Photo by Paul Blake
It’s hot on the top floor of the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Swan Street Studios. It’s been a long day of rehearsals. There are scattered tripods and plastic crates next to a reflective screen. Assorted objects, ready to be transformed.
Big bottles of water are brought. Sitting across the table from Keisha, Benji is rubbing his eyes. Keisha has her notebook out, a small column of prompts jotted down. Benji asks if he needs to say who he is for the tape.
The people in the room know already: this is the man who began his career as a hip hop and popping dancer for the Broken Glass street crew, who went on a world tour with Soul II Soul, worked with the multi-talented Jonzi D, formed his own Hip Hop Theatre company Breaking Cycles – which performed to sold out audiences around the world – and is now an award-winning, self-titled Choreo-Photolist whose admirers include French photographer and filmmaker Jean Baptiste Mondino.
So yeah, no need for an intro.
He seems concerned about introducing the person opposite him though. He leans forwards towards the mic: ‘This is Keisha Thompson, Artistic Director of Contact. A changed person.’
Keisha is laughing and shaking her head at him.
They’ve known each other for years, since before Benji started practicing photography – and well before Keisha’s appointment in 2022 as the youngest ever CEO and Artistic Director in Contact Theatre’s history.
Keisha leans back in her chair: ‘D’you know... Yeah, of course, I would have changed, it would be weird if I didn’t change.’
Benji nods solemnly. ‘Just noting that Keisha’s changed, for the record,’ he says, in a tone that says it’s important to make this regrettable shift official.
Keisha is laughing again. In 2017, Benji directed Keisha in her solo show Man on the Moon, which opened at Contact before touring. She remembers being totally in awe of Benji, but ‘I knew I had to leave that at the door in order for the process to be successful’. John McGrath, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Factory International, was in the audience.
Six years later, Keisha is Dramaturg for Benji’s first piece of work for Manchester International Festival. The respect that exists between the two of them is evident – they’re so clearly pleased for each other’s successes that they’re happy to joke about them freely.
Now though, Keisha wants to talk about the name of the show. She wants Benji to say why it’s called Find Your Eyes, and asks ‘what’s it all about?’
Benji leans back, screwing the top on his water bottle. He’s clearly considering the question – and his answer – seriously.
‘Find Your Eyes for me was about learning to see again – learning to see, learning to feel, learning to be – because sometimes we look, but we don’t really see. And through my photography, I’m learning to really see things anew again.’
Keisha has been involved since the early research and development (R&D) phase. So she knows there were other, earlier titles: The Sorcerer was one, Benji says; ‘there was something about sorcery, the hidden arts – how the act of being creative is magical. And because we’re revealing the process in front of the audience here, we’re revealing the magic.’
Then there was Refraction of Light, which was partly about the science of light, and how it’s reflected back into the camera lens – ‘but also the refraction of light that comes out of you when you’re telling your story, your truth; when we’re emitting light’, Benji says. ‘More and more with this work, I think I’ve been trying to sit as close to my truth as possible.’
Keisha glances down at her notebook, at the prompts she’s chosen to draw Benji out.
‘How did this all start?’ she asks.
Benji takes off his beanie, rubs a hand over his scalp.
‘Well, I mean, me and you had worked together. On your show,’ he pauses. ‘Your award-winning show. Man on the Moon.’ He grins. ‘Keisha was so humble then. Artistic Director...’ A callback is coming: ‘She’s changed’, he says, shaking his head, and they laugh again.
‘So we worked on this show together, and John had seen it, and after I kind of come from beneath her glow,’ Benji says, inclining his head in Keisha’s direction, ‘John was like, would you think of making a show?’
Benji admits he wasn’t really interested at the time – happy to stay backstage, getting more and more into photography. He’d found his camera at the back of a shelf during a bad period in his life: ‘for me it was kind of the thing that saved me, it was like my life raft.’ He’d dug it out while going through the archives of Breaking Cycles, after being forced to wind the company down. This was in the face of diminishing interest from theatres, and at a time when venues were only programming one Black hip hop production per season.
‘But with the camera, I could kind of shoot with no boundaries. And I could also shoot without asking for permission. So in a sense, photography was like a revolutionary act for me’, Benji explains. ‘I could be creative with or without funding.’
So he wasn’t initially interested in making a live show – or not, that is, until John explained his proposition: what would the show be like, if it incorporated photography, dance and theatre?
‘Were you like, this is the way I want to do it?’ Keisha asks. ‘Or did you really just throw yourself open and go: I don’t actually know how this is gonna work?’
The R&D for Find Your Eyes happened just after Covid. Benji, Keisha, two performers and several other creatives all in the room. Everyone watching Benji to understand what he wanted to do.
‘I had my camera out at the time, and I was trying to take pictures and tell stories simultaneously, because we knew it kind of contained these two things’, he says. He reaches for his water bottle, holds it. ‘And I didn’t have a way of working, because it was so new. Which one leads; do you lead through the lens?’ He’s gripping it tighter; the plastic begins to pop under his fingers. ‘Or do you lead through the dancer, do you lead through the story…?’
The tension in his shoulders is evident, even now. He admits that he found it really difficult having so many people watching him in early rehearsals. He even asked Keisha to stop taking notes.
‘This is the danger of being so brilliant’, Keisha says gently. ‘I assumed that you already knew the narrative and all that kind of stuff.’
Benji shakes his head. This was after a long period of working alone, in the living room of his own home. He’s talked before about how PTSD meant he didn’t want to leave the house with his camera. It’s perhaps no coincidence that, in his photographs, he’s often pictured flying through the air – with a fan strapped to the back of his chair, propelled by wings made from dismantled umbrellas, or straddling a cloud. They are images that explore the edges of freedom, created while feeling trapped between four walls. This show was very different. Now, he was being watched in the act.
Benji takes a breath, and lets go of his water bottle.
‘Let’s talk about the script’, he says. The twitch of a grin is back at the corner of his mouth. ‘So I’d written what I believed was the script. And Keisha turns around and says, ‘this is not a script’. I was heartbroken. She goes: ‘it’s bits of text, with quotes.”
The wince in the room is audible; laughter follows. Benji’s nodding. ‘Yeah. Keisha – Keisha’s changed.’
Keisha is long-suffering: ‘You agreed with me.’
‘I absolutely agreed, that’s why I’m doing this bit’, Benji says, explaining his licence to tease her. He pauses then, and says: ‘The beautiful thing about Keisha is she’s very rarely wrong, actually.’
There was a good reason for having a full script. With so many other creatives in the room, everyone had to be on the same page – at points literally. But it brought up a new challenge; what Keisha believes was the crux of the whole development process.
‘The thing that we were trying to pull out was those moments where you were most vulnerable’, she remembers. ‘And I remember we were like, how do we capture that? How do we not contaminate that?’
Benji is nodding. This stage of the creative process was closer to his photographic practice, and the careful staging of images to seem spontaneous.
‘It’s a bit paradoxical, isn’t it’, Keisha adds. ‘Because you have to formulate a model and go well, how do we get back there on a repeated basis, but still find that authenticity?’
It became important that Benji didn’t have to live through his feelings every time on stage. Vulnerability is something that has touched all aspects of this show: in the development process with Keisha and others, and in the subjects that he’s exploring in the performance. Because this show is not about how Benji makes the spellbinding images he creates. How, in the photograph for which he won the Wellcome Photography Prize 2020 in the Mental Health category, he’s somehow pictured drifting towards a window, a distracted astronaut only tethered to the ground by the figure of his daughter.
‘People do go ‘well how do you fly?’’, Benji says. ‘And it’s like – not how do you fly, but why? Ask me why I’m flying.’
Keisha nods, and they smile. The recording is switched off. Because this question, ‘not how do you fly – buy why?’ is what Find Your Eyes is all about.
Benji Reid: Find Your Eyes runs 12–16 July at Manchester Academy 1 as part of MIF23.