Read more on Emma Rice – Interview with Duka Radosavljevic from the Kneehigh Cookbook archive.
Cornwall-based Kneehigh Theatre was founded nearly thirty years ago by the former teacher and actor Mike Shepherd. Originally conceived as a theatre-in-education company, it grew and performed in village halls and site-specific places (quarries, beaches, fields, etc). Kneehigh often worked with a core group of collaborators and had a strong connection with the Cornish community. Emma Rice originally joined Kneehigh Theatre as an actor. In 2001 she directed her first piece for the company The Red Shoes which became a significant success and won the Best Director Award in the 2002 Barclays TMA Awards. This led to Rice taking over as the Artistic Director of Kneehigh Theatre and producing a string of box office hits including Pandoras Box (2002), The Bacchae (2004), The Wooden Frock (2004) as well as an increased audience following both nationally and internationally. Over the years, Kneehigh forged successful creative relationships with various regional theatres as well as the National Theatre with Tristan and Yseult in 2005 and A Matter of Life and Death in 2007, and most recently the RSC with Cymbeline in 2006 and Don John in 2008. The company’s work is increasingly characterized by adaptations particularly screen-to-stage adaptations which culminated with the company’s West End debut of Brief Encounter at the Haymarket Cinema in February 2008. Following a UK tour, this show has recently had a successful tour of the United States.
The interview below took place on 9 April 2009 at the Battersea Arts Centre, London, just before the opening of the London run of Don John at the same venue.
DR: How would you define Kneehigh as an ensemble company?
ER: I do not know whether it is possible to define an ensemble. There are lots of answers to it because it is very changeable. The very nature of an ensemble is that you are trying to stay together as a group, and the very nature of life is that the only thing that is definite is change. So the only way that you can keep an ensemble together is with quite fluid thinking. And you do not get it right all the time either. There is a British phrase familiarity breeds contempt but familiarity also breeds a shared language, a shared understanding, a shorthand and a bravery a fearlessness, so that on balance, the dividends can be so extraordinarily high. I am really passionate about it and certainly, as I get older, I am very, very passionate about people coming back as well.
As a younger director, it was all: are you going to stay? and are you committed?; and now I am much more thinking go away and come back, go away and actually it’s a lifetime relationship. More and more as an employer, I also think understanding that actors are human beings with very rich lives is one of the keys to keeping an ensemble together. And it is one of my criticisms of what I would call a bought ensemble in that you just pay them, you contract them, but you also burn them out. At the end of two years of rehearsing-performing-rehearsing, you just want to get away; you never want to do it again. We work very, very hard at making sure that people do get time off and good hours, and it is not a very good business model it is an art model. But we work very hard financially and administratively and creatively to say: yeah we’re going to work really hard, long hours, were going to sing and work late into the night, but you will go home and you will see your family and you can come back fresh.
I think Boal talked about the five main attributes of being a human being and I am very keen on accepting that as a director as well: they are human beings and they do need company, they do have sex, they do move real basics. I think that the work is what is at the heart of it the people have to want to come back, and I think we all believe in the work and I think we are very lucky. It was once said of Kneehigh that we are not only part of our community, but also a community in ourselves and that is when an ensemble takes on a life of its own. Because if Kneehigh finished tomorrow we would still all meet up and we would still go to the christenings of each other’s children and the funerals of each other’s parents. Now, how we manage it and how we nurture it is another matter but it is a real thing and I almost want to cry saying it I think that is the most precious thing.
Duka Radosavljevic is a Lecturer in Drama and Theatre Studies at the University of Kent. She has previously worked as a dramaturg, theatre practitioner and theatre critic, and she is currently editor of the reviews section of the Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance. Contact: School of Arts, Jarman Building, University of Kent, Canterbury, CT2 7UG.