Kneehigh in the 80s: Youthful, Distinctive and Devised

This is the second 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: 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.

The ‘Madness’ of Antonin Artaud

Connections to the GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Theatrical style
  • Social, cultural, political and historical context
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • Influence

PC: How did Artaud’s mental health shape his work?

RM: I suppose one of the first things that people know about Artaud is that he was ‘mad’ in inverted commas. It is quite difficult to separate Artaud’s life from his work in the same way that you are often expected to do with other writers. That is completely impossible with Artaud because he only really wrote about his own experience and his own life. He wrote a lot about madness.

PC: What experiences did his mental health lead him to have?

RM: It is quite sad when you’re working on Artaud because there is a sense in which a lot of the madness is glorified. People see him as this tortured poet. But when you actually look at the texts it is quite horrific: all the stuff that he went through. Lots of his work was lost.

PC: Do you mean the things he went through in life or specifically in the treatment of mental health?

RM: It is both really. I think he had something like 52 electro-shock treatments. There were a few years when he was completely lost. I don’t know if you know how it all happened? He went to Ireland in 1937, he was having delusions and he got deported back to France where he was put in various different psychiatric institutions.

PC: Yes, didn’t he get shackled on the boat home? Do records exist of that moment in his letters?

RM: There are all kinds of letters and medical reports that exist from when he arrived in France, doctors writing about his state. He was sending people spells in France from Ireland, these quite disturbing spells, all with holes burnt in them. He got arrested and deported and had to be restrained on the boat back to France. I think there are some records in the foreign embassy. Then there are just the medical reports of when he arrived in France. His mother, for several months was looking for him and then she found him in a psychiatric hospital. He was then moved around various different institutions around Paris before he got sent to Rodez, outside occupied France. Several of his Parisian friends, some of the surrealists, got together and arranged for him to be moved to another place – outside occupied France. They thought everybody would end up in concentration camps. There is no work from that period. There is a gap from when the spells are sent from Ireland to the first work that he does in Rodez, which, interestingly, are translations of Lewis Carroll. Which is funny because he didn’t speak any English so he did translations that are actually rewritings of the French translation of Lewis Carroll. They are of just one chapter from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That is where glossolalia (made-up language) first appear.

PC: Is that published in English?

RM: I think it is just in French. It is in the chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when there is the conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice: she is questioning him about the meaning of language and he makes words up. It is at that point when he starts going into the glossolalia. The end of Artaud’s version is the end of the chapter which is where Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall and shatters into a thousand pieces. In Lewis Carroll he gets put back together again but in Artaud’s he is destroyed.

PC: The visit to Ireland was a significant moment in his life. Would you say arriving in Rodez was a significant moment? Were there others?

RM: Yes arriving in Rodez was when he first began writing again including those versions of Lewis Carroll. He started doing these big, he called them Dessins écrits, which is written drawings: drawings with text on it. But going back to his early life: his younger sister died when he was a child and that comes back up again in his last text. He keeps evoking the ghost of this younger sister who died in strange circumstances, he says she was strangled by the nurse but he was quite delusional at this point so you don’t know… The electro-shock treatment was very significant because he writes about having died under electro-shock; he writes about himself in the past tense: “Antonin Artaud is dead – he died on this date under electro-shock treatment.” He then invents new names for himself. Obviously leaving Rodez is a really significant moment for him. He spent half of his life in psychiatric institutions and then he lived in what you might call a halfway house, in Ivry. It was still an institution but he was able to come and go as he pleased.

PC: Was that when he was writing his last texts?

RM: Yes. Then he started doing lots of portraits of his friends. The idea was that he was going to sell these portraits to make a living but he made these pictures so horrible that hardly anybody bought them. People, these society ladies, describe seeing their portrait as if they had seen themselves dead.


  • It is impossible to separate Artaud’s life from his work. 
  • Artaud wrote a lot about madness.
  • Artaud had something like 52 electro-shock treatments.
  • Artaud went to Ireland in 1937, he was having delusions and he got deported back to France where he was put in various different psychiatric institutions.
  • Artaud’s first piece of writing after arriving in Rodez is a version of a chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when there is the conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice.
  • Artaud’s younger sister died when he was a child and that comes back up again in his last text.