Mike Shepherd (Kneehigh)

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Mike is an actor, director, teacher and the artistic director of Kneehigh. He started Kneehigh in 1980 and has worked almost exclusively for the company ever since. Mike is a pioneer of Kneehigh’s transportable venue the Asylum and actively involved in the Kneehigh Rambles.

Work as director includes: Hansel and Gretel (Kneehigh, UK and International tour) Dead Dog in a Suitcase (Kneehigh, UK and International tour); The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Kneehigh and Little Angel Theatre, Islington); Blast (Unconventional spaces and village halls across the UK) and The Tin Drum (Kneehigh, 2017 Tour).

Work as actor includes: Tristan and Yseult, Steptoe and Son, Midnight’s Pumpkin, The Red Shoes, The Bacchae, Cymbeline, The Wooden Frock, A Matter of Life and Death and Don John (Kneehigh).

Film includes: Anna Karenina and Pan.

Kneehigh have the fantastic web-based Cookbook that details so much of their working method. Kneehigh has been a collective of artists working collaboratively under Mike’s leadership for many years. I wanted to know about some of the things he has learnt along the way.

Want more about Kneehigh? Read the interview with Duška Radosavljević for an outsider’s eye on their work.

PC: What did you learn at school that has informed your career with Kneehigh?

MS: Nowadays I consider myself as an educationist. I am very interested, if not passionate, about the conditions of creativity and how we learn. I was a teacher, thank God I’m not anymore, the national curriculum makes things very difficult. There are good teachers out there that do manage to side step it and allow those conditions of creativity to happen but this whole notion now that theatre has to fit into a box, that it has to be assessable is against everything I believe in terms of making theatre. It’s so important to not know what you’re doing. If I’m being flippant: I’ve been doing this ages and I still don’t know what I’m doing and that’s really important. I read an article with Vicky Featherstone. She was a marvellous Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland and she’s now running the Royal Court. They said to her, “What makes you uneasy?” And she said pretty much the same thing, “If I’m too safe, if I know what I’m doing.” I’m much happier when I’m out of my comfort zone, which is important. It’s a funny old thing isn’t it, because as human beings we seek security and stability and pattern and rhythm so that we can operate in this troubled world, which is quite right, but actually creatively we need to push ourselves out of that comfort zone. It’s all to do with how you learn. The notion that education should be nurturing and encouraging all the time, of course it absolutely should be, but for me personally, I’ve learned through adversity… I was a prat at school.

PC: How?

MS: I’m not proud of it but I was just really naughty the whole time. I wasn’t encouraged at school, I was in the school plays for a little while. The drama teacher directing the school plays would literally work it all out with a model and toy soldiers. He then went into direct and you did what you were told, which has never really worked very well for me, when some people tell me how to do things. I’m quite happy to learn but I want to keep inventing and find that myself, how do you invent if you’re just being told what to do? Funnily enough, that naughtiness is something I keep with me. I’m mid-60’s now, but if I go into a rehearsal space, I’m still looking for naughtiness. I’m on stage in Tristan and Yseult at the moment and when a scene settles and you’ve got an actor that is like, “Ah, this is how we do it, this is how it works.” I deliberately look with a naughtiness, not to subvert or deliberately undermine in any way but I look for mischief. I love the word ‘glee’ when making theatre. I keep telling the same story but I put a spin on it. It puts that actor back into the moment because that’s storytelling. The audience loves it when they perceive this is happening in the moment. Otherwise it’s the kind of theatre where you sit back and just admire it; of course there is room for that; you sit back and admire that brilliant piece of theatre; it is well worth my money. Kneehigh played a lot of spaces that were outside of ‘theatre’, you’re looking for an immediacy so that you can engage that audience. I eventually got banned from the school plays though.

PC: Was there a specific moment that got you banned from the school plays?

MS: Yes, it was Arms in the Man by George Bernard Shaw. At that time, the head boy and the head girl always played the lead parts. The likes of me, I was the servant. It was classic moments of up-staging. I’m not proud of it. The actor that came in: the returning hero from war greets his mother and then got the scabbard of his sword caught in the bannister making it wobble. Just a little raised eyebrow from the upstage servant got an audience reaction, then I was away with that. Later, I had to place his chair underneath as he sat down for dinner, so I’d just edge it away a little bit. I was banned for behaving badly in other plays as well. Back then, you were told you’re not university material; it was either the military or teacher training. I went into teacher training. I could have gone to university as it happens, I got A levels but it had been decided I wasn’t university material.

PC: How did your experience of training as a teacher inform your career with Kneehigh?

MS: I started teaching at Archway comprehensive. Drama and English was kind of ghettoised, we were on the edge of the school site. At that time it was pretty grim, the whole area was being cleared for rehousing, streets of galvanised iron. I was in this Nissen hut with kids. They largely ignored me. The first thing I did was make the Nissen hut nice, so I painted it. I put lighting in, so there was lighting states; I put a sound system in; I showed films; I got a cooker in and I cooked delicious snacks. I was trying everything to get them to take notice of me. I had a Polaroid camera and I took pictures of the students. I’d be looking at the photographs and they were interested to see pictures of themselves. That then became a photography and graffiti project outside the school gates, which you wouldn’t be allowed to do now. It then became a dance project and then we were away. I would have been twenty-one. I learned a lot about the creative space and the conditions of creativity.

PC: How do you bring those conditions to the work you do with Kneehigh?

MS: I created the Barns in Cornwall and they quite deliberately include fresh air, colour, interesting things, nice things to eat, they let the weather in and out. This is not rocket science, these are the things which make us tick as human beings. Not working everything out, “Oh, I’ve got this sussed out on my computer.” It’s all these simple things: we ran, we sang, we rehearsed at nights, we sat around fires, we sat under the stars and drank wine. These fuel your soul, these are the conditions of creativity. That’s how you learn. Don’t underestimate the conditions for creativity. I don’t go into school so much now, but one of the things that astonished me when I did, was the drama hall, there was nothing in there, there’s absolutely nothing in there. They want to know, how the likes of me or Emma Rice make theatre! You want to go, “We can’t do in here!” You need some stuff to play with, to try things out with, to spark things off. The cookbook will say you need your ingredients, I say you need a tool kit.

PC: What is your tool kit at the moment?

MS: My tool kit at the moment is most definitely music. There is absolutely no reason nowadays why you can’t have a living playlist that fires you up. I’m currently working on The Tin Drum, which was a novel, then a film and now it is Carl Grose’s brilliant stage adaptation. Inside that box is some model parts for it and there’s a few scenes that I get stuck on. I just sit here with the door open and play a bit music and I think. I get in touch with the choreographer and we go down to Shoreditch Town Hall and I say, “Do the dance of the ball room meets the war zone.” And then I go “Ah… now that’s what that scene is.” And finally, if I read Carl’s text I can layer that in. My tool kit would be music, dance, costume, puppetry, all those kind of things, as well as the text. You need a tool kit to learn. Same if you need to fix a car, you need spanners.

PC: You’ve mentioned a couple of people you’ve worked with over the years. Is it the people that you surround yourself with, rather than the method of doing things that you find a comfort in?

MS: Yes. Nick Darke who is no longer with us, we worked with him a lot, great playwright, he wrote a speech for me actually, The King of Prussia which was, “Build a city in your mind. Start with the people.” I always remember that, “Start with the people.” I think it’s harder and harder. There’s a danger that Kneehigh becomes a production company, we’ll bring back 946, and we’re currently doing Tristan and Yseult. “Who’s out there? Oh God, he’s brilliant.” There is a commodification of product and people. “Can he sing? Can she dance?” Again it’s not rocket science, I think people want to belong to something. Kneehigh has built an artistic community of actors, musicians, technicians, stage crew; they want to belong to something, people want to be on a journey.

PC: Is that challenging to sustain?

MS: Yes, it seems to be at odds with many agents. I’m generalizing now because of course there are good agents that bring their clients through, everyone is hoping their client comes into Kneehigh to get a few hundred quid but if they get that advert they’re going to get thousands. I’m working with people in Kneehigh shows now that actually are not so much interested in talking to me about The Tin Drum and what Kneehigh might be doing next or about Emma Rice’s new company, Wise Children, they’re more interested in getting seen for that film role or that TV role. There is more pressure, I’ve got to be careful not to sound like an old person, but money never used to be part of it. Money wasn’t part of it. In fairness to people there is much more of an issue about getting somewhere to live. It was never in the equation that I was ever going to buy a house. I never have. We were always renting or whatever but there were fair rents. This is particularly pertinent at the moment with Grenfell, we’ve lost a humanity in terms of looking after people and bringing young people through. We weren’t coming out to make it in a world with a massive fucking debt from university. I’ve watched my daughter struggle. Basically she’s just working to pay rent that the geezer can put up at any time. There is more pressure on people to make big bucks. Obviously if you get that film role, brilliant, a few that have been associated with Kneehigh have.

PC: Do writers that you work with, like Nick Darke, give you the security of structure? What experiences working with writers have been particularly memorable for informing your wider work?

MS: I’d say we’re very good at structuring theatre. Emma and I have learnt about structure and taking an audience on a journey by telling stories and making theatre with Kneehigh in the outdoors, not in ‘theatre’ spaces. I’d say as a generalization, most writers overwrite and lose a sense of what that structure is. You might get lots of good dialogue, but if you’re working outdoors on a cliff somewhere, you’re not going to hear that. Again we’ve always worked visually or physically, telling the story in action and then found out what needs to be said.

PC: Does one show stand out as an example of that process?

MS: Tristan and Yseult is always a really good example of that. Emma Rice structured that story arc and then she said to long time Kneehigh writer Anna Maria Murphy, “Just go, go on the journey of telling, of writing poetry about love, the different stages of love, the loss, the harm that love can do, the wonder of love.” She writes and writes and writes and then Emma will select and craft and shape it. Similarly, Carl Grose, who’s doing The Tin Drum with me at the moment, he’s been with Kneehigh a long time, Emma asked him to write the court of King Mark in Tristan and Yseult. She set him the challenge of writing in iambic pentameters. He did that but much of the structuring was Emma. I never wait for someone to deliver the final draft, I get uneasy, it doesn’t feel right. That’s where it does come back to the cookbook: we’re all cooking together.

PC: How does that come about in your current project The Tin Drum?

MS: I’ve sat here this morning with the model box and asked, “How might we do that in the design? Then I say to Carl, “Yeah but rhythmically where have if we just peaked? There? And that siege of the post office, that’s elongating there.” And for Oscar, who is the central character he’s still ranting at the end, “What has he learnt?” So Carl’s thinking, “I’m going to rethink it, you’re right, he’s ranting at the start, he shouldn’t be ranting at the end, he should be listening.” Then you listen to a piece of music and you go, “Yes!” It’s all part of it. I think theatre is a collaborative art, but then I would very quickly say, you used the word ‘collective’, it’s so convenient and a bit romantic for people to think, “Oh Kneehigh do everything together!” No, you would end up with a fucking mess! It is a collaborative thing, but absolutely let that person design, feed in to it, but let them design, don’t keep chipping away at it. Let that person write; let that person compose; let that person choreograph. You’re encouraging the collective imaginations of people all the time. It is a bit like teaching as well. The cast is the class. What are the individuals within that class that you can push up or bring up? What is the collective? What is the chemistry then in the room?

PC: What would you say to people coming into that way of working for the first time?

MS: I say quite often, “Hold your nerve. Just hold your nerve. Watch what’s going on.” We’re talking about how I learn, I learn by staying open to the world, staying in touch with the world: raising my eyebrows and seeing everything again for the first time because it’s really interesting. It’s really important to keep learning. This year, I had a little bit of time in February, I thought, “Miserable weather, I’ll do two things: I’ll stay in the Calais Jungle in temperatures of minus 4; then I’ll come back here and I’ll go on a three day Nola Rae course at Jackson’s Lane.” Somebody like me, who’s run Kneehigh for nearly 40 years, isn’t sitting back saying, “I know it all now. I don’t need to do any more, I just need to pass it on.” No! I need to keep learning.

PC: What have you taken with you from the Calais Jungle experience? Will it inform your theatre work?

MS: Absolutely. I mean the experience was deeply troubling. The authorities trying to fuck those people over all the time. The Good Chance dome started in the Eritrean area, which was all gentle: people singing songs and painting pictures. Then it was moved by the authorities to an area with Iraqi boys, 12 year old survivors who had seen their parents murdered. I certainly didn’t go in there to get great art out of them or to perform to them, but to just engage on the simplest human level and really try to make a difference. I saw demonstrated so clearly the difference between what was actually going on and what our media reports. It was absolutely shocking. Coming from Cornwall, which fucking voted UKIP, then Brexit and now seems to have gone Tory, makes me think I’ve got to do something to open people’s eyes. I commissioned Tom Jackson Greaves, a Matthew Bourne dancer, again a Cornish guy and to make a piece called Run For Your Life. We worked with Good Chance as well. We were supposed to perform that at Carn Marth Theatre Quarry but it got rained off, so we ended up performing at the Asylum. We then hosted debate with Joe Robertson from Good Chance in our Asylum. We hopefully got people thinking a little bit more about the refugee crisis: the total number of refugees in Europe equates to 0.02% of the population so sort it out everybody!  But what are we doing? No, we’re just guarding our own, we’re building borders up around each other. That is absolutely reflected in what Carl is writing for The Tin Drum:

“History goes: the crisis of identity and wars over countries and the falling of cities, this is our tragedy. And what the black witch feeds on: the fear of others, the fear of our brothers and history goes round and round, mankind takes a breath and then he drowns. Which side of the river are you from? Who were your friends? Have you been here long? Who are we? We are who we are. And so it goes, the great human toil: what’s your blood? Who’s in the soil? Complicated, isn’t it. And so it should be. It’s life. Viva la complexity.”

Even theatres, which are supposed to be a bit liberal, put up barriers. We had a character in 946 who tore a button off her dress and said, “It’s a lucky button.” She gave it to another character and said, “Make a wish, and it will come true.” At the end of the show, I did a small speech which was “Thanks very much ladies and gentlemen, tonight is lucky button night, we’ve got loads of lucky buttons, donate what you will and anything you donate goes to help refugees. Please make a wish for a better world.” Lots of the theatres said we couldn’t collect money like that, but we found a way. In this country we raised £25000 from selling lucky buttons. Then we went to America where the whole Trump thing was happening and people were roaring when I was saying, “Make a wish for a better world.” I think we made about $55000 over there. Some went to Help Refugees and their hundred helpers in Aleppo, which is a place that we visited with The Red Shoes and some went to Good Chance.

PC: Would you say you’ve all always had that political edge within your work?

MS: We’ve always thought that work should be political with a small ‘p’. You don’t want to go banging people over the head with it. Dead Dog in a Suitcase ended with “Right, let’s bring it all down and start again.” That was following the refugee crisis and the decision to bomb Syria and all the rest of it. The Tin Drum is definitely political with a small ‘p’:

“We’re all wanders now, the world is no one’s, the world is everyone’s.”

“When mankind will comes undone, when history is succumbed, bang the drum, when the last of hope is gone. When the battle is losing one, bang the drum. In the fight for better times, in the hope for better times, bang the drum.”

It is based on a story that was written in 1944 in response to the rise of fascism. Depressingly human beings go round and round in circles.

PC: Bill Mitchell sadly passed away early this year, how did his designs, especially for the outdoors, influence the way Kneehigh worked? What did you learn from him?

MS: Loads! It stays with us. That keen, brilliant visual sense. He taught us very simply about design. He didn’t fill in the gaps. He left you to fill in the gaps. When he first came to work with us he had a bad back. He’d been working in London, stressful work and he had trouble getting out his car and I asked him to paint a tree white! Then we were doing Tregeagle which is a Cornish Faust and we’d got the story but we hadn’t got the design. Bill looked at what we were doing, and it was brilliant, he gave us a tower; he gave us disc that could just be a simple stage, you could roll it or spin it. He gave us a set of trapezium shapes, little frames and suddenly we were doing mine shafts. He gave us a kit to play with in a non-prescriptive way.

PC: That really comes across in Tristan and Yseult as well.

 MS: Yeah, it’s the same thing. It’s a kit to play with. Outdoors you need height. Tristan and Yseult was something that he designed and then this year, before he passed, he came back to it. It was really interesting, we were at The Minack Theatre, and when White Hands says, “The sail is black” we bring in these white silks. They’re flapping around and I stand up there as King Mark and it’s flapping around me, but we’ve got a stage manager saying, “It’s too dangerous, it’s too dangerous.” I’m the only one who has ever played The Minack, yes it is about survival but I had to shut her up. We arrived there and we’re doing all the health and safety stuff and I said, “I’ve got to stop this now, we’re in a culture of fear and these actors, they’re not going to survive this cliff in a gale, in the wet, if you’re going to go down this route. Of course it’s too dangerous!” You have to swap it round but it was really interesting because we brought those white sails in, which was Bill’s idea for this year before he passed, we brought them in and the stage manager got flipped, she got caught by one, so she said, “I really don’t think we can do it, unless the wind drops.” So each night we decided that we shouldn’t bring them in. Then on the final night, Bill’s partner Sue was there with her brother Pete, they were always Kneehigh and Pete came up to me in the interval and he said, “You haven’t got the white sails rigged.” I said, “No. The wind…” He said, “Shall we do it for Bill?” I said, “Yes Pete!” And we did it for Bill and they were flapping and the wind was howling and it was “Whoa! Yes!” Of course it looks dangerous, but it looks brilliant. That is such a brilliant story: the White Hands character has just lied, she said that the sail was black, then rather than somebody come in and just be there, the sail is flapping and screaming going “You’re lying and he’s dying!” Bill was just brilliant at using of materials. When he came in, we were largely a self directing company so we didn’t need the cult of director, which let’s remember is quite a recent thing and he would just let us try things. I’m always uneasy with actors that say, “What do you want me to do? Tell me what you want me to do.” We’ve always made our best work and Emma continues to make her best work when she’s got a group of people going, “What about this? What about that?” Just trying stuff.

PC: I know Emma Rice has just launched her own company Wise Children. What have you learnt from her and her work?

MS: She first came into Kneehigh and we were doing The Riot, which was Nick Darke written, she played the pipe smoking, bal maiden Harriet Screech. She was quite clearly a fantastic actor. Neither of us like actors that do too much acting, she was very simple, which allowed an audience to imagine. That’s why we do theatre, to get an audience to imagine. That is what Bill’s designs were about, you don’t stick everything on a plate for them, that’s film with close ups and things being really realistic. So, she was a brilliant storytelling actor, who had come to us from Gardzienice in Poland. She had a real rigour and a robustness but an anarchy as well, a charm and she was funny. She continued to act when she began leading work. Not only did she pretty much write Tristan and Yseult, she directed it and she was the central character in it. That’s not a bad place to be as a director, in the middle. Simon McBurney does it with Complicite. I’ve done it a lot.

PC: How did Kneehigh’s work change under her influence?

MS: The thing that Emma brought us was definitely more emotional depth. The thing I think that is really brilliant, as well as being a brilliant director, she is a fantastic selector and editor and she does really encourage and get the best out of people. She holds her nerve and has a deep, deep understanding of the work and why she is doing it and it is quite often on a personal level. A show like Tristan and Yseult, can I truly love two people? She pretty much was in that situation at the time of making it. The Red Shoes, what is temptation? What is everyone’s red shoes kicking under the bed? She was pretty much in that situation then: “I want to put on the red shoes and dance…” She really gives you that personal approach, I think she is a brilliant leader, I think she is a brilliant business person, and by god did she prove that at The Globe. Look what she gave that theatre: an extraordinary season of work, you’ve got Caroline Byrne’s The Taming of the Shrew, you’ve got Emma’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Iqbal Khan’s Macbeth, Matthew Dunster’s Cymbeline. And again this year, an extraordinary season of work, amazing gigs, I mean Plan B is going to be playing there shortly. More inclusive companies, more diverse companies, gender equality on stage, that takes some doing with Shakespeare. Look at the place, how brilliant it looks now, and they trashed that. The old bully boys have trashed that, and it really is the old bully boys, I’m shocked. I’ve been part of her creative cabinet at The Globe, which again is top theatre practitioners and we’ve been pitted against a bully boy, horrible, really horrible. She is so much better out of it and I think with Wise Children she can continue the movement that she has started. It is brilliant that that is in the South West. Another long time Kneehigh associate, Charles Hazlewood, he has the British Paraorchestra, I would like to see the three companies forging a path individually and collectively. Exciting!

Want more about Kneehigh? Read the interview with Duška Radosavljević for an outsider’s eye on their work.

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