Kneehigh’s Growth: Intriguing Methodologies and National Attention

This is the first 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 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.