Touch Down

Hard work and determination pays- the statement has once again got its intensest meaning after the great success of Benji Reid and Keisha Thompson's recent masterpiece ‘Man on the Moon’. In a recent interview with Garfield Allen, the director of STUN (Sustained Theatre Up North) who partly commissioned piece and was instrumental in its production, the duo openly spread light on their journey which landed the 'Best Studio Theatre Production' as a part of M.E.N awards.
Apr 2018

"It is not something that I was setting out to do, because I don’t operate in that way, but it was great to win it, obviously," mentioned Keisha Thompson, a Manchester-based writer, singer, and performer. "Yeah, it was surreal. It was great to have work this speaking very explicitly about black Britishness being acknowledged in that space because it wasn’t the blackest of spaces or just the most diverse in general."

Directed by Benji Reid and presented by Keisha Thompson, Man on the Moon is ‘a bruk down journey through space and time fuelled by love, fear and Afro-futurism’. The story revolves around Keisha who communicates with her reclusive dad with the help of symbols, letters, and books. Described by The Stage as “an eloquent and poetic piece of storytelling”, it explores the impact mental health can impose on a family’s dynamic, particularly in the context of the Black British experience.

According to Keisha, the idea stems from back when she worked as a part of Black Gold and her previous production, I Wish I Had a Moustache. She had creative clouds in her mind and wanted to explore new things and considered partnerships that would help fulfill her ambitions. "I had been thinking about fatherhood, I had been thinking about my relationship with my dad, I had been thinking about mental health and masculinity, and I want to work with Benji Reid" Keisha had told Garfield in a conversation that was the genesis of this epic journey.

"Benji, you were pulled into this?" On a question being asked by Garfield, Benji Reid, a key figure in the Manchester arts scene stated "I think Keisha had always been a maker that I was interested in any way.” Keisha and Benji had crossed paths before beit as mutual admirers of each other’s work. Benji recalls, “she had come to see a lot of the shows, I enjoyed some of her critique about my work. I liked 'I Wish I Had a Moustache' as well”. On the idea of working with Keisha Benji said “it was a no-brainer, it actually felt as if it was a family member in that sense, it just felt like a really great fit."

The synergy between Benji and Keisha was apparent which is key to why this show connects emotionally. The Man on the Moon project took almost two years in the making, with time being its crucial asset, a rare commodity that could only be made available at STUN according to Benji. It demanded effort but also the need to walk away and reflect. "Keisha was very clear that she wanted to talk about her father and her relationship with books and the conversations that he would have through books.”  Benji told Garfield when asked about the process. The duo had spent time researching Keisha’s father.  “We spent months, Keisha rediscovering him and me discovering who this guy was, it seems like this real enigma, he was somebody that didn't really want to surface in the real world, so he would always write in codes and that's what was really intriguing."

Benji Reid, Keisha Thompson and Garfield Allen. Photo credit: Ian Velentine

During the making of the show Keisha had to confront personal feelings about her relationship with her father and was only driven by the need to tell an authentic story that will impact minds. She spoke to friends who work in mental health, revisited her psychology books and decided to visit her father whom she had not seen in over five months. “I was kind of avoiding that” she confessed.  "There was a reason I was avoiding that and the show helped me to acknowledge what that was and it was very much driven by fear, fear that he could be dead and which I wasn't articulating any kind of way”. According the Keisha, one of her personal triumphs in the making of the show was confronting her fears visa avis her relationship with her father which is essentially what the show is about.  “That journey I made for my house to my dad’s house, is the backbone of the show" she said.

Benji, “the man with the golden heart” supported Keisha in her role. Every decision went under intense scrutiny usually at the behest of Keisha to merit its inclusion in the show. Nothing was a given and several ideas and concepts were discarded. "There was one point I wanted us to have a feel of what your dad looks like, smells like, feels like, but you didn’t want to do his accent,” Benji said to Keisha, turing to Garfield, he continued to say “she [Keisha] didn’t want to do an impersonation, so you had to invoke dad without using impersonation and it was just a really nice way of working.”

According to Benji, in scenarios like this, impersonation would be the go-to thing, to physicalize the subject, but Keisha, who in his opinion “holds some extraordinary skills that allowed the show to find its beautiful shape” achieved this her writing.

"I presume it was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears through the process?" on a question being asked by Garfield, Benji says it was a lot of fun working on the details, letting go of ideas that were once considered important or even vital to the show. From Keisha’s point of view Benji’s contribution was invaluable most notably when taking her out of her comfort zones.  "I was very appreciative of Benji supporting me in terms of singing because it wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to do”, she said.

Benji’s rational for Keisha singing was to bring more quality to the storytelling. Keisha’s range of abilities broadens the scope of demands that could be placed on her, a directors dream. Once Keisha had agreed to sing, she came back with five songs including sketches of the loops the next day. "That was the sort of genius you are working with, that’s what was so exciting," stated Benji.

About his directing style Benji confessed to using an auditory approach because he struggles with dense text due to dyslexia. “I had to listen to it, I only used the script towards the end when we were just making sure that the lines were in place, it was about how it sounded in the air and whether the story was being told,”  he said.
Keisha Thompson in Man on The Moon.
Keisha was deliberate in addressing issues on ‘Black Britishness’ in the show including mental health and stereotypes. In her opinion, a contributing factor to her father's mental health struggles is the fact he had to “fracture his identity as a black British man in this country”.  She believes these two issues are intrinsically linked and she needed be explicit that.

The trio differ in opinion about ‘Black Britishness’ being the principal characterisation of the show. For Keisha this was a personal journey targeted at everyone. "It annoys me when people ask me - what’s is your audience?" Keisha says in annoyance, “I was coming to a point as an artist where I felt comfortable in acknowledging the fact that some people will just come and see my work because I am a black British artist"

As for this winning team, it is a perfect example of three minds connecting in perfect synergy to produce outstanding work. This however is not a coiencidence, it is born from a legacy of harnessing and nurturing local talent, providing time and space, and trusting individual artists. Keisha Thompson's genius, Benji Reid’s mastery and Garfield Allen’s vision one would argue where the key components in delivering touch down for “Man in The Moon”.

Man On The Moon is currently on tour in the UK. It returns to STUN in October this year.