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Guest post – Mike Shepherd’s witterings

It’s been an eventful summer and we’ve been lucky !

My show Calvino Nights played the Minack Theatre without a hint of drizzle or Cornish fog.

It’s a straightforward relationship with the marvellous Zoe Curnow who runs the Minack. They pay to get the show “on,” we get it on, if we’re lucky with the weather, then we play to a full audience of all denominations, we generate income and share the profit…. simple ! I then use this revenue to generate more ideas for performance. There are no lengthy Arts Council Grantium forms to fill in, data collection or proof that giving people a good night out is worthwhile.

In the 90’s and the 00’s the cultural industries were hot, theatre was buzzing and Kneehigh was right in the thick of it. 

Venues, producers and ACE helped us fly and were seemingly hungry for artists to create. Now artists have to convince “those in charge” that art is valid and, without proof, we are dismissed. 

Indeed, the world has changed, it’s harder to know what’s real and it feels like the sense we need to find our bearings is being destroyed.

I took over a tumbledown set of barns on the Cornish cliffs in 1990, they became the Kneehigh Barns which I have run as a home for artists ever since. I have always taken creativity and the conditions of creativity seriously (but not too seriously) and it’s here, at these barns, where I find my bearings.

Recently I’ve hosted a variety of people – companies, students, young people, artists and, bizarrely, software specialists… for them the Barns was an alien environment which seemed to stir them, as they searched for things long forgotten.

With these different groups there has often been an anxiety which has been hard to combat. I have no easy answers to how to dispel all our increased anxieties although I find attaching a piece of agricultural fleece to a stick and telling people to play with the wind helps. 

At the Barns I want to tickle and jolt people into a more wild and self-willed state that doesn’t really have much to do with getting things right. At Kneehigh we took things seriously but not too seriously, we delved into all sorts, we agreed to tussle, we found our fools and on occasion, we used sharp intelligences but we didn’t obsess about getting things right and didn’t bother about what we referred to as  “wasted work” as we explored the improbable.

Creating the Barns and that community of artists coincided with finding out about the brilliant educationalist Ken Robinson (please check him out if you haven’t already)

Here’s a quote from him: “We need to educate our children for unpredictability. If you’re not prepared to be wrong you’ll never come up with anything original. We stigmatise mistakes in school, mistakes are the worst thing you can make. We are educating our kids out of their creative capacities.”

Sat in a cafe this morning I couldn’t but help overhear a parent and child talking about results and how they weren’t good enough for her to get into the university she wanted but that was probably just as well as they wouldn’t be able to afford it anyway- the teenager sat despondent and eyes down. This is very sad and things -(almost everything) have got to change. 

“Those in charge” don’t have to invent anything they just have to remember. In a moment of absurd optimism in Calvino Nightsa character declaims “everything that was lost will be found.” 

…. that’d be nice !

Anyway, I want to talk about Ben Stokes who, despite being hopeless at school has become the England cricket captain. The England cricket team had plummeted down the rankings due to a terrible run of results and a debilitating anxiety amongst it’s players. In comes Ben Stokes and simply gets players to play freely, enjoy themselves and not worry about results. Immediately their fortunes change and they become a winning side. 

Traditionalists and those with a preoccupation for “the right and the wrong way of doing things “ tutted aghast when England’s best batsman Joe Root played a completely unconventional ramp shot back over his own head. It could easily have gone wrong but it went for six.

There was a recent interview with England Test Captain Ben Stokes that resonated with me: “I want everybody to be selfless in the decisions they make,” said Stokes. 

“It’s always been my main goal playing for England to think about what I need to do to win this game when I have the responsibility on my shoulders, whatever stage of the game it is. That’s always been my main priority. Personal milestones and individual performances have never been at the top of my priority list. Bottom of my list of priorities is the result, I want to entertain-to give people a good time-to inspire.”

He talked about seeing Freddie Flintoff in 2005 when he was a kid and how that inspired him and how proud he feels that kids this summer, boys and girls, have been so inspired by the sold out, exciting games (when you never know what’s going to happen next) which he has captained this summer.

It strikes me that’s how we want our theatre to be in these times; getting back to a more wild, self-willed state.

Coincidentally, on the same day that I heard the Ben Stokes interview, I went to Leyton Park to watch a young circus company Revel Puck, they had a small big top (can you have a small big top?) that seated 500. The site was welcoming and exciting, the company were amongst the public, there was delicious food, I particularly liked the samosas, and a building sense of expectation. A sold out multigenerational audience took their seats, a lion roared terrifyingly and a young female clown ran into the space terrified.

The roaring continued whist a tiny remote controlled lion entered the ring in pursuit, eventually the remote controlled lion bumped into something which triggered a big chain reaction of objects and scenery cascading down and falling over. The audience went wild. The clown who so clearly knew her fool, in a gentle understated way, had the audience eating from her palm.

For me, when circus is a display of amazing skills, it fairly quickly becomes less interesting, less engaging. Revel Puck absolutely had brilliant skills but they presented them in a way which was totally engaging and elemental. They didn’t always succeed, it wasn’t always easy and as an audience we found ourselves complicit in their successes and failures.

In the interval, outside the tent, there was a buzz of activity as children cartwheeled, spun, balanced and attempted death defying leaps. Ben Stokes would have been proud.

The audience were so up for having a good time and it was a genuine thrill to be amongst them.

Of course, theatre takes many forms but to give a cross-generational audience a bloody good night out with tasty snacks and the opportunity to stick around, meet new people and maybe have a dance feels more important than ever.

It’s what we did with Kneehigh’s Asylum and I’d love to make it happen again. 

Meanwhile, I want the Barns to remain a place of inspiration where ideas can fly towards performance without concerning ourselves with “results”.

We need to keep finding inspirations and we need to inspire the next generations.

Mike Shepherd, August 2023

photo credits: Steve Tanner