Keisha Thompson has been appointed artistic director and CEO of Contact in Manchester. At only 32, she will be the first woman, first Mancunian, and the youngest to run the multidisciplinary arts venue.
As the theater marks its 50th anniversary this summer, Keisha sees it as a pivotal moment to elevate the work and projects happening at Contact – which she describes as a ‘castle of curiosity’. The new boss, who is a poet and producer, has long been connected to the Oxford Road theatre, and has performed there since she was 15.
Keisha first discovered poetry in primary school with the encouragement of her teachers, who introduced her to renowned poets and had her write her own work. She remembers reciting Talking Turkeys by Benjamin Zephaniah as a child.
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“It was fun, but the crux of it is actually getting you to consider eating turkey at Christmas time,” Keisha, who was first published at the age of 10, told the Manchester Evening News. “I liked that balance of being able to communicate something that’s quite big and serious in a playful and accessible way….poetry helped me to process the world.”
While her mum took her to see artists who inspired her and she heard from artists who gave talks at her high school – Whalley Range High School for Girls – Keisha didn’t imagine a full-time career in the arts was ‘viable’.
Keisha felt she needed a backup plan, and instead studied philosophy and politics, before getting a PGCE in secondary mathematics from the University of Manchester. “I thought I was going to be a good lawyer and then I thought about being an accountant. I knew I was interested in education so then I wanted to get into a school and work my way up.”
But instead of heading straight for the classroom following her teacher training, Keisha took a year out to take her solo show on tour. She took on some freelance work as a producer for Contact, before attaining a full-time gig.
“I felt guilty for the first two years because I thought I should be teaching maths in a classroom somewhere,” Keisha said. “I’m still working with young people and have this passion for maths…now I’m merging mathematics with what I’m doing.”
Before Keisha starts her new role in June, she will spend a few months in Singapore for a research project – Decipher – looking into how they teach maths, which will aid her understanding of how she can incorporate it into her art.
It is clear that exposure to the arts from a young age had a profound impact on Keisha as a young girl living in south Manchester. This is something she hopes Contact can continue to do, giving a space for young creatives to grow.
“Contact’s impact is unbounded, I can’t quantify how important it is,” she said. “The amount of young people I meet that say ‘I can’t afford drama school, this is my formal training’ and I see them leave with that confidence, some set up their own companies.
“It is no longer compulsory to go and see things as part of the art course in school, which I think is bizarre, so many cultural spaces like Contact can fill that void and expose young people to culture and art that they wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere. I’m very aware of Contact’s legacy, I can go around the world and meet artists who will know Contact, who have their Contact story. I feel part of a family.”
On her new position with Contact, she says it feels ‘amazing’. And, despite her age, she feels ready for the responsibility. “I’ve been a chair before, a trustee, part of the Greater Manchester heritage committee, I’ve been engaging at a higher level to get myself into this position, so I’m aware of the policy and politics that comes along with a job like this,” she said.
“And with managing staff, I want to get to know every single one and I want them to know that they have an impact on the business. I want them to feel empowered in that.”
Keisha has been flooded with messages of support since the announcement, from those in the sector and from friends who never went to the theater. “I’ve felt really loved,” she continued. “I feel very privileged to give people some energy and joy and make them feel they can go into a space where they may not have felt welcomed before.
“I want it to feel like a hub, where people can come here, watch shows and do whatever. I want them to walk into the building that’s a weird shape and just go for it.”
Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham said: “This is a brilliant appointment. Contact is one of the most exciting theaters 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 fulfill their potential.
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