Kneehigh’s Instinctive Style: Storytelling and Adaptation

This is the fourth in a series of interviews about the history of Kneehigh with Dr Duška Radosavljevic. The interviews provide an introduction to the company and an academic’s outside eye on Kneehigh as a devising ensemble.

Do use the Kneehigh Cookbook and their Vimeo site for more free online digital resources from the company. In addition there is a fifteen minute audio clip of Emma Rice ‘On Directing’ that I believe captures the spirit of how Kneehigh currently work.

Dr Duška Radosavljevic is a Reader in Contemporary Theatre and Performance at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. Her research interests include contemporary British and European theatre practice as well as more specifically, ensemble theatre and dramaturgy.

Duška has worked as the Dramaturg at the Northern Stage Ensemble, an education practitioner at the Royal Shakespeare Company. As a dramaturg, she has worked with various local, national and international theatre artists and organisations including New Writing North, Dance City, Dramaturgs’ Network, National Student Drama Festival, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Circomedia. In 2015 she was the dramaturg on Robert Icke’s Oresteia at the Almeida. Between 1998 and 2010, Duška was a member of The Stage Awards for Acting Excellence panel of judges at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has written hundreds of theatre and dance reviews for the Stage Newspaper. She also writes for Exeunt.

Duška’s academic publications include award-winning Theatre-Making (Palgrave 2013), The Contemporary Ensemble (Routledge 2013), Theatre Criticism: Changing Landscapes (Bloomsbury Methuen 2016) as well as many chapters in various collections including one on Kneehigh in Liz Tomlin’s British Theatre Companies: 1995-2014 (Bloomsbury Methuen 2015).

PC: Have you been able to pin down what is distinctive about Kneehigh’s style?

DR: I frequently use the phrase ‘company vocabulary’ and I often do specifically in relation to Kneehigh. There can be such a thing as an idiom of a particular director. When a company discovers that something works, they internalise it. I think there is this sense that they use puppetry a lot. Jon Oram’s Tregagle – A Cornish Faust in 1985 was important, as it introduced live music and mask into the company’s vocabulary. Music is now part of the fabric of their work. Songs are a way of engaging the audience, another way of telling a story. When the style is internalised, it is about what you reach for when you’re trying to say something. Their way of conveying something becomes instinctive.

PC: Is there a distinctive creative process that Kneehigh’s uses?

DR: Yes. Kneehigh will often talk about their primary motivation being telling the story rather than the speaking of the pre-written lines. The text doesn’t come first, the story comes first. The rehearsal methodology that Emma has described has four phases. The first phase is about ensemble-building through running, singing and games. Then the actual creative process starts with building the foundations of ‘why?’ Why is this particular story being told? What are the themes they respond to as an ensemble? Work on the character comes next and all the actors explore all characters. When actors are brought together for a particular project it is not known which member of the cast plays which character at the outset. That is something that is decided later on in the process. Casts are assembled on the basis of other criteria that might be important for a particular project. Finally, characters are placed in particular situations and that is when scenes which will form the piece begin to emerge.

PC: If Kneehigh are working with different actors all the time, is there a sense of continually training? Is training done separately to projects?

DR: Training is always part of developing a piece of work. They don’t do training for the purpose of training. Training is always part of the rehearsal process in some way. It is about developing a shared ethos of working together: moving towards a shared goal. It’s the kind of ethos that is concerned with theatre-making as an activity. Emma has talked about her work with musicians. She talks about singing being important as a binding agent for building an ensemble.  When people sing together they have the sense of something being built between them. There is a more layered understanding of what theatre-making entails; it is not just about putting your text on the stage. The actors’ presence is equally as important as the playwright’s text.

PC: Why do you think Kneehigh have had such success? What is it that appeals to their audiences?

DR: Very often when people go to see adaptations they know the story already. They are not going in order to follow the plot or to find out what will happen. They go in order to appreciate the way in which the stories are told. Therefore, the story has to be told in some sort of innovative way. That is why they deploy the whole armoury that they have at their disposal. But another aspect of adaptation, one that Beatrix Hesse has written about (From Screen to Stage: The Case of The 39 Steps, 2009) is how people go to adaptations wanting to be part of a community, in the same way that much of the fan culture works. This raises questions of authenticity and the question of whether it is right to interfere with the original. Emma Rice has tackled it in a way that I find distinctive and particularly satisfying. Rather than being faithful to the original, she has explained that she is actually driven by a desire to be faithful to her own emotional memory of it.

PC: One of Kneehigh’s recent successes was Brief Encounter. What was distinctive about that production?

DR: They originally made Brief Encounter for the Haymarket cinema because the Haymarket cinema was where the film was first shown. Then there was a touring version of that show made with a different cast – they were a different kind of actor that could easily step into an already made part. However, somehow there is still a sense that this wasn’t a carbon copy of something that’s been done already. Thought went into how to make those new actors fit in with this work. It was made with inspiration, based on the original London production.

PC: You could say that film is another part of the Kneehigh vocabulary. How did they use film in Brief Encounter?

DR: Emma Rice’s most innovative use of film was probably in Brief Encounter. Obviously because it was a film to begin with, so she was making it explicit that this was an adaptation of a film. She had characters stepping out of the screen and into the screen because the screen was made out of material that was in fact just threads that were stuck together – really elastic so you could go through the screen. This created a different level of meaning because suddenly the screen was not just a screen, it became this portal into the inner world of the character.

PC: Are there other good examples of their use of film?

DR: Film was used in their adaptation of A Matter of Life and Death with the intention of bringing the audience to the here and now. Film footage of the Southbank was projected on the stage. It was the equivalent to a moment in the film when the characters go to a camera obscura. It was a clever moment of reflexivity. Kneehigh have often used film in the dramaturgical sense rather than just filling in the gaps.

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