Live: Man on the Moon

STUN Studio, Z-Arts
17 October (matinee)

Keisha Thompson does not spend the time before her solo spoken word show Man on the Moon waiting in the wings. Instead, she is out among the audience, cheerfully volunteering to do our numerology charts. This not only gets the breaking of the fourth wall over with from the start, allowing us to feel immersed in the story, but makes it tricky to discern the moment the performance proper begins, as Keisha smoothly transitions to speaking about her father and numerology. Real-life and show-life feel eerily close.

Thompson is a strong, confident presence and the audience listen, rapt, as she tells us of her father and his unusual life, while weaving in reflections on race, roots, religion and city living. Her spoken-word style varies from the conversational to the poetic, according to the needs of each section of the story, and she incorporates music and sound-looping, and sings. One song in particular, in which she wonders what it would be like to hug her undemonstrative father, strikes me as incredibly beautiful.

The set design appears simple featuring a sofa and many books. The latter are used in ingenious ways to replace other props – doubling as groceries, a phone – and perhaps symbolise the bond between Keisha and her father: one largely based on messages, sometimes understood, often not. At the show’s climax, however, a secret of the stage is revealed, and is all the more moving for how unexpected it is.

By the end, it feels as if we are in a completely different show, and yet the same one – the journey taken by Keisha, and by the audience, feels irreversible, as if we really had flown into space, and cannot go back to seeing the world in quite the same way. I am awed by Keisha’s inventiveness, passion and sheer talent, and excited to see what her next project will be.

Elizabeth Gibson

Photography by Benji Reid

Find out more about Keisha at her website

A Chat With Keisha

Man on the Moon has the sense of being based at least partly on your own life experiences; how did you go about adapting elements of your memories to this performance, and do you feel more pressure than if the story were completely fictional?

It started with A3 sheets stuck on my bedroom wall. I tried to write down as many moments, stories, poems, references that I could think of. I continued to add to this throughout the process. It was a constant reminder. When I had sessions with my director, Benji Reid, I would talk out the memories and we would have a discussion or try an exercise then I would write. I’d do this with my family and friends as well. I kept compiling the bits of writing and then pieced it all together like a puzzle.

There is an element of pressure to honour the characters and honour the truth but there is also poetic license. Poetic license allowed me protect myself and my family. The audience doesn’t always need to know which bits are true and which bits are not. It always starts with truth. The main thing for me as a storyteller is the crux of the story as opposed to staying to true to inconsequential details.

Watching the show, I was reminded a lot of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, about her own relationship with her father - are there any pieces of art/literature/performance about family that particularly inspired you when writing Man on the Moon?

Yeah, I took influence from a range of materials. Quite a few Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones poems and plays, the film Birdman, the novel Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), the song Man on the Moon (Moses Sumney), books on Freud and Psychoanalysis, Corinne Bailey Rae’s podcast about lucid dreaming, ad infinitum. Whenever I’m writing I turn into a sponge basically.

The show's climax is so emotional: could I ask how, after reaching that point, you get into the head-space to perform the show over and over again?

It was important for me to confront and process the topics in the piece before performing them. In the first year of writing that happened. There was a lot of crying. A lot negotiating with myself. What was I happy to share? What wasn’t I happy to share? What made me feel unsafe or made me feel like it was therapy session? If it ever felt like that then I knew it wasn’t right for the piece. It’s hard to describe it but I know which bits I have emotional control over. I can tap into them but they won’t overwhelm me or re-traumatise me. Anything that fell outside of this, I tried to approach with poetry. Some of which is featured in my debut book, Lunar.

How did you first get into spoken word, and what is your advice for anybody starting out?

I started writing and reading my work from a young age. 8 years old to be exact. I went to an amazing primary school that was extremely encouraging. We started out performing other people’s poems but very soon we were writing our own. I got published in a local anthology when I was 10 years old. This was extremely validating for me. I think for anyone who is writing and feels inclined to share it (I say this because you don’t always have to and shouldn’t be made to feel like you do) then you should head down to open mic nights and workshops. You just need to put yourself out there. There is no other way around it. It is terrifying and liberating all at once. Most poetry nights that I’ve been to are very encouraging.

What are your plans for the future?

I’ve just finished my book/show tour for the year. I was in Newcastle last night at an amazing event called Born Lippy. I have officially sold all my books so I need to meet my publisher and talk about a reprint! The book features the script for Man on the Moon. I have about ten tour dates set up for Man on the Moon next year which includes a few international venues so I’m super excited to get back on the road with the show. I’m just going to keep pushing the show and book out into the atmosphere whilst working on some new material when I get a chance.

Interview by Elizabeth Gibson