Kneehigh

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

Want more about Kneehigh? Read the interview with Artistic Director Mike Shepherd.

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 Methuen2015).


Kneehigh’s Growth: Intriguing Methodologies and National Attention

PC: How did you come to study and write about Kneehigh’s work?

DR: I am interested in how ensembles work so I wanted to know about the principles of Kneehigh’s working process. I became really curious about the company, what shaped their work and what shaped their methodology. I felt their work was innovative, not necessarily experimental in an avant-garde sense of the word, but it was motivated by wanting to move forward in some way. I admire that.

PC: What was your first encounter with a Kneehigh show?

DR: I had seen Emma Rice’s Red Shoes in Edinburgh in 2000, that was my first contact with the company. I thought it was an interesting piece of theatre which I was glad I saw. It was unusual, distinctive and memorable.

PC: Did you start seeing more of their work then?

DR: Yes, it just so happened that I saw their next couple of pieces, like Cry Wolf, which they did with a band called the Baghdaddies who played Balkan music. They were basically a street band in Newcastle that they somehow discovered and put in the show. They then did Pandora’s Box with Northern Stage: a company I worked for. My colleague Neil Murray, who was an associate director at Northern Stage also collaborated with Emma Rice a number of times as her designer on other projects later. Pandora’s Box had members of both companies, both ensembles in it.

PC: Was there a particular show that prompted your academic interest?

DR: It was after watching Cymbeline at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival in 2006 that I really wanted to find out more. This was a year-long festival, the idea of which was that it was going to showcase all of the works of Shakespeare. Some were RSC productions but a lot of them were guest productions by other companies from all around the world. They were also showcasing ready-made work, sometimes work already commissioned. In the case of Kneehigh, Cymbeline was commissioned by the RSC because its fairy-tale origins were seen to fit Kneehigh’s style. Cymbeline’s convoluted plot meant it was a play that was rarely staged and a bit inaccessible so maybe it was felt it would benefit from Kneehigh’s intervention. Additionally, Kneehigh hadn’t done any Shakespeare before so this was a good opportunity.

PC: Why was that show particularly important?

DR: I had spent a year working in the RSC Education Department just at the time when the Complete Works Festival was happening. In the context of the Complete Works Festival in Stratford-upon-Avon the piece had real significance both locally and nationally because it was not what a lot of people would consider to be Shakespeare. It only had a handful of lines from the original script in it. It was an adaptation, it angered some mainstream newspaper critics and it polarised audiences. There were audiences who stomped out and demanded their money back and there were audiences who stayed to the end and gave it a standing ovation. There was no indifferent reaction to it. This was definitely a highlight of the festival. From that point on Cymbeline went off on a national tour. This was a significant moment for Kneehigh as a company moving from local to national importance. The debate it sparked off triggered my interest from an academic point of view. So for example in that Cymbeline there was an interesting use of a singer: Dominic Lawton. He was a rap artist and mostly his function was commenting on the actions through his rapping. However, he also became integrated into the fabric of the piece dramaturgically because he then turned out to be one of the lost children in the piece. That was quite intriguing to me as someone interested in dramaturgy.

PC: What do you mean by dramaturgy?

DR: I mean theatre-making principles and methodologies. I was interested in the company’s methodology of making and telling stories. They did not seem typical of what you would find in the British theatre. They had developed their own stage and scenic vocabulary as well as their own way of working that I was particularly interested in somehow articulating or pinning down in my scholarly work.

PC: Were there any other significant moments that got Kneehigh national attention?

DR: They have had various moments where they have come out of Cornwall and into London since 1980 when they were founded. Sam Mendes brought them over to the Donmar Warehouse in 1996 with King of Prussia, a collaboration with Carl Grose. Richard Eyre noticed them and got them doing a co-production with the National Theatre – Nick Darke’s The Riot.

PC: Do you think Kneehigh’s success has changed them?

DR: I don’t think that they were fundamentally changed by success, though they welcomed it of course. I guess that having worked so hard for years and years they must’ve felt in some way gratified to get to a point when they were getting national recognition. However, what is significant is that I don’t think that success changed their core values in any way. Even though outwardly it might seem as though they are more successful and more worldly wise – the work might have started to look more fancy – but when you go to Cornwall to see the work at the Asylum, it still operates on the same principles. Regardless of their national and international success, their process remained constant; they didn’t forget their roots.

PC: How do they ensure they continue to connect with their roots?

DR: The first thing that people who have worked with Kneehigh remember about the experience is working in the barns and the local landscape. It’s very much in the narrative when they talk about their work. When people talk about working with them they remember the work being part of the landscape: they remember running in the woods and running by the sea. The barns have become very much a part of Kneehigh’s identity. They are a reminder of the core values of the company and their core values are posted on the walls of the barns where they rehearse.

Kneehigh in the 80s: Youthful, Distinctive and Devised

PC: How did it all begin for Kneehigh?

DR: Mike Shepherd often talks about his history trying to be jobbing actor in London and becoming disillusioned with that, then returning to Cornwall to work as a teacher in the late seventies. Kneehigh was founded as a company in 1980. It was the tail-end of the Theatre in Education trend started in the sixties. I think Mike would reject the label of Kneehigh being a TIE company but their work inevitably came into contact with people who practised that way of working. They were interested in making work for the community so there was some overlap. Jon Oram was a key collaborator in the eighties. He had worked in theatre in education and his influence left a mark on Kneehigh’s work.

PC: Was creating work for young people important in those early years?

DR: Mike has written in his diaries that he considered it part of his mission to challenge the idea that it was enough to just take kids to the theatre to see a show. He wanted theatre to somehow engage with young people. He wanted it to challenge them or stretch them, contribute towards their development. In his diaries, he remembers being punished at school for being ‘naughty’ when he tried to rescue a friend’s confiscated teddy bear. He sees this act of thwarted heroism as being quite influential on him as an artist. He developed an over-sensitive relationship with injustice coupled with an innate naughtiness that became the spirit of Kneehigh. This childlike irreverence and rebellion is seen often to underlie a lot of the company’s work. Possibly as a result of this Shepherd developed a non-elitist approach to creative work.

PC: Were there other similar companies at the time?

DR: There was Footsbarn, a circus theatre company who did a lot of outdoor entertainment in the South West. At some point in the eighties they moved to France and suddenly a gap appeared in the local landscape for a company to come along and do something like it. Mike has said that Footsbarn was a very difficult act to follow. They had a very loyal audience with very particular expectations in terms of what a company should be like. They are still touring now.

PC: It sounds like it was quite a distinctive theatre scene.

DR: Yes it was. Are you familiar with Sandy Craig’s book Dreams and Deconstructions: Alternative Theatre in Britain? It was written in 1980 and it catalogues all the various kinds of theatre that emerged in the aftermath of 1968 in Britain which he qualifies as alternative theatre practices. Mainstream theatre in Britain up until 1968 had been the usual diet of entertainment and Shakespeare. Until 1968 and the abolishment of censorship all theatre had to be read by the Lord Chamberlain and approved or disapproved. That presupposed that all theatre was text-based, but the abolition of censorship saw something that we might call devising start to appear predominantly within this theatre-in-education practice.

PC: How would you define this kind of devised theatre?

DR: Devising didn’t mean non-text based theatre because very often they worked with playwrights, but it meant that they were devising a ‘project’ including a play and a workshop. Now we think of devising as being something that has developed in binary opposition to text-based theatre which is obviously untrue. A number of alternative theatre practices developed and companies like Welfare State International and Footsbarn had, often overlooked, political motivations. They used spectacle as a way of engaging audiences and, in some ways, to communicate a message. In fact, there are people who have moved sideways between all these companies: from Welfare State International to Kneehigh etc.

Influential People in Kneehigh’s History

PC: The way the company is organised and led has changed a few times with Kneehigh. That must have had an interesting effect on their work.

DR: Yes, one of the characteristics of Mike’s leadership of Kneehigh has been that he has been very generous and open with his way of working. So I mentioned Jon Oram from the Theatre in Education world. He developed networks of artists and brought interesting people in, including athletes as well as writers, designers and actors. Emma Rice, for example, was an actress from Nottingham who came into Kneehigh at some point in the 1990s. Then she went to Poland to train with Gardzienice for a year and then returned to Kneehigh again. People were brought in on a project-by-project basis and then they stayed.  Some were home grown and stayed and other theatre people came from elsewhere and then settled in the area.

PC: We’ll talk more fully about Emma Rice’s recent influence but have there been other major influences on Kneehigh?

DR: One of the key collaborators was Bill Mitchell. He was a designer and shared the role of artistic director from the early nineties. He is actually somebody that had been associated with Welfare State International previously and then settled in Cornwall. Welfare State International made big outdoor spectacles so obviously design was important in that respect, they were all about moving scenography really. Kneehigh was working outdoors and that was something that they wanted to develop as a company. I guess design became a very important aspect of the company vocabulary. It became their working trademark. I think you still associate that with the company although Emma Rice has certainly worked with other designers.

PC: Did they have relationships with specific writers as well?

DR: Yes, John Downie is a writer that they worked with on an adaptation of Woyzeck called Cyborg – A Folktale for the Future. Nick Darke is another, he had worked at the National Theatre quite a bit in the eighties. He moved to settle in Cornwall and became associated with the company. Mike always brought in key people who did influence the company’s way of working.

PC: You mentioned that Emma Rice was brought in, how did she begin with Kneehigh?

DR: First of all Emma trained in England at Guildhall. Then she joined Kneehigh as an actor on a project. She has described her spell of working with Gardzienice after this as not dissimilar to Kneehigh (in that they are both rural community-oriented companies), however their training method based on singing as well as Grotowskian emphasis on physicality was very influential on her. She returned to Kneehigh after this and in 1999 she was given The Changeling to direct, a version known as The Itch. But the key moment for her and the company as a whole was The Red Shoes. She directed the show and it sparked off interest from elsewhere. That production was tremendously successful. What’s very interesting about Kneehigh is often they engage in adaptation, markedly so since Emma’s takeover. Since they have adapted novels and famous films although they still continue to return to myths and folktales which have been part of their repertoire from the beginning.

Kneehigh’s Instinctive Style: Storytelling and Adaptation

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.

Kneehigh’s Irreverence: Subverting the Mainstream

PC: You mentioned that Kneehigh’s early work was influenced by the quite radical alternative theatre scene. Do you think their work still has this quality?

DR: People question whether Kneehigh’s work is inherently conservative or inherently radical or whether it is political at all. This is because when work at some point becomes commercial it therefore becomes part of the mainstream even if it had started off as being radical. It loses the initial impact, it loses political weight. But actually my argument in relation to Kneehigh has been to highlight the importance of the political underpinnings of the work: Kneehigh’s work has in fact never been overtly political, the political values were contained in the inherent subversiveness – the ‘naughtiness’ – that has always run through the work. Even when they became more of a structured company they always retained this irreverence and subversiveness in the way that worked. This is obviously the way they were when they went to Stratford and presented Shakespeare on their own terms. They weren’t trying to conform or respect the local traditions. It was about doing it the way they had always done things. Being faithful to their own emotional memory. Having those qualities run through the work, their political drives remind me of the kind of work that Dario Fo has done: very populist but very political, though maybe a bit more overtly political than Kneehigh’s work.

PC: Is what they do still subversive even though they have gone into the West End and the RSC and the National?

DR: Yes. They have got to all these pinnacles of British theatre but on their own terms. They make sure that the experience of the piece becomes the dominant experience of the audience within this time and space. There was a big political change in 1989 and what we consider to be political theatre up until then changed. We had to reconsider the mainstream, think about what is radical in performance: what actually engages the audience fully? People talk about ‘immersive’ theatre as if it’s a new thing but actually there were companies and artists who were motivated by that desire in the 1980s and 1990s. You can see the legacy of that in Brief Encounter at the Haymarket cinema. It was essentially a site-specific piece because it was done in the place where the film was originally screened. The set designer was Neil Murray but in this case every aspect of the experience was designed: there were rose petals in the toilets, thick carpets and ushers and usherettes with pillbox hats around the auditorium before the show and in the interval who stepped on and off the stage to assume other characters. The use of actors in the interval of Brief Encounter draws the attention away from what is customarily done in the British playhouses: the consumption of ice cream. I think this might point to their roots in creating outdoor events when they had to take into account all aspects of the audience experience. Outdoor events are so much less containable because the audience could be a lot more anarchic: doing unexpected things. If you have to make an effort to contain the audience within the storytelling experience, as part of the actual framework of the piece itself, then somehow you are more likely to control the audience. So in this case you could argue Brief Encounter was an immersive experience as a result of the evident consideration of all the aspects of the event’s design to the minutest detail.

Kneehigh’s Influence on British Theatre

PC: You mentioned the collaboration with Northern Stage — what similarities do you see in the two companies’ work?

DR: I think that Northern Stage and Kneehigh collaborated because they were both ensemble companies from geographically marginalised places. Both served their own communities firstly but both had international ambitions. Northern Stage were based in Newcastle and, under the leadership of Alan Lyddiard, they were very much immersed in their local context. Alan’s ambition was to have all these Geordie artists that he brought together into an ensemble working shoulder to shoulder with internationally renowned artists. So he brought into Newcastle Peter Brook, Robert Lepage, Lev Dodin and Calixto Bielto in order to facilitate those sorts of exchanges. Northern Stage as an ensemble from Newcastle wanted to define themselves in relation to the rest of Europe rather than to London. Meanwhile Kneehigh has built an international reputation by touring, not only in Europe but in the Americas too. Neil Murray, who was a designer and Associate Director at Northern Stage, continued working with Emma Rice after the co-production of Pandora’s Box. He was nominated for an Olivier for his design of Brief Encounter. And as a director himself, he has spoken of being influenced by Emma’s methods of working with actors.

PC: Would you be able to pinpoint any specific company that Kneehigh has influenced?

DR: Stylistically you could talk perhaps about some other companies being influenced by Kneehigh or being freed up to experiment by Kneehigh’s successes in merging genres, reanimating certain traditions for the 21st century or reinventing the musical, for example. You could make connections between Kneehigh and the whole gig theatre trends that we are witnessing now.

PC: Your main area of research is ensemble theatre, what have you learnt from researching Kneehigh’s ensemble work?

DR: I guess the whole idea of ensemble research that I have engaged in culminated for me by concluding that often the desire to work in the ensemble is motivated by essentially wanting to create communities. Bringing artists together in the ensemble but also making the audience part of the ensemble. That is a distinctive feature of theatre as an art. That is one of the unique selling points of theatre. Theatre actually engages the audience in a live event. That’s where I think Kneehigh really capitalise on the potential of theatre. Kneehigh’s work is often driven by a desire to engage an audience in some sort of temporary community or some sort of shared experience.

Want more about Kneehigh? Read the interview with Artistic Director Mike Shepherd.