Mike Shepherd, Kneehigh: “I used to walk over the Millennium Bridge full of hope and now it is with a knot in my stomach.”

Mike Shepherd

Mike Shepherd

Mike Shepherd, Artistic Director of Kneehigh Theatre Company has had a remarkable career as a director, performer and as founder of Kneehigh.

We are talking on the same day that Emma Rice, former Artistic director and long-time friend and collaborator with Shepherd penned a spirited open letter to the incoming Globe artistic director. Rice offered candid insight into the politics behind the scenes of the organisation. It is, by all accounts, a fascinating thing. When offering up advice from the perspective of her time in post, she reveals, “I have learnt, never again, to allow myself to be excluded from the rooms where decisions are made” she continues, “…as important and beloved as the Globe is to me, the board did not love and respect me back.”

So, what does Mike think about it all? “The thing that is a huge shame is that Emma created a brilliant and vibrant artistic community at the Globe and that hasn’t been valued at all,” he pauses. “I used to walk over the Millennium Bridge full of hope and now it is with a knot in my stomach.”. He continues: “Essentially after head-hunting her and taking her away from Cornwall they discarded her – it is a dreadful situation.” Their mutual respect and affection will last long after Rice leaves the Globe. Indeed, he is very clear that they will work together in the future and that Emma will always be a part of the Kneehigh family.

His dynamism is, he confesses, the result of finding his artistic feet during a genuinely political time. “Look, I’m so old, I’m from a generation where we genuinely thought we could change the world; that Bob Dylan era. I was never a hippy, though I’m contemplating becoming one. An effective hippy.” Shepherd laughs when I tell him that I wish it was two years ago and ask his thoughts on our Prime minister’s surprise announcement of a Snap Election outside No 10, saying she has delivered stability after the Brexit referendum result. “It’s pretty desperate isn’t it,” he says bluntly. “I was horrified that we voted Brexit. I spent some time recently touring around a very troubled America… On one hand, we have to keep fighting and on the other you want to turn your back in disgust.”

Before coming to the bigger issue – the global refugee crisis and how to make a difference, when it comes to making work that is relevant to audience members’ lives and concerns, Kneehigh are in a league of their own. “Our latest show 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips ends with the Martin Luther King, Jr quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” At the end of the show we asked audiences to buy a lucky button, make a wish for a better, safer world. We raised over $50,000 for organisations helping refugees in Europe and Syria.”

Shepherd has been steering Kneehigh since Rice left two years ago, continuing the political and socially sensitive work with gusto. How has he been getting on working closely with Charles Hazlewood and Carl Grose? “Well, Charles is an extraordinary man, he comes up with the most brilliant projects, he has an amazing creative energy. Carl came up through the company; he was originally our apprentice,” he says. “Those two really chime and are absolutely best friends. I should also mention our close links with choreographer Etta Murfitt and our magnificent lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth. That is a very strong creative team that is fuelling our work and continuing the Kneehigh journey,” he adds.

Lyn Gardner recently wrote an article about the Harry Potter and The Cursed Child’s success in making theatre universally appealing and how our strongest culture triumphs are only conceivable because of the subsidised arts sector.  “How wonderful that Steven Hoggett and John Tiffany are artists that have come from subsidised theatre backgrounds. Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is an exemplar of mainstream theatre attracting a whole new generation of theatre audiences, many of whom will be attending theatre for the first time,” he says. “That’s one of the biggest challenges for me always; it’s hard earned – we don’t just dip from one good idea to another, we want to make a difference and engage with diverse and new audiences.”

Next month Kneehigh will take up residence at Brighton Theatre Royal as part of the Brighton Festival with a restaging of the critically acclaimed Tristan and Yseult; Emma Rice’s acclaimed staging of the Cornish legend that catapulted Kneehigh onto the national stage. “Yes, I’ll be doing Tristan and Yseult for the last time,” he pauses. “As King Mark I say ‘We don’t look inland there’s not much point. No, outward, outward lies the way!’. Looking ahead, we are also thrilled to be working with Keziah Serreau who will be assistant director on the Tin Drum in collaboration with Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse and West Yorkshire Playhouse. We will also be looking into a new Kneehigh show based on Marie Curie, currently titled ‘Radioactive (Love and fall out)’”.

He ends on at note of upbeat positivity about the next generation of artists and the future. “I’d just like to encourage organisations to pull together and to collaborate– there needs to be a spirit of hope. Theatre is there to provoke, challenge and entertain.”