The theatre regularly traffics in magic. Not the magic of the magician, whose goal is to create delight and wonder through feats of astonishing illusion. No, a magician is a professional thief, hiding from us the secrets of his deception and keeping us far removed from the mysteries of his craft. We gasp at the disappearance of his assistant into seemingly thin air. We pant with anticipation when he immerses himself in a tank of water while wrapped in unbreakable chains. We hoot and howl when he miraculously reappears from a different part of the stage. “How on earth does he do it?” we wonder aloud, wanting and not wanting to know.
But in a play, the magic lies in transformation, in our collective imagining. We dream together in the theatre, and the result is that we are transported to a different time and place. And when the play takes place in a nonrealistic environment, we are asked to let our imagination run wild. Everything is representative of something it’s not. An actor declares that we are in a forest, or on a ship, or in heaven. And we believe it. While some technical device that creates an image may remain hidden from our view, the real sorcery of the theatre is what the performers conjure up before our very eyes. And we, the audience, serve as their trusted assistants. Together, the actors and the audience collude to make the invisible manifest. In the theatre, we are all part of creating magic.
Kneehigh understands this. Under the expert direction of master director Emma Rice, the company creates work that seeks to foster a sense of conscious wonder. Their shows are celebrations of everything we can’t see but know to be true. They use music and dance not as window dressing, but as conduits to the unknown. They are comfortable in the world of abstraction, because it allows them to talk about things that are real.
Now they bring us The Wild Bride, their own idiosyncratic take on a Grimm’s fairy tale. The story is both familiar and strange, filled with archetypal characters and situations: a foolish father, the ever-present Devil, an innocent girl forced into the deepest heart of the forest in search of a safe haven. Myriad harrowing trials and tribulations befall her…while she carries the promise of redemption encased in her essential goodness. It’s an old story. But married to Kneehigh’s modern sensibility, complete with a blues score, some wicked humor and a few props that create epic events, the story has come back to life. Traveled straight up from the Dark Ages all the way to the light of today. Where we get to join in the fun…and make some magic of our own.
Steve Jobs passed away as we were in the middle of preparations for The Wild Bride’s residency here in Berkeley, and as Mike Daisey was reprising his show about the Apple CEO in New York. Our work with Kneehigh Theatre, whose fascinating group of artists engage in such theatrical and vivid storytelling, has given me a particular prism through which to experience Jobs’ passing. His life is a tribute to the challenges and the rewards of an unrestrained imagination.
Jobs was unquestionably a genius, but that word does not do justice to his legacy. In the immediate aftermath of his death, much has been made of his brilliance and his function as a societal agent of change. It has been fascinating to watch us, as a people, look at the strands of contradictory behavior that will ultimately define his life and death, and to watch us, collectively, create the mythology that helps us transmute his life into meaning. Immediately after his death, every story told was the story of Jobs’ professional life, which was filled with outsized and very public failures as well as successes. Over time, that narrative slowly gave way to the much more complicated story of a deeply flawed but profoundly impactful man. I’ve been pondering the various myths in the making and looking for the Steve Jobs narrative that speaks to me.
The one that I find most compelling is that of a wildly creative visionary who was able to see in a way that the rest of us just couldn’t, was able to imagine objects and systems that didn’t exist before he made them real, whose creative impulses sometimes led to dead ends when they weren’t turning our assumptions on their ears. He was able to make us see the world through his eyes. He was a person whose rich capacity to dream was coupled with a confidence in his own “rightness.” And his intense, unwavering commitment to quality became synonymous with everything he created.
What I see in the narrative of Steve Jobs’ life is the rich rewards of unfettered imagination.
In this spirit, it is with great pleasure that we share with you the work of Kneehigh Theatre. What Kneehigh has given us with The Wild Bride is a gift of creative power. A production of rich, visceral creative energy that, if we open ourselves up to the experience, will help us see the world through a new set of eyes and will, just maybe, leave us a little bit different.
by Julie McCormick
Stories in books have their own cozy homes made of paper and ink. Though each reader’s reaction will be entirely unique, the words of the text itself remain unchanged while the book waits patiently on the shelf. A fairy tale that’s been written down is a butterfly pinned to a card—beautiful, but stationary. It’s an approximation that cannot capture the living spirit of a story that’s actively being told and heard. In comparison, living stories are wanderers on a lonely road. They occasionally spend a night around a campfire or in a tavern, but they are too restless to settle down anywhere for too long.
These oral tales get passed down through the years, growing fuzzy and worn at the edges. They change shape, molded to the purpose and vernacular of each teller. When people migrate to a new place, their stories go with them. Sometimes they’re deliberately brought along for the journey, but sometimes they stow away, like grains stuck in the corner of a sack or in a trouser cuff. After so many retellings and additions and alterations, a story can become completely unrecognizable in the space of a generation. Yet though the specific details may change, certain—often surprising—kernels remain. Whether it’s a turn of phrase, a striking image or a snatch of a whistled tune that everyone seems to know different lyrics to, something seems to endure. It is perhaps in this kernel, this seed, that a story makes its home.
One of the breadcrumbs Kneehigh has snatched up from the path is that of the devil in the crossroads. It evokes a certain look, a specific sound and brings to mind an evening’s worth of legends and ghost stories. And yet, part of its richness lies in the fact that this trope means so many different things to so many different people. Like a cocklebur clinging to the hemline of history, this archetype seems to crop up in every culture and era. To some it recalls the legend of Dr. Faustus, as told by Marlowe or Goethe. Others might be reminded of musicians, such as Robert Johnson or Niccolo Paganini, whose artistic abilities were so otherworldly they were said to have come from a satanic bargain. The Christian-European context for these stories paints bartering with the Devil for forbidden dreams of perfection as romantic yet tragically misguided ambition. It has also been suggested that the shadowy stranger in the crossroads of early African-American blues might actually be Papa Legba, a figure in West African mythology and in voodoo. Papa Legba is the guardian of the crossroads between the spiritual and material worlds. Alternatively, “the devil” might also be a sort of blues shorthand for a nagging wife or difficult boss. The symbol of the crossroads is a sort of figurative crossroads itself. Everyone takes a different fork in the road to get there, but at midnight, we all know it’s the place to be.
One of the paths to the devil leads past Robert Johnson (1911–38), who was born dirt-poor in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, and eventually became one of the most celebrated blues musicians of all time. Performers such as Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Rolling stones cite him as an influence. Yet for all of his current fame, Johnson was virtually unknown in his lifetime, and his personal history remains a deeply shadowed mystery. No one really knows much about his early years in Memphis and Robinsonville, Mississippi (or about his adult life, for that matter). He was married at least twice, and had only one documented child. No one is sure how he died, and no one knows exactly where he’s buried. According to older local musicians, Johnson wasn’t even a skilled guitar player until he returned from a journey playing the blues in a way no one had heard before. There are only two published photographs of the man, and only 29 recordings made in 1936 and 1937. The last several years of his life were spent wandering from city to city and woman to woman, playing in juke joints and leaving town soon after. Even blues scholar Mack McCormick, who supposedly discovered many of Johnson’s secrets, has refused to publish on what he found, and his research has become as enigmatic as the subject himself.
All of this ambiguity could probably be explained by Johnson’s social circumstances. Recordkeeping in the early 20th century was not as thorough as it is now, particularly not for poor black men in the Deep South. Many accounts from this period are plagued with inconsistencies, if they even exist in the first place. A more toothsome explanation, however, is that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. The legend goes that he went down to the crossroads at midnight (though some say a graveyard) and found a tall man hidden in shadow. Johnson boldly called out that he would trade his soul to play the blues like no one else. This dark figure took his guitar, tuned it and played a song that had never been heard before or since. When he handed it back to Johnson, the deal was sealed. Johnson composed haunting blues until he was 27, at which point he mysteriously died. Whether or not you believe the legends surrounding Robert Johnson, their power to incite the imagination is undeniable.
Retold endlessly around fires or to wide-eyed children and continuously reimagined in modern (and not so modern) adaptations, stories like these are constantly acquiring new meaning. They are themselves a crossroads, a mingling of the present with the mystic past, a reflection of historical and cultural influences, a reminder of personal memories and associations and a vision of what we want the world to be. The veil between reality and fiction is thinner here; one world can bleed into another. It is in these intersections that the devil lurks, waiting to cause trouble. And yet, though the crossroads are a place of great vulnerability, they are also places of transformation and strength. It is here that, guided by stories, we learn where we’ve come, where we’re going and who we want to be once we get there.
Thank you to record producer and noted Robert Johnson scholar Stephen C. LaVere for providing some of the factual information for this article.
by Julie McCormick
Emma Rice, the co-artistic director of Kneehigh and director of The Wild Bride, took a few minutes from her brisk touring schedule to answer some questions about this production and her work. Emma joined the company in 1994 as an actor, and has been in love ever since. Some of her most notable productions include an adaptation for the stage of the immortal film Brief Encounter, The Red Shoes, The Wooden Frock and Tristan & Yseult. The Cornwall-based theatre company develops work in a series of isolated barns on the south Cornish Coast, and has also started performing in the Asylum, a giant tent that can be taken on the road.
Where are you right now?
I’m actually in Bristol with The Wild Bride show.
You’ll be touring around the UK until you come to us with The Wild Bride?
Yeah, we’re on tour till then. I think they’ve got a nice break before they head to the States, but we’re bombing ‘round the British Isles at the moment.
How long has Kneehigh been taking productions around the world?
It’s been over the last two years and certainly in the last 10 years that we’ve extended our international work. So we’ve been to China, and Syria and Lebanon, and then more recently to Australia, New Zealand, and of course America, which we love.
Do you have a favorite place that you’ve taken a show to?
Oh well, I’d have to say all of my favorites are sort of linked to the show as well. Bringing Brief Encounter to Brooklyn and then to studio 54 in Manhattan was an extraordinary journey from St. Ann’s Warehouse, a theatre in Dumbo [Down under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, a vibrant neighborhood in New York], into such a historic disco land and Broadway, so that was amazing. But also taking The Red Shoes to China was a very profound and politically extraordinary thing. And we also took a show, Cymbeline, to Colombia, which was one of the highlights of my career, really because of the resonance of the story which is about kidnapping and lost children. I think in that world it suddenly came to life.
Is it more challenging to take a show on the road? Tell me how that compares to putting up the Asylum.
Putting up the Asylum is a huge challenge, because it’s a tent and it’s not dark and you can hear the rain. But it’s a fantastic place to make work, which is really what we think of the Asylum, as a sort of a factory where this work is born. It’s muddy and earthy and sexy and funny—you can almost smell the Cornish air coming off that piece of work. Touring is really what keeps the work fresh, meeting the audiences and going on new adventures. So we really see the Asylum as where the work is born, but then we absolutely love traveling with it.
Have you noticed a difference between working in the UK and working in the U.S., specifically?
There are two sort of opposite answers to this thought. I think the British have a very British sensibility and a British humor, but sometimes the American audience gets it more. Certainly I think they loved the “Britishness” of Brief Encounter more than we did. But you know, on a very basic human level I think we’re all the same wherever you go on the planet. People understand what it is to love and what it is to feel loss and those sorts of basic human conflicts that we go through. So on a deep level I think there’s no difference, but we do have some surface differences.
I have an origin story question for you. How did you find yourself at Kneehigh?
The simple answer is I auditioned. I auditioned because I’d been sort of migrating south—I’d moved out of London and was working in Devon, which is the next-door county to Cornwall, and was really enjoying the rural quality and also the different, more intense sort of artistic communities that are down in the south of England. In London it’s all about the next job, and all about the career ladder, and I think by finding myself outside of London I met some real kindred spirits. Some friends said you just have to meet Kneehigh, and I wrote to them, they said come and meet us, and the rest is history. I really fell in love with the people, the place and the work immediately. And I haven’t left. That was in 1994, so it’s a testament to it that I’m still here.
So you started work at Kneehigh as an actor. What have been your other roles with the company?
I was just an actor, but the boundaries between who does what certainly in most cases were quite fluid. I was engaged as an artist and as a performer, but I also began to direct while the shows were on tour. I took over some of keeping the shows in shape, keeping them moving forward. So it was a really natural progression when Kneehigh said, well, why don’t you just have your own show? I did! I never thought at that point that I’d be a director, but it’s been a really wonderful change of course. And I love it. I’m a much better director than I ever was a performer. (Laughs)
How has the company changed while you’ve been there?
Kneehigh’s been going 30 years, and I’m the third artistic director. My way of working is absolutely my own, but Mike Shepherd, who founded the company and is absolutely still working, works in a more clowning way than I do. And Bill Mitchell, who also ran the company, had a very visual approach and is from a design background. We all bring our own expertise into the core of the company, and it just expands the language.
Can you talk a bit more about what directing in a company like Kneehigh is like? It’s very collaborative, so what does that mean for a director?
It’s important to point out that no two shows and no two companies are the same. There’s always a different chemistry. And because the story’s different, there’s always a different core adventure to go on. What I try to do as a director is not only choose the story, but also understand why I want to tell it and what world that story will be in and what form that story will be in. Then we bring the actors into that, and if I do my job well, explaining that world and those foundations, then they go off and create a lot of the ideas themselves. I’ll send them off and say, “Somebody make me up a dance of a father and his daughter,” or “Go and show me what happens when he sells his soul to the devil,” or “Go and make me the devil’s lair.” So people are always being sent off to explore different elements of the show, and then I collect, edit, guide, intervene, bully…(laughs) Well, I don’t bully but I can be quite bossy. And we craft the piece from that. But really, you can’t break down whose ideas are whose. It’s very much a creative process in which everyone is creating.
That’s lovely. What attracted you to telling The Wild Bride story?
It’s interesting; as I get older I think the things I’m interested in stay exactly the same. I’m very interested in romantic love and I’m also interested in what we get wrong. You know, how we try to do the right thing as human beings and we trip up. There’s Brief Encounter and the impossible love, which is the same with Tristan & Yseult or The Red Shoes, or The Bacchae, which is really about wrestling with the dark forces of your personality. I thought that The Wild Bride really combined these two ideas. It’s a deeply romantic story, but it’s not in the way that we expected. It’s really about how long it takes to find yourself and how many bad bargains you do and other people do for you. It’s a story about a long life. And that’s really what I loved about it. A lot of stories are really about a moment in one’s life, and this is about a lifetime. Rather epic.
And though the romantic love is central to the story, it’s not the end goal, per se.
No, absolutely. It’s difficult because I can’t give away all the fantastic twists of the story, but I think romantic love is the cherry on the cake. But it isn’t the cake. And I love that. (Laughs) If there’s one thing 2011 has taught us, it’s that romantic love’s a great thing and it comes and goes and changes. So this is about a cake, which is about oneself.
I would love to think of myself as a cake. (Laughter) That’s a good thought. It seems like you do a lot of adaptations—The Red Shoes, Brief Encounter, Tristan & Yseult—is that purposeful or is that happenstance?
It’s certainly meant in that I’m not the author of stories—I don’t write stories myself. I think I consider myself a storyteller, so I notice when I’m suddenly interested in a story, or when a story is sort of itching at me. I feel stories are passed down through generations, and that makes me feel like sort of a folk artist really, in the way that my grandmother told my mother stories and she told me stories. I’m just expanding that language of revisiting stories, and I really don’t censor myself about which ones are important. Brief Encounter is a very beloved story in England, and there’s a great big debate whether films should go onto stage and it’s so boring. I think they’re stories. Shakespeare stole from the Greeks and the Celtic myths, Brecht rewrote stories…we’re just entertaining each other.
Is there anything that you would want people to know when seeing The Wild Bride?
The only thing I haven’t talked about is the music of The Wild Bride. The music is really sublime. I’ve used performers who are also musicians, and I think that it’s a unique kind of score and fabulous; it gave the work a huge step forward.
Where did some of the music come from?
We went right back to the roots of blues and used that as an inspiration. But also there are two Eastern-European performers who are in the show, so I think it’s an amazing blend of blues and Eastern-European folk. I’ve never heard anything like it.
Is anything tapping you on the shoulder right now? Is there anything else you’re thinking about?
I’ve always got things tapping me on the shoulder. I’ve got several projects I’m working on, but I’ve done quite a lot of folk stories, so I’m trying to think about something else. I’m going to be working on a Bollywood stage show and sort of looking at a bit more of the British-Asian culture. I’m also working on a show called Stepchild and Son, which is a very beloved British sitcom. Again, I don’t think many people do that; I don’t think many people put sitcoms onstage.
So those are your theatrical projects. What do you do when you’re not doing theatre?
Oh, I hate that question! I’m doing theatre all the time; I’m very busy. Being part of Kneehigh, there’s no real line: I work with my friends, I tour with my friends…so I feel very guilty about it, but it takes up most of my time, really. If I get a chance I’d love to lie on a beach and read books and do knitting, but right now I kind of like to empty my mind when I’m not working.
I imagine taking the sort of storytelling approach to theatre means that you’re constantly open to and processing new material.
Absolutely, although I’m a great believer in letting your instincts do the work. Maybe that’s because I’ve always been kind of lazy, but I just keep going and then see what emerges, what lives in the fallow lands. If you think too hard, it all comes through the head. Personally, I think the head is one of the least interesting bits of the human experience. I think it’s those sorts of deep, dark, iceberg-y feelings that are the most interesting ones to explore.
What’s something that you haven’t done yet that you would like to do?
I would like to learn to tango properly. I’ve started, but never finished. And I think I would like to direct a ballet, or something with more dance in it. I’m not a huge lover of words. I do use words in my work, but I always think they’re the sprinkle on top. Cakes again, I must be hungry. Words are the last thing, and I think things that really move me are often the things that can’t be put into words. So I think it’s a natural development to quietly move into an even more physical style. Oh, I don’t know. I have the best job in the world; I work with the best people in the world, so I’m just going to keep going until I can’t think of anything else.
There is no formula to the way we make theatre. However, it always starts with a story. No, it starts before then. It starts with a need, an itch, an instinct.
Each one is raw, relevant and personal. Stories have an ability to present themselves, to emerge as if from nowhere. But they are not from nowhere. This is the seminal moment of instinct. This is when your subconscious stakes its claim and intervenes in your 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’s 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 fueled by my own subconscious. The Red Shoes charted the pain of loss, obsession and addiction; Brief Encounter was a poem to love and its madness; and The Wild Bride is a voyage of endurance and the wonder of gentle healing. 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 a 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 audience’s 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.
So, how do we start to turn this itchy instinct into a piece of theatre?
Months before rehearsals begin, I start work with the creative team. The designer Bill Mitchell and I 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 storytelling 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. With the writer Carl Grose, I talk and dream. We map out the structure and overall shape of the piece. He then goes away and writes collections of poems, lyrics and ideas, but what he doesn’t do is to write a script or a scene in isolation. No, a script would be far too prescriptive, and the one thing theatre needs is room for surprise.
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 individual, 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 Stu McLoughlin and Stu Goodwin delight with their deft improvisation, breathing life and naughtiness into the bones of the story; performers like Patrycja Kujawska and Éva Magyar use their eloquent bodies to create physical poetry and story; Audrey Brisson tickles and disarms with her dark innocence. Music is used to help create the world, to guide and inform improvisation and to release feeling. Lighting and sound are used from the first day as environments are created to add drama and articulation to the growing narrative. The creative team watches and inspires, feeding on their expertise as the scenes come to life. They respond to improvisation and craft the piece alongside the actors. Layer upon layer the world is created, the story released.
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 of its own. Armed with instinct, play and our building blocks of music, text and design, Kneehigh does fearless battle. One of our most used phrases in the process is “hold your nerve.” There is no room for fear or doubt; these will only undermine the process. We hold our nerve, stay open and delight in the privilege of making theatre.
Doesn’t it feel good to scratch an itch?!
—Emma Rice, Director