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Keisha Thompson: Man On The Moon

By | Published on Monday 5 August 2019

I first noticed ‘Man In The Moon’ – created and performed by Keisha Thompson – when it did a one off show in London: I really wanted to see it but wasn’t able to make that date. So, of course, when a press release for an Edinburgh run turned up in my inbox, I was naturally quite excited.

Drawing on Thompson’s own experiences and her relationship with her reclusive father, it sounds like a fascinating piece of theatre, dealing with both difficult and intriguing themes, and benefiting from a very interesting approach. I spoke to Keisha to find out more.

CM: Can we start by talking about the form of ‘Man In The Moon’? What styles of performance can we expect from it?
KT: It is a storytelling piece with moments of poetry and song woven in. It’s conversational and intimate and somewhat surreal.

CM: I’ve seen it described as ‘Afrofuturistic’ – can you talk a bit about what that means?
KT: The phrase that helps me explain Afrofuturism is – well, some call it ‘other’, we call it ‘otherworldly’. Afrofuturism is a canon of artistic and scientific work that uses the experience of othering that many PoC face and re-imagining it. By using scientific, mathematical, historical references we re-imagine the black experience in a way that feels liberating and true and unbound.

It manifests itself as fashion, music, theatre, coding apps, whatever! Sometimes listing names of artists helps – Octavia Butler, Sun Ra, Janelle Monae, Solange, Samuel R Delaney, Zak Ove. For my show, I use the knowledge that has been passed down to me from my dad – quantum physics, Black British politics, mathematics, etc to be imaginative and rewrite our narrative. My dad has always felt like an alien to me in many ways so I wanted to use that extended metaphor to explore what it means to be ‘other’. Where is the value in it? When is it something to be celebrated? When is it something to be feared?

CM: Next, what is the show about, about and where does its narrative take us? What would you say are the primary themes of the play?
KT: The show is about my relationship with my dad. I take a physical journey from my house to my dad’s house. It’s usually the other way round but something goes wrong which flips the routine. I communicate with my dad through letters and books. However when five months go by without hearing from him I start to worry. The piece takes us on a emotional and surreal journey as well. It’s filled with memories and moments that explore my dad’s mental health and his identity as a Black British man. Effectively I try to share how that has impacted me. Also I show how I’ve had to puzzle together the love and knowledge that we share as father and daughter.

CM: How do the scientific and mathematical elements sit alongside the exploration of mental health and identity? Why bring those themes together?
KT: Those topics are things that my dad is extremely passionate about. When I say he writes me letters, they are not typical letters like ‘Dear Keisha…’ It’s charts and formulae and numerology and astrology diagrams and references to science and maths books. I’m simply using the language that my dad uses with me. When I did more research into mental health I discovered stuff like Enneagrams. So again it wasn’t hard to find numbers and scientific language. They found me.

CM: What was the inspiration for the piece? Where did the ideas for this come from?
KT: When I got the initial commission from STUN to develop a new piece of work. I literally hadn’t heard from my dad in five months so it was very honest and present. However on a larger scale I’d been thinking about making a piece of work for years that celebrated fatherhood and masculinity. I felt like every time I read about those topics in the news, gender theory, etc, it was always so negative. Obviously there is a lot of conversation about masculinity and mental health at the moment. I was sorely aware that I needed to investigate my dad’s past and how it had led him to be a recluse. This commission was the perfect catalyst for me to confront all those things

CM: To what extent do your own experiences inform the play? Does the play describe them, or does it use them as a jumping off point?
KT: Massively. I had to go on the journey to write the piece. But yes it was definitely a jumping off point. I am writer and I know my truth. I love to use my poetic license and my imagination. So yes I like to say that the work is truth-infused. I like making a character out of myself. It’s fun and also creates distance that is necessary for self-care when making autobiographical work.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the music?
KT: I wrote all the songs in the play that I sing. I worked with amazing sound designer, Andrew Wong, who sourced all the other music. He is a lord for finding the perfect music to set the right emotional tone or create the right atmosphere. After the first year of working on the piece we did a sharing. Benji Reid, my director, had encouraged me to write songs for the piece. I was quite reluctant at first. I was like – it’s not a musical! But after the sharing, the feedback regarding the songs and the loop pedal was strong so I listened. When I got the support from Contact and ACE to develop the work I brought in Ruby-Ann Patterson as a song-writing mentor. She was great to bounce ideas off and push me to be more confident with my song-writing.

CM: How did you come to be bringing the show to Edinburgh? Why do you think the show is a good fit for the Fringe?
KT: I applied to be a part of the British Council Showcase. When I received the mind-blowing news that I had been selected I got everything in place in a ridiculously short space of time but I guess it was all meant to be. I reached out to people for support and the universe responded. I think any show is a good fit for the Fringe. The more variety the better. I just want to share the work.

CM: Have you been to the Edinburgh Festival before? What do you expect from it this year?
KT: Only as a punter or a young producer. This is my first time as an artist! I’m so excited. It’s going to be fun. Exhausting but fun. It’s the first time I can afford to go as well. I think that’s important to say.

CM: How did you come to a career in the arts? What drew you to it, and did you know you were headed in this direction from an early age?
KT: I was one of those kids that did EVERYTHING. Choir, Indian music, African drumming, rounders, circus skills, netball, VJing, knitting, ballet, ad infinitum. I’m so blessed that I grew up in area that was vastly multicultural and also had loads of provisions for young people. I’ve never done any arts subjects formally, well, apart from Art GCSE. I was very academic. I’ve always led this dual life I suppose and it’s only over the past few years that I’ve been able to merge the two lanes. I never had a retail job. I always worked in a theatre or arts space as young person so I was constantly around the arts world in some way or another. It’s never been a question of being drawn to it. I don’t see things in an atomistic way. From a young age I wanted to dance as much as I wanted to do maths. When I got to Year 9 and had to ‘pick’ my options for GCSE I found it genuinely painful and confusing. I was like – pick? They’re all connected though!

CM: Can you tell us about what Contact is, and your role in that organisation?
KT: Contact is a wonderful arts organisation that started as a little shed which is now a car park. It’s a modern day castle that is open to all people who are interested in making art, collaborating and expressing themselves. We are young people’s theatre but that means that we have young people integrated in our of decision-making and in the fabric of the organisation. We provide participatory projects for young people mainly eleven to 30. But the building and our programme is for everyone. I am the Young People’s Producer which mainly involves managing Contact Young Company. I produce three professional shows a year. Alongside that I manage smaller participatory projects attached to visiting shows, run the work experience program and stuff like that.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
KT: Next year I will start developing my own project called DeCipher. It will start as a series of workshops that uses my artistic practice to teach mathematics. I am trained as a maths teacher and I’m still really keen to share that passion. I am also writing some new plays that I am not going to feature in. I want to work with actors and directors and see how other people interpret my work. I’m also interested in working on a new book. Maybe a collection of short stories this time or a children’s book. Who knows! Let’s see.

CM: What’s in the near future for ‘Man In The Moon’? Is it going on to other festivals or on tour?
KT: It’s doing some more dates in the autumn. I’m having conversations with a few venues about where it can go next year. I’ll see what comes out of the fringe. Also I launched the EP, ‘Moonwhile’, this summer which is the songs from the play re-imagined as a short album. I’ve been asked to perform that at various places including We Out Here festival so we’ll see what comes out of that as well. And I’ll continue to do readings from the book ‘Lunar’.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after that? Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
KT: I’ve got a new piece of work called ‘Bell Curves’ that has been commissioned by Box Of Tricks. That will be a part of PUSH festival in HOME in January. We’ll see what comes out of that. I’m super excited to develop and share a new story. Box of Tricks have been so supportive. They’re really pushing me to try something new. I’m always up for a challenge.

Keisha Thompson performed ‘Man On The Moon’ at Summerhall at Edinburgh Festival 2019.

Photo: Benji Reid