set to take embrace this new role in June 2022, we caught up with Keisha via a sun-drenched Zoom call to chat about all things youthful, multidisciplinary, and curious.
As Andy Burnham deems Contact to be "one of the most exciting theatres in the country", the Greater Manchester Culture Fund supports the institution as a foundational space for young people from across the city region.
Keisha is, Andy says, "a great example of the impact of this support" as she climbs the ranks from budding young performer to a valued member of the Contact's senior team.
Man, I Feel Like An Artist
As a creative and multi-disciplined individual, Keisha's expressive outlets are endless. A writer, performance artist, producer, singer, and dancer, Keisha first performed at Contact as part of the Manchester Soul Choir aged 15. Touching on what Contact means to her personally, she describes the venue as "one of the first places that definitely made me feel like an artist".
Using the space to "bash out essays" whilst studying for her Philosophy and Politics degree at the University of Manchester, the Oxford Road spot also enabled her to see how all of these endless talents could merge: "I started to understand that I could just be an artist, I could dabble in whatever art form I wanted to, or I could merge one or two things together. Contact did a really good job of showing me how the arts can be incorporated into your everyday life".
Keisha also has a PGCE in Secondary Mathematics, and whilst working as a teacher, her first show I Wish I Had A Moustache was commissioned by Contact back in 2013. Mirrors, Climate of Fear, She Bangs the Drums and Manchester International Festival are other notable productions and events that feature within Thompson's "past work" list.
You could run this thing one day
Still digesting the artist's vast repertoire of both creative and academic achievements, I asked whether the role of Artistic Director was always included in her game plan. The short answer is: kind of, after a bit of encouragement.
After taking on the role of Young People's Producer back in 2015, current Artistic Director Matt Fenton openly told Keisha "you know, you could run this building". Keisha thought he was joking.
Cilla Baynes, co-founder of Community Arts North West, also concurred, saying, "I see those leadership qualities in you, I think you could do it". These words of encouragement from "a great mentor", and a structural push for young leadership at Contact, allowed the 32-year-old to believe that "it could be me" as the spot became available.
Symbols and youth
Cramming a whole load of firsts into this new figurehead role, Keisha Thompson is the youngest ever Artistic Director at Contact. She is also the first Black person, the first Mancunian, and the first female to occupy the position full-time. I know I already mentioned that, but come on.
Talking about what this means for other aspiring young women, people from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, and creatives in general, Keisha stresses that: "I just want this achievement to stand as a symbol so that so many other young people in the city can feel represented and included. I'm happy to hold that title and allow it to be what it needs to be for whoever needs it".
For many institutions, a 32-year-old CEO is also unheard of. For Contact, though, its very ethos revolves around placing young people "at the decision-making heart of everything". Echoing this appreciation and admiration towards the power of youth, Keisha talks about how useful a young person's perspective can be when it comes to decision making, risk-taking, and creative thinking:
"When you're a teenager your brain is literally different, you take more risks and think about things differently, and that can be a really useful energy to have within a creative space".
Therefore, one of Keisha's main aims as CEO is to challenge people's perceptions of "youth". 50% of the board at Contact are under 30, the trustees are younger, the Chair of the Board is 28, and a 32-year-old CEO perfectly reflects the fact that, at Contact, "young people aged 13-30 genuinely lead".
As we discuss the idea that age is but a number, Keisha also tells me that, "some of the youngest people I know are in their fifties and they're still travelling, learning new skills, trying new art forms and that's what being youthful is all about".
The castle of curiosity
Talking specifically about her plans for Contact come June 2022, a key concept for Keisha is the "castle of curiosity".
After I joke that this sounds like the final level of Mario Super Bros. she explains that it's basically about always being curious and searching for the next new and exciting thing.
"I think the phrase speaks to the fact that we appeal to people who want to interrogate and investigate and have conversations." says Keisha, "It speaks to our amazing work with the LGBT community and the way that we work with marginalised groups and identity politics. Contact is an experimental and curious place".
Coming into this role at what Matt Fenton firmly believes to be "the right time" for a changing of the guard, Keisha also talks about being curious as to what the future has in store for Contact.
Entering its 50th year and "quite a period of transience", Keisha expects that Contact's post-pandemic future will be a packed and exciting one: "I think whenever you're in a moment of uncertainty, like a period of change, it's also a moment of opportunity. I'm just so ready to jump in".
Current projects and a word from the chair
In true Keisha Thompson fashion, she currently has a load of other cool projects on the go with an upcoming commission for The Royal Exchange and multiple shows in the works.
Commending Contact for allowing her to flourish and thrive in multiple diverse roles, she states, "I still need to be an artist. It's who I am and it feeds into every part of my practice. I'm not feeling too pressured about juggling this role as I feel like all of my passions sit in the same place. I expect them to still support me as an artist".
Current Chair of the Board, Junior Akinola, echoes this as he explains: "Keisha has shown her dedication and commitment to Contact through her years of experience working with and being an artist here. 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".
Keisha is set to take over Contact as the Artistic Director and CEO in June 2022.
Striving to be as accessible and connected as possible, she aims to set up interactive salons, workshops, and office hours for people to ask questions and engage with like-minded individuals: "I just want to make sure that I'm constantly about. I'm going to be on the ground as much as possible so that people know who I am and feel they can chat to me and I can introduce myself. I'm really looking forward to it".
Catch us in the Contact foyer from now on then.
Contact's current programme of events, performances, and workshops is also in full swing as we speak, and there's some pretty cool shit going on.
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Header image: Audrey Albert
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Read again: Arts, theatre, gigs: Manchester's cultural calendar for 2022
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