Influential People in Kneehigh’s History

This is the third 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: 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.