BWW Interview: Mike Shepherd Talks KNEEHIGH
Mike Shepherd is an actor, director, teacher and the Artistic Director of Kneehigh. He started Kneehigh in 1980 and has worked almost exclusively for the company ever since. He is currently playing King Mark in their acclaimed production of Tristan & Yseult and is about to direct a new production of The Tin Drum. We met in the surrounds of the Bristol Old Vic Backstage Bar to talk.
Firstly, congratulations - Kneehigh has been awarded a 25% increase in funding from 2018 from Arts Council England. What are you planning to use it for?
Well it is great news, and we will use it well. With our current funding we've done eight shows in the past 18 months, since Emma Rice and Paul Crewes left. Which is exciting but almost crazily irresponsible!
Shows aside, I'm very keen to get more training going, start an apprenticeship scheme and link effectively with the Paraorchestra, who we already work with, and continue our work with people like Good Chance Theatre.
What the funding does mean is that we can work more creatively and artistically.
I heard you once ran away to join the Bristol Old Vic - is that true?!
That is sort of true, yes. I mean obviously, I've always been Kneehigh. It's always been really important that we've been on the edge of things, kind of outlaws. There was a time with Kneehigh where it seemed to becoming a little bit more conventional. I've been there since the start and I think the reason that we've continued is that we've always embraced change and it's not about me holding onto the reins.
I thought that Kneehigh needed to go wherever it needed to go and it doesn't need me. It's an unhealthy thing hanging onto anything. So I did kind of step back and I came to the Bristol Old Vic when Andy Hay was here and it was a very strong producing house.
It does seem like the Bristol Old Vic is a bit of a home away from home?
Yes, definitely. It's been, however, many decades - we've built a fantastic audience here and there is terrific warmth and support here. And, of course, not to forget long-term ally Tom Morris and how brilliant he's been for us - when he was running Battersea Arts Centre he brought The Red Shoes there.
Is it a challenge to be both an actor and Artistic Director in the company?
I think it's a challenge. It's an unstated thing in Kneehigh, but we always encourage people to be generous and absolutely tell the story and be keyed into that audience.
I'm sussed enough now to realise the perils of being the guy that's always been there and hanging onto something. So I'm very used to it now. There was a time, certainly for Emma Rice as well, where not only would we probably write it and direct it but we'd be in it. We'd all be taking notes and passing them through!
I try and engender a spirit - I know with lengthy touring if you haven't got leaders within the group, things can get very fractious.
Whenever I'm at a Kneehigh show, I always notice huge amounts of school groups - why do you think that is?
It's brilliant, isn't it? It's that frequently heralded challenge: how do you get young people in? We've done that really successfully. If I'm feeling grand, which is not very often, I call myself an educationalist.
Simply the work is funky. It's not boring. I think it's so important - you hear that theatre is becoming this thing that belongs to previous generations, it's absolutely dropping out of people's cultural experience, particularly young people. The Globe is great for that - you've got £5 tickets and 500 people standing. Wow does that give energy.
If you look at the Globe, and what they're going back to, I want to say where is your responsibility to Shakespeare? Is it to go back to something that is this 50- or 60-year-old idea of what British theatre was? Or is it more like Emma Rice's ideas where young people are going "Wow, I like Shakespeare, it's a great story and it's an entertaining night out"?
Speaking of the Globe, I assume that Kneehigh will not remain an Associate after Emma Rice's departure - and is that a disappointment?
Absolutely no, we will not remain an associated company.
It is a disappointment - it suited us very well, and in that practical sense of associated companies working together, it gave people more security in terms of employment.
It was a no-brainer to work there. You look at Tristan & Yseult and it was a bittersweet experience performing it there because that's so obviously the reason they employed Emma Rice.
Not only did they employ her, they headhunted her because of shows like Tristan & Yseult. They knew what she did and then they never supported her. I've been very involved because Emma has been a colleague and I've been on her creative cabinet, which has never been recognised but that has top international theatre practitioners.
We will not remain an associated company of an organisation which is extraordinarily divided and therefore dangerous. I think they're very lucky to have not been investigated for malpractice. What organisation after five months does that?
Moving to more positive news - Emma Rice is to be at the reigns of new company Wise Children. Might we see collaboration in the future?
One would absolutely hope so, but you must speak to Emma about that! We go back as theatre-makers and colleagues for 20 years and we've been very closely linked with the Globe.
The Arts Council is very keen that companies work collaboratively and not competitively. And I'm excited about that. Through this, us and other companies can fuel each other. I think it's terrific news for Emma following the debacle of the Globe - she said very clearly to me that this is her chance to become the next Joan Littlewood or Pina Bausch.
Finally, Kneehigh aside, what do you make of the current state of regional theatre?
Well, you're talking to someone who is on stage almost every night! There's some terrific stuff being generated. I was talking to Tom Morris about the Bristol Ferment and there's great work happening in Manchester, or how brilliant that the Liverpool Everyman has just created a rep company and what they're doing there. We've been to Glasgow Citizens theatre, which has a lot of exciting work. And of course Cornwall is very well provided for!
Photo credit: Richard Termine