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Tristan & Yseult – Emma Rice: Making a Show

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Read more on Tristan & Yseult – Emma Rice: Making a Show from the Kneehigh Cookbook archive.

“There is no formula to the way we make theatre. However, it always starts with the story. No, it starts before then. It starts with an itch, a need, an instinct.

Each one is raw, relevant and personal. Stories have an ability to present themselves, to emerge as if from nowhere. But they never are from nowhere. This is the seminal moment of instinct. This is when your subconscious stakes its claim and intervenes in your carefully ordered life. I sit up when a story taps me on the shoulder. I respect co-incidence. I listen to impulse. One of my most hated questions when making theatre is Why?’ Because,’ I want to answer, Because…’

For me, making theatre is an excavation of feelings long since buried, a journey of understanding. Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment his book about children’s relationship to fiction, states that “our greatest need and most difficult achievement is to find meaning in our lives.” He argues that by revealing the true content of folktales, children can use them to cope with their baffling and confusing emotions. My fascination with certain stories is fuelled by my own subconscious. The Red Shoes charts the pain of loss, obsession and addiction, The Wooden Frock, follows the slow and faltering healing process, Tristan & Yseult is a poem to love and its madness and The Bacchae a terrifying glimpse at the beast in us all. These are not children’s themes but I often approach them in a childlike way. In my experience, our basic needs and desires are the same – to be communicated with, to be delighted, to be surprised, to be scared. We want to be part of something and we want to feel. We want to find meaning in our lives.

The event of live theatre is a rare chance to deliver all these needs. We can have a collective experience, unique to the group of people assembled in the theatre. I don’t want the fourth wall constantly and fearfully placed between the actors and their audience, I want the actors to speak to their accomplices, look at them, to respond to them. I want a celebration, a collective gasp of amazement. I want the world to transform in front of the audiences eyes and demand that they join in with the game. Theatre is nothing without the engagement of the audience’s creativity. Theatre takes us right back to Bruno Bettelheim and his belief in the therapeutic and cathartic nature of stories. We tell them because we need them.

Months before rehearsals begin, I start work with the creative team. We gaze at books and films, sketch and begin to form a concept; an environment in which the story can live, in which the actors can play. This physical world holds meaning and narrative, it is as much a story telling tool as the written word. Stu Barker (musical director and composer) and I exchange music we have heard, that inspires us or just feels right. We talk of themes and feelings. From these conversations he creates a musical palette of melodies and sound-scapes. With the writer or writers, we talk and dream. We map out the structure and the overall shape of the piece. They go away and write collections of poems or lyrics or ideas. Each writer works in a different way but what none of them do is to write a script or a scene in isolation.

It is this fertile palette of words, music and design that we bring to the rehearsal room. As I said, Kneehigh is a team. The shared imagination is greater than any individuals so we begin the rehearsal process by returning to the story. We tell it to each other, scribble thoughts on huge pieces of paper, relate it to our own experience. We create characters, always looking to serve and subvert the story. Actors like Mike Shepherd and Craig Johnson delight with their deft improvisation, breathing life and naughtiness into the bones of the story, performers like Bec Applebee and Eva Magyar use their painfully eloquent bodies to create physical poetry and story, Giles King and Tristan Sturrock tickle and disarm with their tragic clowns. Stu’s music is used to help create the world, to guide and inform improvisation and release feeling. Lighting is used from day one, the design is developed with ideas coming from the devising team. The writers are in rehearsal. They watch and inspire, feeding in their poetry, their lyrics. They respond to improvisation and craft scenes and characters alongside the actors. Layer upon layer the world is created, the story released.

One of our most used phrases in the process is hold your nerve.’ There is no room for neurosis or doubt, these will only undermine the process, hold your nerve, stay open and delight in the privilege of making theatre.

We lay the foundations, then we forget them. If you stay true to the fundamental relationship between yourself, your team and the subject matter, the piece will take on a life if its own. Armed with instinct, play and our building blocks of music, text and design, Kneehigh do fearless battle.

Each writer, Anna Maria Murphy, Carl Grose and Tom Morris bring their own beautiful and distinctive voice to the work. But remember, these texts represent just one layer of the worlds that Kneehigh creates. As you read, close your eyes from time to time. Let a tune drift back from your childhood or recall a painting that made your heart pound. Remember falling in love or losing control, leaving a loved one or laughing til you cried. Now the work lives. Now there is a connection. Now there is meaning.”


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