Emerging in the spirit of “cheerful anarchy” and slowly developing over the years into a production company employing both interested locals and, gradually, professionals, Kneehigh – who have been based in Cornwall since their creation in 1980 – are a theatre company operating at the crossroads between a contemporary understanding of folk culture and what we deem to be modern theatrical paradigms; their shows are evocative, accessible, playful and celebratory.
Carrying on the focus on social ritual found in the work of companies like Welfare State International or Lone Twin, and delving into an implicit examination of theatre and community, Kneehigh have grown during a time when the local became global; and their faith in the potential of ritual to entertain and form a local culture is, perhaps not surprisingly, the result of an intriguing cultural context in which the company have crafted their own position.
This is found not only in the ways in which they make and show work, but also in affiliated programmes that seek to chart the local environment – such as Kneehigh Rambles, walks led by poet Anna Maria Murphy through which local stories are connected and written, as well providing access to their productions to those who cannot afford a ticket.
It’s the spirit of accessibility yet in a particular understanding of its resonances. “We work on a very deep level, but on an immediate level everyone knows what’s happening. I think that’s what makes it accessible; that you can bring your twelve year old to see the work and you can bring someone who hasn’t had a fancy education, but it still has great depth and meaning”, says Emma Rice, Joint Artistic Director. From their West End shows Brief Encounter and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to winter warmers such as The Red Shoes and this year’s offering Midnight’s Pumpkin, their work is diverse, yet always in the spirit of playful celebration; a sort of contemporary carnivalesque. Circus, movement, storytelling, music and a particular focus on non-intrusive participation are at the heart of what one might easily see as theatrical events.
“I think it’s really interesting that people have chosen religions for as long as we’ve been functioning as a civilisation. What do we do do? We come together, we listen to stories, we sing songs and share rituals, and I think theatre ticks nearly all those boxes. It can be a profound experience that recognizes the human needs of doing something as a collective” says Rice. Does she associate with this historical narrative of companies that have engaged with theatre’s potential for cultural exploration through community? “Influence is very hard to pin down. It’s a brilliantly fluid thing. I’m inspired by the people I met at Kneehigh, some of those who have come through Welfare State. I would say as a company we’re not very inspired by many people because we have been in Cornwall for thirty years.”
Rice doesn’t speak of a local isolation, more of the processes through which Kneehigh shows are born and form their theatrical language and identity, inspired by the locality but also by the people who constitute it. “The influence conversation is always an interesting one, because I don’t see that much work; I’m largely down in Cornwall making theatre. I think we really did build our own style of working for a long time.” What the style is changes show by show; and of course in recent years, with West End transfers and more sustainable, touring work, Kneehigh are certainly not marginal to the theatrical industry. With an emphasis on physicalising stories, on locating a certain universal and playful morality in their architecture, and on bringing a particular language that places emphasis on movement and music, Kneehigh have certainly constructed a style that places emphasis on the power of stories, their flavour and ethics.
“We are artists and we’re very serious and passionate about our work, but it is meaningless without an audience. It’s why we do it, it’s the final part of the chemistry to put it in front of another group of people and see how it fizzes.” This awareness of the modes through which an audience might be engaged and invited to participate wholeheartedly into the story is a lesson learnt, once again, through locality. “We know our audience. They’re not empty faces in the dark, these are people who have come to see us for thirty years now. It would be silly not to say hello to them; we know them and they know us, and I think that’s what we bring with us – that fact that there are no boundaries. We see them, we touch them, we celebrate them, we know them, and that’s what Cornwall does for us.”
Rice is not shy about the extent to which autobiography affects the work. “It’s what I’m thinking about, it’s what pops into my heart and soul and head,” she explains the process of selecting material. “I’m a great believer that stories come to you when you need them, so – without getting too personal – I can chart my own life alongside the stories that I choose to tell.” Rather than rejecting the subjectivity of personal influences, she sees these as a great strength of the narratives, which are “personal and specific” as a result of their roots in her and the company’s own experience. Likewise, the themes that have emerged again and again in Kneehigh’s work – love, friendship, community – are ones that resonate with the isolated, communal environment in which their shows germinate.
“The locality itself isn’t important – it’s not like our backdrops are the Cornish seaside,” Rice clarifies, keen to precisely pin down the influence of Kneehigh’s remote Cornwall home. “It’s more fundamental than that,” she suggests. Each of their shows, wherever it might eventually end up, begins life through an intense process of creation and play in the company’s collection of isolated coastal barns. Like Thoreau in his cabin in the woods, Kneehigh’s work is marinated in its immersion in the surrounding countryside and its distance from all the usual distractions of modern life; as Rice explains, company members aren’t taking phone calls or dashing off at the end of rehearsals. “It’s a very beautiful part of the planet as well, so we get to look at sea and light fires and that’s what infects the work,” Rice continues, a grin spreading across her face. “There’s a great ease and a great depth to it, because our roots are very strong there.”
The creative process behind Midnight’s Pumpkin, however, was slightly different to that of the company’s previous shows. Originally conceived alongside last summer’s flagship show The Wild Bride as “an event, a happening”, the piece morphed into a full-length musical that was first shown in Kneehigh’s new nomadic Asylum space, a huge purpose-built tent that the company pitched in the middle of the countryside. Because it was initially intended as a supporting piece, the whole show was created over the length of a frantic two-week process.
“It’s very free and it’s very instinctive and it’s very raw,” Rice describes the end result of this escalated form of making, seeing this as one of its principal attractions. “My job is to keep improving it as a piece of theatre but to not lose that sense that it’s really unprecious,” Rice goes on to explain. “In that sense it’s in a puff of smoke, we like to say; it’s just happened and then it vanishes.” Phil Brodie, who plays The Prince, attests to the value of this organic way of working, a process that is more about enabling than it is about direction. “Emma is very good at letting people experiment and create and play,” he says. “She guides you and helps you to mould.”
The material that has been moulded to create Midnight’s Pumpkin also differs slightly from its predecessors, as the Cinderella story is such a familiar narrative within our shared cultural heritage. “Cinderella’s a cracking story, so what’s not to like about it?” Rice says simply. Whereas previous shows have treated their source material as loose creative impetus rather than prescriptive blueprint, the company have attempted to remain faithful to the heart of Cinderella – to “get on the cart and drive it”, to borrow Rice’s analogy. “I tried not to be too clever,” is how she characterises the adaptation, linking this back to her passionate emphasis on the audience experience. “This show’s not about being clever, it’s about being very welcome and very secure and absolutely entertained.”
Brodie’s approach reflects this particular engagement with the audience. “I’m still trying to find a balance between what you imagine a Prince would be like … he’s kind of a daft version of what a Royal might be like. Slightly ridiculous and a dreamer, and a bit of a poet. He’s trying to find true love, so he’s an idealist. But that confidence comes with power and wealth. He has bags of energy, and if he wants something done it has to be now. The change is then subtle but apparent; when he’s falling in love, there’s something different. People can be in love with the idea of love, but when it happens, it’s nerve wracking and real.”
While the show’s original setting in the Asylum lent it something of the circus, intensifying the sense of party and community that it sought to cultivate, there are few more appropriate locations for the central ball scene than BAC’s Grand Hall. “In many ways I think it will fit even better here,” Rice agrees as we look around at the building. “It’s got a grandeur that really suits the palace.” She speaks of BAC as Kneehigh’s second home, a venue that shares the company’s playfulness and “spirit of yes”. “They make anything happen,” says Rice, describing is as both “exciting and comfortable”.
Perhaps there is something in the production itself that reflects the journey it undertook, appropriating all the emotional valences of those who have worked on it and those who have taken part, but also the geographical journey that has brought it to BAC. In this instance, the local flavour remains, yet it is also satisfyingly drowned in the poetic of the story itself and the roots of celebration. “Participation – though I don’t want to use that term, because it makes people run a mile – is at the root of it; it’s in the round, there are no barriers between the actors and the audience.”
“I’m a simple girl, I like simple things, and I think people do too,” Rice continues. “We like a good story, we like music, we like love. There are real human basics and I’m not afraid of that. I want to reveal stuff with my work, not conceal it. And that therefore makes it popular. It’s like a great song that everybody buys and it gets to number one. So the thought that you might make a piece of theatre that everybody really enjoys like a number one record is brilliant.”
At a time when universality of meaning has long been questioned, and creativity holds a commercial imperative which has professionalised it in a particularly problematic political climate whose legacy of emphasising on social output of art is being felt today like a strange after-shock, Kneehigh’s proposition isn’t welcomed by sceptics. Yet there is something undeniably powerful in this particular social awareness; and, after all, it’s not participation that makes Kneehigh’s work popular, nor simply the nature of their work; it is also the company’s own sustainable structure and way of working that has ensured a certain cultural and almost institutional longevity to their work and practice.
Midnight’s Pumpkin is at BAC until 13th January 2013. For tickets visit the BAC website.