The first poet to run a UK multi-arts venue, Keisha Thompson (above), is the new artistic director and CEO of Contact Manchester.
Keisha 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 Black woman, first Mancunian and, at 32, the youngest to run the venue.
Starting work in June – as Contact celebrates its 50th year – Thompson will create a “castle of curiosity” and “place of opportunity” for young Mancunians in the organisation’s award-winning, sustainable, re-vamped building (which resembles a castle, hence her remarks).
Contact is recognised internationally as a game-changer in the field of youth leadership and creativity. Young participants at Contact have gone on to start or lead other organisations – including Contact itself, since two of its graduates are now in senior leadership positions, artistic director Keisha and previously-announced CEO and chair of the board, Junior Akinola.
Thompson first performed as an artist at Contact when she was 15, and was supported through the company's engagement programme as a young poet, writer and performance artist. She became part of the core staff team in 2015, after being nudged to see herself as a producer by a fellow staff member.
Thompson said: “I met so many different people at Contact and had my perspective changed, and just got that sense of what youth leadership can be. I want to make sure this ethos, culture and environment is protected, because it has been so beneficial for me and so many people 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, under which everyone feels the excitement of opportunity – just as she did from her first years in the building.
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 it through the Greater Manchester Culture Fund, in recognition of the opportunities it provides 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."
Thompson studied philosophy and politics at the University of Manchester and later trained as a maths teacher while touring her first show for Contact, I Wish I had a Moustache.
She adds: “I can't 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.
"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 support new artists, encouraging young people to be future cultural leaders through creative risk-taking.
Contact chair Junior Akinola said: “We’re so excited to welcome Keisha as our new artistic director and chief executive. Keisha has shown her dedication and commitment to Contact through her years here, and her extensive CV and artistic profile speak for themselves. She is a trailblazer and an individual who has not only pushed the envelope with her creative ideas, but also in the way and manner she has executed them."
Keisha is also 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; 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.
Keisha is currently working with Eclipse Theatre, York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre on a new play, The Bell Curves, developed with company Box of Tricks. She is also working with Fuel Theatre and Alan Lane (of Slung Low) on a new children’s show, Issy, BOSSS & Fractal.
Also a musician, 18 months ago she released a mini-album, Ephemera, with Tom “Werkha” Leah featuring riveting cellist Abel Selaocoe. Also in 2020 she finished touring award-winning solo show, Man on the Moon. Her debut book, Lunar, features her poetry and the show script. Her work has been presented at high profile venues and platforms such as Tate Modern, Blue Dot Festival and the British Council Showcase in Edinburgh.
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