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.