Kneehigh’s Influence on British Theatre

This is the final part 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: 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.