RepositoryFalmouth University (GB 3241)
Ref NoFCP12
Date1980-2017
LevelCollection
Extent107 boxes, 19 O/S bundles & 1 O/S item / 42 linear metres
TitleKneehigh Theatre - cataloguing in progress - please contact archives@fxplus.ac.uk
DescriptionThis Collection spans over 30 years and 80 productions of Kneehigh Theatre's history, specifically consisting of Company records relating to administration, staging, logistics, and promotion of Kneehigh shows. The Collection includes organisational documents, promotional materials, scripts, published materials, photographs, requests for funding, feasibility reports, business plans, audio-visual records of performance, show budgets, audience surveys, inspirational materials, R & D materials, production diaries, flyers.

Highlights include:

- Published, draft and working copies of scripts for many Kneehigh productions. Many of these are annotated by actors, directors and writers. (A list of all scripts contained in the Colelction is available)
- Flyers, posters, programmes and other promotional materials for Kneehigh productions (1980s- 2017)
- Mike Shepherd's 'Kneehigh History' - a handwritten account of productions including dates, details of cast and crew, along with anecdotes and opinions
- Press cuttings
- A large selection of photographs including rehearsal, pre-production and promotional images of many Productions, along with more informal candid shots of cast, crew and shows
- Asylum venue planning records - including costing, feasibility reports and schematics
- Recordings of performances and promotional DVDs.

The Collection has a heavy emphasis on central administrative records, press and promotion. Evidence of creative process can can often be found in evaluative reports and programmes and in associated Collections.
Admin HistoryKneehigh Theatre was founded by teacher Mike Shepherd (b1953) in Cornwall in 1980. The first phase of Kneehigh's development commenced with theatre workshops run in Shepherd's spare time, a collaboration with an eclectic group of individuals including students, a farmer, a sign writer, a thrash guitarist and an electrician, with a mandate to create work for children which inspired the name. This company of players would become the Kneehigh Theatre with its own distinct manifesto and ethos for creating vibrant, energetic, accessible, touring productions for a wide audience.

The lasting strength of Kneehigh comes from utilising the skills of a spectrum of performers, directors, designers, artisans, writers and musicians as well as a bold approach to reinvention. Kneehigh have evolved to create distinctive, unconventional pieces incorporating many forms of media, rich in texture and adventurous in spirit. Over the decades Kneehigh has transformed from a Company which filled a perceived need for theatre for children and their families in Cornwall, to an innovative and highly respected international touring outfit.

From the beginning Kneehigh approached theatre by organically developing ensemble pieces of a highly physical and spectacular nature, to be performed in local environments. This ethos is reflected in much of their early work in pieces such as Awful Knawful (1980) based loosely on the stunt motorcyclist Evel Knievel, The Mystery Machine (1981) based on the Children's book The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Mrs Corbetts Ghost (1981) based on the Novel of Leon Garfield and Around the World in Eighty Days (Minutes) (1982) adapted from the Jules Verne classic. These productions were performed for families in both loosely conventional locations such as community centres, village halls and harbour sides alongside those of an increasingly unorthodox nature such as cliff tops, up trees and on abandoned industrial sites.

After establishing a reputation for this early work it would be their 1985 production of the Cornish tale Tregeagle which would lead the Company in a new direction. A piece originally conceived by Shepherd as a production for schools, Tregeagle's second incarnation - with the influence of director Jon Oram - became an innovative, high-energy creation. The production was significant in terms of the use of music and song as part of the narrative, as well as incorporating masks and energetic 'theatre sports', the latter credited to Oram as a lasting contribution to the Kneehigh aesthetic. Importantly Tregeagle was also their first production to tour outside of Cornwall and - thanks to Oram - to receive grant funding. This production would come to define Kneehigh's second phase, embodying the philosophy that 'grass-roots theatre' could build audiences (as established by Footsbarn in the 1970s). Shepherd sites Footsbarn and their decision to leave Cornwall in 1984 as an important factor to his Company's early development. Kneehigh's work shared a similar aesthetic, attracting the local Footsbarn audience, and Shepherd acknowledges that that pressure of expectation in the vacuum left by the more established company forced Kneehigh to improve.

The latter half of the 1980s saw Kneehigh touring regularly outside of Cornwall including several visits to Edinburgh Festival with productions such as Cyborg: A Folktale of the Future (1987), Stig (1988) a reworking of Clive King's Stig of the Dump for which they created a dump wherever they went, and Sun and Shadow (An Electric Adventure Story) (1988) which toured both in schools and a 300 seater big top tent. During this time the Company also maintained their theatre in education programme with Footprints I and II (1986-87) taking children on a hunt for a magical beast, The Thinking Kit (1990) encouraging children to develop imaginative lateral thinking, and The Story Box (1989-90) a magical adventure introducing infants to using costumes and music.

In 1989, Kneehigh celebrated the official opening of their rehearsal barns at Lamledra, Gorran Haven. The barns belonged to the National Trust and were officially opened by the Chairman of The Kneehigh Trust, Tom Dudley. This was the first time the Company had a permanent base to work on R&D and rehearsals, and remains their creative base to this day. Shepherd describes the barns in Cornwall as a place where things can get done, "a secret, special place where we can seed ideas" (https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2008/dec/01/kneehigh-theatre-cornwall-maddy-costa - accessed 8th August 2017). Almost all Kneehigh productions since 1990 have started life there, with the cast and creative team assembling for an intense fortnight of collaborative devising.

One central theme of Kneehigh's work throughout its development is the Company's commitment to the use of fairy tales, myths and legends which during the late 1980s & 1990s would come to embrace both those of a Cornish and European tradition such as Peer Gynt (1991), a five-act play in verse by the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, loosely based on the fairy tale Per Gynt. Another incarnation of Tregeagle in 1989 would prove important for the Company as it was the first production built for touring outdoors, and the first with Bill Mitchell as designer. Mitchell would become a significant force in the design and directorial vision of not only Kneehigh but in the wider theatre world, focussing increasingly on creating large-scale pieces of walking theatre that used landscape not just as a backdrop but as an integral part of the storytelling. He had previously worked with Welfare State International who created large scale outdoor spectacles, and contributed that passion and experience of site-specific work to Kneehigh's increasing vocabulary. Mitchell went on to form his own company Wildworks with his partner Sue Hill. The first Wildworks production was a co-production with Kneehigh - The Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (2004).

In addition to the outdoor, high design work of Mitchell, Shepherd characterises Kneehigh's 1990s as exploring another type of theatre. "There was the outdoor work which is non-text based, and then we worked for a decade with Nick Darke. And that started to get us back into the citiesÂ…" (British Theatre Companies: 1995-2014. "Kneehigh Theatre" Duska Radosavljevic). Where Shepherd described his Cornish upbringing as imbuing him with a naughtiness and a freedom from having to 'get things right', Playwright Darke was more overtly political and outspoken about the treatment of his home county by tourism and wealthy land owners. Amongst others, Darke wrote Ting Tang Mine (1990), The King of Prussia (1997), and The Riot (1999) all three telling politicized stories of Cornwall through a lens of Kneehigh's irreverent energetic performances. In these plays Darke's voice shines through: "playful and political, fantastical and yet grounded, profoundly Cornish (wherever the play might be set), fierce, angry, stubborn, warm, exotically foreign, and always, like the author, terribly funny" (https://www.theguardian.com/news/2005/jun/15/guardianobituaries.artsobituaries accessed 8th August 2017). The King of Prussia was a breakthrough for Kneehigh; the first time they had performed in London - and to nearly universal positive reviews - gaining them and Darke high profile interest from The National Theatre.

These two approaches adopted by Kneehigh were in fact far from disparate. Many successful productions in the 1990s such as the King of Prussia were collaborations between Darke, Shepherd and Mitchell, with Darke writing, Mitchell designing and often directing, and Shepherd splitting his time between devising, directing and acting. Other recurring and lasting Kneehigh collaborators of this time included Jim Carey on music, and recurring performances by Sue Hill, Bec Applebee, Tristan Sturrock, Giles King, Anna Marie Murphy, Carl Grose and Emma Rice who went on to become Artistic Director of the Company.

Shepherd credit's The Red Shoes (2000) as heralding "the brilliant new era of Emma Rice's directing" which, after joining Kneehigh as an actor in 1994, led to her taking over from Mitchell as Joint Artistic Director of Kneehigh in 2004. Rice began her career acting in children's theatre in Exeter c1988 before receiving a grant to work with Gardzienice Theatre Association in Poland where she was immersed in very different, Eastern European traditions of theatre making. Under Rice, Kneehigh's rehearsal programme reflected Gardzienice in certain ways. It was isolated, completely dedicated and extremely physical, but critically they channelled that discipline to develop a method that Rice describes as based on joy, not on pain.

Certainly Rice had a lasting impact on the Company; Dave Mynne of Kneehigh states "We used to joke about the 'Kneehigh school of pointing, shouting and running': if in doubt, fill the space and make a noise. Emma has added a lot of the elements that we always wanted to have there: the darkness, the stillness" https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2008/dec/01/kneehigh-theatre-cornwall-maddy-costa accessed 8th August 2017).
This darkness and stillness, coupled with the earlier anarchy, energy, willingness to explore the landscape and intriguing 'Cornishness', brought Kneehigh further to the attention of major theatres across the UK and beyond. This can be seen in key productions from this period such as Pandora's Box (2002), a collaboration with the Northern Stage ensemble, The Bacchae (2004) and The Wooden Frock (2004), a co-production with the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, and latterly The National Theatre's programming of Tristan and Yseult (2005) and the 2007 adaptation of the Powell and Pressburger film A Matter of Life and Death.

With Rice at the helm, Kneehigh showed a marked increase towards adaptation including books, films and television programs, but also the folk tales, myths and legends that have always been traditional fare of Kneehigh. This use of adaptation has allowed Kneehigh to lend its aesthetic to existing texts and thus expand and cement its own sense of style and vocabulary amongst the national theatre scene. When adapting productions Rice begins with her own cultural memory, preferring to work with 'her truth' to try and remember what stuck with her from a story. Only then will she revisit the text and proceed to develop the production with the Company.

As part of their year-long 'Complete Works' Season of 2006 The Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned Kneehigh to produce Cymbeline (2006) to be performed at The Swan in Stratford. The script was given an anarchic, irreverent treatment by Rice and Kneehigh, with the resulting performance polarising audiences and critics, with frequent mid-show walkouts contrasted against standing ovations. Some critics described Cymbeline as lacking emotional depth, or being a paraphrase closer to pantomime, but by the time it reached London Rice's treatment was being praised (mostly by female critics) for getting to the heart of the play, and finding a clear narrative through a knotty drama.

Rice was subsequently appointed Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre in 2016, but despite an extremely strong first season celebrating new and diverse audiences, creative and critical acclaim, and exceptional box office returns The Globe's board controversially announced that she would step down in 2018.

After years of planning and grant proposals, Kneehigh's nomadic venue The Asylum ("a cross between a sanctuary and a madhouse - that's what we're after!" - Rice) was finished in the winter of 2009/10. Able to transform from a 200-seater suitable for a village green, to a 750-seat auditorium, perfect for London's South Bank or Sydney Harbour, the venue was funded in collaboration between Kneehigh, Cornwall Council, Arts Council England, the hugely successful Kneehigh Friends Scheme and others. The Asylum has enabled Kneehigh to maintain a performing presence in Cornwall despite outgrowing most of the County's theatres, whilst also being free to pack it away and follow their other strands of work, touring traditional theatres and building their reputation further afield. The Company remains committed to its Cornish identity, and Shepherd believes that maintaining it is crucial to Kneehigh's appeal and success.

As well as performances specifically designed for the Asylum such as Midnight's Pumpkin (2012) and Fup (2016), in the 2010s Kneehigh continued its tradition of evolution, frequently collaborating with other companies, theatres, performers and producers. Steptoe and Son (2012) was co-produced with the West Yorkshire Playhouse and Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca (2015) was produced by David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers in association with Kneehigh. Umbrellas of Cherborg (2011), a collaboration with the Gielgud Theatre, involved a new cast and musicians under the Kneehigh moniker. Although infused with the Company spirit, Rice admits this production pushed the boundaries of qualifying as a Kneehigh show.

Kneehigh are a company who have always adapted to political changes as well as internal structures. While recognising that increased arts funding under New Labour was a boom period for Kneehigh, Shepherd reflects that the 2010s have forced Kneehigh to reduce the number of new shows they produce. In an interview in 2014 he notes that due to risk averse theatres, a new production must do an initial run, then book a tour a year in advance to be financially viable. Certainly Kneehigh are no strangers to bringing back their own classics to huge success. As well as various incarnations of Tregeagle, Rice insisted The Red Shoes be the first production in the Asylum in 2010. Tristan and Yseult has been revived many times both in the UK and internationally. This production toured the UK once again in 2017 following an international indoor tour and was redesigned once more for the outdoors by Bill Mitchell's, his final design for Kneehigh before his death in April 2017.

From their anti-establishment Cornish roots, Kneehigh have negotiated their path to genuine national treasure. After a 3 year freeze in funding - a boon during the economic downturn of the 2010s - in 2017 they received a 22% increase in Arts Council Funding for the next 4 years. With their future funding secured, Shepherd and Company will doubtlessly be looking for new challenges and collaborations as well as new blood to inspire them as they head towards their fifth decade.

Roo Pescod 2017


References

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-features/7921964/Kneehigh-the-short-hop-from-old-barn-to-Broadway.html

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2008/dec/01/kneehigh-theatre-cornwall-maddy-costa

Theatre-Making: Interplay between text and performance in the 21st century. Duska Radosavljevic 2013

http://essentialdrama.com/tag/kneehigh/ - interview with Duska Radosavljevic

The Theatre of Cornwall: Space, Place, Performance. Alan M. Kent. 2010. Westcliffe Books.

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/apr/18/bill-mitchell-obituary

https://bristololdvictheatre.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/top-dog-an-interview-with-dead-dog-in-a-suitcases-mike-shepherd/

http://www.theheroinecollective.com/emma-rice/

https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/2015/insight-get-show-road/

https://kar.kent.ac.uk/24280/1/Interview%20with%20Emma%20Rice%20DR%5B1%5D.pdf

http://www.theartsdesk.com/theatre/theartsdesk-qa-director-emma-rice

LanguageEnglish
Access StatusOpen
Related MaterialOther related collections include:
CPA1- Papers of Nicholas Temperley Watson Darke
FCP7 - Papers of Bill Mitchell
FCP8 - Records of Kneehigh Theatre collected by Fred & Phyllis Shepherd
FCP9 - Papers of Sue Hill
Access ConditionsOpen, except for those records subject to Data Protection Legislation. Please see item level descriptions for further details.
ArrangementThis collection of company papers has a functional arrangement based on those activities undertaken by Kneehigh Theatre Company as follows:

A - Productions
B - Community Events
C - Schools Works
D - Site Specific Shows
E - Other Projects
F - Governance
G - Administration
H - Financial Administration
I - Fundraising
J - Human Resources
K - Marketing and Promotion
L - Press
Finding_AidsCataloguing is currently in process, and users should consult the tree structure for information on those areas already completed, along with box lists available for uncatalogued materials. Please archives@fxplus.ac.uk for more information.
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