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Mike Shepherd: “Kneehigh’s journey is not over.”

Down the phone, founder of Cornwall’s Kneehigh Theatre company, Mike Shepherd sounds on good form. Partly, it transpires, because he has been doing a lot of looking back.

He’s also running the Kneehigh Barns as a home for artists, community, education and the environment. “The Barns are busy, countless ideas have been taken for a hop, skip and a jump, new shows have been created. We’ve worked with schoolchildren and students, created community events and helped plant an orchard,” Shepherd says.

Alas, we are talking on the telephone about an important new digital archive produced with Falmouth University, charting the forty years of one of Britain’s most invigorating, eclectic, and memorable theatre companies. There is much more at the Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

Following Kneehigh’s shocking closure in 2021, this project was conceived to ensure that the internationally renowned company’s cultural and educational body of work was preserved. 

Building on the existing collection that Falmouth University’s archive team had held since 2010, archivists have curated key materials from various Kneehigh for a new interactive platform called This is Kneehigh.

“We were very lucky in that Falmouth University archivist Sarah Jane was so passionate,” he says.

“The actual closure of Kneehigh was not handled well. So, we were very keen that the company ethos and catalogue was in place as a resource for people and audiences.”

Falmouth University’s archivists have worked to ensure that production recordings, interviews, photographs, show programmes, evaluations and behind the scenes content research and development materials will continue to thrive in this new digital exhibition.

Kneehigh’s productions, often staged outdoors, would mix physical comedy with original, bold storytelling. Many were based around mythological tales, such as the Cornish legend of Tristan and Yseult, the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale The Red Shoes, or The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. They are missed.

“In those forty years there were 75 main shows, 23 community events, 19 school productions, 19 site specific performances and 10 other ambitious projects such as the Rambles or us in the Calais Jungle. It’s truly extraordinary how much we did,” says Shepherd.

He pauses. “Myself and Emma Rice are hoping to revisit Kneehigh shows so that they can be filmed, streamed and performed live. I would love there to be a festival of Kneehigh shows in the future. Looking back, you realise Kneehigh did coincide with a punk explosion, told stories that mattered.” 

He continues: “Somehow that revolution has got to start again. These are difficult times for so many, young people in particular. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel but we do need to remember fair pay, the principles of equitable education, fair rents. I want people out on the streets.”

On the closure of Oldham Coliseum he is bemused. “I think it’s very sad – but if you read stuff about what needs to be done to maintain that 135-year-old building it’s no surprise,” he says, with a sigh. 

“It’s positive that the same amount of money has been put aside for a brand-new space,” he says. “However, my thing would have been to make Oldham Coliseum as it stands now safe, viable and functional rather than starting all over again. You can’t just start something else; you must grow it over time.”

Now, though, he’s also returning to Calvino Nights – a fun-filled show loosely inspired by the folktales of Italo Calvino that runs again at the Minack for a fortnight this June. “I am so looking forward to being with those audiences in the open air and probably the most diverse audience to find in Cornwall.”

“Of course, there are brilliant theatres and passionate artistic directors, but there are few who aren’t struggling at the moment. We need more people like Zoe Kernow who runs the Minack, and operates independently and adventurously.”

Back to the rich Kneehigh content that is available in one place online. 

“We have been very lucky with Falmouth University and Sarah Jane’s passion, and I look forward absolutely to the next stage of This is Kneehigh when we can all be more involved.”

He is keen to stress that he is not fond of the word legacy. “I love the idea of legacy meaning a gift and an inspiration for the future as well as a record of the past that can also be an inspiration,” he asserts.

As for the government: “Oh, come on, we’ve got to get rid of the Tories – for Christ’s sake,” he exclaims. 

Shepherd is determined to keep the spirit of punk alive. After all, he says, “Kneehigh’s story is not over.”

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This is Kneehigh is online with more material at Falmouth University’s Penryn Campus 

Calvino Nights runs at the Minack 7 – 22 June