Theatre Editor Jay Darcy interviews Keisha Thompson – the youngest, first Black, first female and first Mancunian Artistic Director and CEO of Contact, who has been involved with the company for 15 years
Contact Theatre is proud to welcome its new Artistic Director and CEO Keisha Thompson – the youngest, first Black, first female and even first Mancunian head of the organisation.
Thompson has been associated with Contact for an impressive 15 years. She said she was “one of those kids” that was always performing. As a child, she was associated with what was then Zion (now Z-arts). As she got a little older, she moved on to Contact, which she associated with “older young people”. She joined Young Identity when she was 17, who did workshops at Contact.
Thompson has very vivid memories of her family encouraging her to pursue a career in the arts. She did anything and everything artsy – even knitting! She was first published when she was 10 (a poem she wrote was published in an anthology of poems). Whilst she has been getting paid work in the arts since she was 15, she has never had any official training.
When I asked Thompson about the lack of diversity in theatre when she was growing up, she told me that she experienced something unusual, in that she remembers it being “extremely diverse”. She was exposed to Black- and Asian-lead organisations, with lots of money pumped into carnivals and cosmopolitan festivals. Zion and Contact were racially diverse, even when she was growing up.
But in 2010, there were huge cuts to the arts, which dramatically changed the shape of the sector. Black- and Asian-lead organisations lost their funding. She remembers seeing POC staff members let off and the introduction of new staff members, who were all white, many of them not even from Manchester. “They knew nothing about the community; they kept putting projects on that were failing.” There was one incident where she sat waiting in a foyer for 3 hours – after being asked to come in and give advice.
“Cut the funding, and that’s what happens,” she said.
Thompson went to lots of conferences as a young delegate. She realised it was important to go to conferences and not just participatory events – for that is where the money is. She was frustrated at the mingling of issues: “They were all trying to talk about race and disability and… all in one panel. That’s not going to work, is it?!” she laughed.
“When I was then in environments or spaces where it was all white, I didn’t have this sense of, ‘oh, this is the default; this is how it is’. I was like, ‘mm, I know that things can look different, but, for some reason, things have been underfunded or whatever in a way that now things have gone backwards.'”
“And all it gave me was a sense of, ‘you can’t be complacent – that’s all it taught me – ‘you have to be proactive.’ I remember Angela Davis kinda saying that in one of her talks, just like, don’t ever rest. You make progress, you make change, but don’t think that that’s it – you have to protect it. And that can be exhausting, but also, I suppose, you can just change up your thinking around that and just say, ‘well, it’s an activity; it’s a frame of mind’. That’s why I’m always like, ‘diversity is a frame of mind’. It’s not a goal, it’s not like ‘oh, when we get to this point, when we get to 40% of people in our audience…'”
Thompson appreciates that the diversity of Contact feels authentic, whereas diversity at some other spaces “looks great” but feels inauthentic – and it is clear that the people there do not understand why they need the diversity they are aiming for.
Thompson used to run the Young People’s Company at Contact. She would often meet people who ran other young companies. One of these people told her that they were struggling to attract Black boys and asked her for help. “Yes and no,” she said. “I’ve got loads of young people I can signpost to your company – but why do you want them?” she asked them.
“Until you know the answer to that question, I’m not signposting anyone to you, because I’m not signposting anyone to some trauma; I’m not signposting someone to walk into your space and feel tokenised and not feel welcome and not understand why they’re there and you don’t understand why you’re there – so no.”
“Contact doesn’t feel like that,” she told me. “You’re just in the space, and then you get to celebrate and talk about your culture and where you come from or whatever… That’s the thing I’m always keen to protect and want to maintain. I don’t feel like I necessary need to cultivate it because it’s there at Contact… I just need to reconnect everyone to what we do, why we do it, why we do it so well, and make sure that it continues.”
We laughed about the Royal Exchange Theatre’s colourblind casting of West Side Story – a musical literally about… racism. As well-intentioned as so many people in this industry are, how can we call for better diversity onstage when we’re not fighting for better diversity off stage? Indeed, there is an irony in White people behind the scenes finally deciding to give people of colour better representation onstage – whilst not quite acknowledging the problem with having very few POC behind the scenes.
Whilst Contact Theatre is forward-thinking and innovative, Thompson wants to make it even better. Thompson thinks that a lot of people have felt distant from Contact for a little while because the programme changed – “and so it should: when you get new artistic direction then it needs to follow that person. But I know that there were some people who didn’t necessarily connect with the live art programming that we were doing or they felt that there wasn’t enough trad theatre or we didn’t do that much comedy, so there was stuff that we stopped doing that I know we used to do – that meant certain people didn’t come back into the space anymore.”
Thompson also lamented that Contact closing its doors for a few years – operating outside of its main building – had an effect on audiences. Since she’s been appointed, she’s heard from people who are interested in coming back.
Community is very important to Thompson; she believes that theatres need to reflect their communities: “You can’t serve everyone, but we are publicly funded, and we do have a legacy of doing community work and outreach, so I just need to tap back into that and refocus it and get a sense of what people want and what we can offer. We can’t programme everyone, we can’t commission everyone, but I want everyone to feel like they can come in the space, and it’s just a hub.”
On top of this, Thompson wants people to better understand what Contact means when they say that they are youth-lead. Lots of people think that their programme is full of shows for young people – “It’s literally the opposite,” she laughed. “When I was managing the Young Company, sometimes trying to book shows, I was like, oh my gosh, like half the company can’t even come in to see this; it’s not age-appropriate!”
Thompson loves that people come to see shows at Contact and do not realise that “it’s a bunch of young people”. She wants people to recognise that Contact is not just about encouraging young people to participate in theatre but also make decisions – half of their board is made up of young people.
“That’s what we’re about, and that’s not our selling point when people come in to see a show. I just want people to come in to engage with our programme, and then just be made aware of what we do with young people, whereas, at the moment, I feel like people come in because they think they should because it’s to do with young people.”
Thompson is quite the diverse artist – she’s done everything! Whilst she’s going to be very busy running Contact, she still plans to be an artist: “It informs your decisions and keeps you engaged with the sector… I know that I’ve been a better producer because I’m an artist. There’s certain things that I just will not do or will not consider because I’ve been on the other end of it. Sometimes, I’ll speak to colleagues who aren’t artists, and I’ll say, ‘oh, don’t say that!’ … It gives me that sense of perspective and empathy that allows me to do my job better.”
This is why Thompson is so excited about her new role at Contact – she is not just going to be CEO but also Artistic Director. She does not worry that her wings are going to be clipped. In fact, she has already been thinking about directing CYC (Contact Young Company) shows. “I’ve got loads of ideas, but I’ve always got loads of ideas.”
Thompson told me that her strength has always been to diversify. “I’m always diversifying and looking for different opportunities, different contexts, that my work can fit in, and I’m proactive about it.” She gets poetry commissions, writing commissions, she does producer workshops, poet workshops, making theatre workshops, working with young people workshops, creative evaluations, research projects, etc.
She said that a lot of young people, particularly young poets, complaining to her that they are not getting many gigs. She asks them how many nights they go to. “You’ve got to be in the circle; you’ve got be going to other people’s nights – and not always performing, just go and appreciate other people… It’s just about being visible and going to other people’s things and supporting them, and then you’ll start to get gigs because people will know you, they’ll see you, they’ll see what you’re about… It’s completely fine if you just want to be in your room writing your poetry, that’s fine, but you can’t expect to get gigs that way; you’ve got to do the work.”
Thompson said that aspiring artists need to “capitalise on what you’re good at whilst pursuing what you want to do” – make your money and make use of your spare time. She recommends aspiring artists get jobs in spaces that they are interested in. She, herself, used to work as a host in Zion – mopping up vomit and working on the bar until 2AM!
“You’re just doing all that because you’re going to bump into people, you’re hearing people talk, you’re seeing what’s going on, you’re seeing shows – it might be that you’re stood in the corner, snatching people’s tickets and telling them where the toilets are, but it doesn’t matter, like, you’re seeing shows! Just be around the environment that you want to be a part of.”
I next asked Thompson about the shift in theatre post Me Too and Black Lives Matter. For instance, major musicals are casting more Black people – Christine in The Phantom of the Opera, the title characters in Beauty and the Beast, the understudies for the title character in Cinderella and Elsa in Frozen, etc. – and there are more people of colour working BTS, even in high-up positions, like Thompson herself!
Thompson is glad to see these changes, but she is always going to be suspicious because she has seen how things can go backwards. There are, especially, lots more Black women onstage – even in her own plays (she’s writing four, and every single protagonist is a Black woman) – but she hopes that we do not exhaust this one demographic. She thinks it can become tokenistic and has one wondering “why are we doing this?” In particular, she thinks that the East Asian, South American, indigenous and disabled communities are not very well represented in British theatre.
“It’s not that easy to just be like, ‘oh, we’ve put Black women in, we’re done now’… It comes back to that thing of people not knowing why… If it only looks good and it’s not doing anything then I’m not here for it. And also, those women need to feel like they’ve been chosen because they’re best for the role, and their lived experience as Black women is a part of that.
“It speaks to the role, or when they’re in that role, they’re allowed to bring that to the role, and it feeds into the play. That needs to be allowed or else it’s not serving anyone and it’s not having the impact that it should have. So they’re the things that I’m just mindful of, but I’m happy that it is happening.”
This brings me on to one of my favourite questions: is bad representation better than no representation? Even if black and brown people are being cast as tokens, is there still a positive aspect, in that we are seen in an industry where we are not usually seen.
Thompson concurs: “You do need that permission. You do need that representation. The symbolism of it – it cannot be discredited.”
“It’s just not enough, ” I responded. Thompson agreed: “It can go further.”
This brought us on to The Wiz at Hope Mill Theatre, which I described as “a celebration of Black British culture.” Thompson caught this musical too. Black communities have valued the arts forever – they’ve even used it as a platform for political participation and resistance – and Black artists are incredibly talented (as seen in The Wiz alone), yet most big, mainstream productions (of which The Wiz was not) only star a few black (and/or brown) people.
It blows my mind how Black and South Asian people are sidelined by mainstream arts in this country, when the arts is intrinsic to their ethnic identity and cultural heritage – and so many people in these communities are artistically talented. (There is, of course, also the separate issue of black and brown parents pushing their children to be academic over artistic).
Thompson, whose family are from Guyana, agreed: “It’s very performative and gestural, and there are cultural reasons for that… It’s that thing of ‘what gets classed as culture?’ I think every single community and culture has its way of expressing itself, but it’s just that some have been given that badge and some haven’t, and that’s the thing we just need to balance out, because I genuinely find every single culture so interesting. I’m always just like, ‘What do you eat? What do you do? What do you listen to? What do you do? What are you doing?’ I just wanna know!'”
“It’s just about the rebalancing and the asymmetry and the commission.”
Thompson thinks that representation should also include the way that people are ‘allowed’ to respond:
“I went to see a play just the other day in London, and there were these two women behind me, these two Black women, and they were being so loud, and like talking or whatever – they just reminded me of my aunty. Some people were getting annoyed, but I were just like, ‘well, they’re engaged, they’re listening… they’re not asleep!’ If it gets to a point where somebody’s being annoying or swearing, then fine, but they were little just like [gasps], ‘oh my God, I can’t believe she did that, aah!'”, she said whilst imitating an aunty. The play in question was After the End at Theatre Royal Stratford East.
She continued: “I’m the same. I remember taking my show to Liverpool at Unity. There was this group of boys at the front, these teenage boys, and they were eating their crisps and they were like laughing, like whenever I swore, they were like ‘oh, my God!’ And there were these two people behind them – older, wearing like quite formal clothes – and you could see how they were so uncomfortable, and I was like, ‘but they’re listening, they’re enjoying the show, they’re not being disruptive’ – if they were being disruptive, we would have stopped it and asked them to leave. But it’s fine; they’re just being quite vocal!”
On that point, it’s so good to see more people of colour going to the theatre! Why would the industry represent us if we’re not even going?
Keisha Thompson officially takes over the role of Artistic Director and CEO on June 13, with an exclusive welcome party on Friday June 24, followed by Cocktails and Cinquains and an after party, both of which are open to the public – so get yourself a ticket and come celebrate at Contact with cocktails and whatever the heck cinquains are!