‘Innovative’ The team uses a multi-disciplined collaborative approach

‘Innovative’ means a new product or
idea featuring new methods; advanced and
original, or a way of introducing new ideas which are original and creative in
thinking (Dictionary, 2017). When regarding theatre, innovation is the process
of creating new work which must be creative, original, intelligent, and often
provocative. The climate of modern innovative theatre moves fast, as many
companies continue to push the boundaries of traditional theatre. A company may
be innovative in its unusual storytelling methods, its unconventional staging,
and abstract performance methods. For example, challenging the typical location
of live theatre on a stage and doing site specific, immersive performances in
public spaces as PunchDrunk do (Space.org.uk, 2017), or blending the use of
live actors and technologically created animations such as the company 1927
used for their production of Golem (1927, 2017).

Kneehigh are a Cornwall based theatre company founded by Mike Shephard
in 1980. They are known for their innovative performance techniques and lively
anarchic style of storytelling. Their company is always changing and working
with new theatre makers to explore ideas. The team uses a multi-disciplined
collaborative approach to making theatre which allows all company members to
assist in the creation and development of a show. They produce theatre which is
often based on traditional stories such as Hansel & Gretel, Rapunzel, and The
Bacchae (Kneehigh.co.uk, 2017).

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Bertolt Brecht was a German socialist playwright, born 1898, died 1956.
He pioneered a new style of theatre in the early to mid-20th
century. His socialist plays and poems gained popularity and developed theatre
as a platform for the political left. Exiled from his home country for his
Marxist ideology, he wrote many plays at this time which became his most famous
for their controversial political commentary, and blatant criticism of social
hierarchy (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017).

Epic Theatre is a style developed by Bertolt Brecht and German theatre
director Erwin Piscator in the early to mid-20th century (Encyclopedia
Britannica, 2018). Brecht wanted his plays to “support the development of class
consciousness” (Brecht, Weber and Heinen, 1980). He developed a style of play
which exposed the audience to uncomfortable ideas and promoted critical
thinking. Epic theatre was a direct contrast to popular naturalistic styles of
the past, which Brecht believed wasted the potential theatre has as a political
platform. His goal was to bring awareness of social injustice to bourgeois
theatre audiences (Brecht, Weber and Heinen, 1980). To do this, his plays often
featured unusual or innovative ways of performing. This would often include
plays being performed with the house lights up, which exposed the audience to
the artificial environment of a theatre and prevented them from becoming too
absorbed by the drama. This is part of the Verfremdunseffekt, or the
estrangement/alienation effect. The purpose of this technique was to separate
the audience from becoming too sympathetic with any characters, to leave their
minds free to criticise and reflect on their own society. Brecht steered away
from naturalistic acting techniques, and instead employed use of non-naturalistic
aspects, such as puppetry, demonstrative acting, one actor playing multiple
different characters, minimal set and costume, and little use of a fourth wall.
When this style of theatre was being developed in the 1920s to 1940s, the
direct challenge to naturalistic styles was controversial for its time;
inherently innovative as epic theatre began to revolutionise modern drama (Benjamin,
1998).

Many aspects of Epic Theatre can be seen used by contemporary theatre
company, Kneehigh. Their style is a sort of epic influenced storytelling. They incorporate
many innovative techniques to push the boundaries of traditional theatre styles
(Radosavljevic, n.d.). However, Kneehigh do not totally align with the requirements
of epic theatre, as they often use a mixture of naturalistic and not naturalistic
performing styles. Kneehigh often use live music in their shows to enhance the
storytelling. Their multi-disciplined approach to theatre-making is one of the
reasons they create such innovative work, incorporating many different artistries
into one coherent production (Kneehigh.co.uk, n.d.). They also use a selection
of unique puppets which are specifically designed and made for each show, these
puppets often have pivotal roles in the story, so creative lighting techniques
must be used to draw the audience’s attention to the puppet. Like Epic Theatre,
one actor may have two or more roles in one play, demonstrating their change of
character with a costume change.  

The Tin Drum is a novel by German author Günter Grass, which was adapted
into a stage version by Kneehigh in 2017 (Kneehigh.co.uk, 2017). The story follows
Oskar, a boy born to a complex and dysfunctional family in pre-WWII Poland.
Oskar is born with the mind of a fully formed adult, yet remains in the body of
a child for the rest of his life due to an accident when he was three. We see
Oskar learn more about the world as he gets older, and he uses his hypnotic
drumming skills to support social revolution. This play is very political, and
mirrors the topic of many of Brecht’s plays. The audience watches Europe descend
into the chaos of war through the eyes of an eternally childlike puppet, the rise
of German Fascism represented by an imposing Black Witch.

The Tin Drum is a largely innovative work, incorporating many unusual
creative styles of performing. Puppetry is key to this play, as Oskar is almost
always played by a puppet. To accommodate this, the company have developed
innovative lighting techniques to bring focus to the puppet when needed, and
the cast must all contribute to the movement of the puppet alongside their own
performances, as they are occasionally needed to help position the puppet
during more complex movement scenes. For example, the scene where Oskar throws
himself down the stairs requires three performers, including the lead puppeteer
to position Oskar in the air, giving the impression of being frozen in time
mid-fall, aided by the focussed lighting provided by the technical team. The
result was very effective and emotive, capturing the audience’s creative
interest.

Kneehigh are dedicated to advancing the artform through creative
storytelling. “Very often when people go to see adaptations they know the story
already. They are not going in order to follow the plot or to find out what
will happen. They go in order to appreciate the way in which the stories are
told. Therefore, the story has to be told in some sort of innovative way” (Radosavljevic,
n.d.). Largely unrestricted by naturalistic conventions, The Tin Drum featured
many different puppet characters, live music, moving mechanical sets, dance,
mime, pyrotechnics, and poetry. Actors were seen playing several different
roles, for example Polish actress Patrycja Kujawska played Oskar’s Arsonist Grandfather,
and the sinister and powerful Black Witch. Here a female actress can
convincingly play a male character because the storytelling is more
representative than realistic, relying on costumes and visual cues to show
audiences who they are. Oskar was also voiced by several people, both male and
female.

The band were always on stage in full view of the audience, which directly
links to how Brecht formed his idea of Epic Theatre. Brecht removed the orchestra
pit from his productions to remove the distance between performers and the
audience, leaving the stage as more of a public platform on which to see politically
demonstrative work (Benjamin, 1998). Seeing the band on stage in The Tin Drum
is a sort of modern recreation of that technique. The audience could see the
sound deck, instruments and musicians, bringing awareness to the fact they were
watching a piece of theatre, we are never encouraged to think the action we see
is real, but instead are encouraged to stimulate social and political thought.

The
Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a satirical play, also sometimes known as The
Parable Play written by Brecht in 1941, first performed in 1958 (Brown, 2013). The
play is a politically charged parody of Hitler’s rise to power in 1930’s Germany.
In The Tin Drum, Hitler is represented by the imposing female dictator known as
the Black Witch. In Brecht’s play, Arturo Ui is a 1930’s Chicago Gangster,
rising to power in the city through subterfuge. This play is inherently
innovative for its time, since it was too controversial to show in 1941 when it
was first written, as the political climate during WWII was unstable, and
dangerous. Brecht himself fled Germany in 1933 to escape persecution from right
wing activists (Liedtke, 2018), this shows the political impact Brecht’s new
style of theatre was having on German society. “It’s worth emphasising, this
play was written in the spring of 1941. All its furious, mocking energy is a
shout of defiance and disgust, directed at one man – Adolf Hitler – and also at
ordinary people, and their failure to stop him” (Sharkey, 2011). Sharkey
explains here the political motivations Brecht had behind writing this play,
which also align with that of The Tin Drum, which expresses a chaotic call to social
revolution to the modern audience.

Brecht’s
methods of performing were so innovative for the time that actors often struggled
to demonstrate them correctly. The overbearing popularity of naturalistic actor
training left some actors unequipped to deliver the cabaret, farcical style of
performing, for example in Erwin Axer’s 1964 production at the Leningrad Gorky
Theatre. Here Axer eventually allowed the actors to perform a more naturalistic
version of the play, which resulted in the loss of its raw and uncomfortable political
critique. This is directly contrasted by Sergei Yutkevich’s production at the
Moscow University Theatre in 1964, which was executed in a “highly stylised
manner” making use of a fully visible orchestra, farce, clowning, and clips of
newsreels which were projected onto a screen behind the action on the stage (Brecht,
Weber and Heinen, 1980). This is an early example of how new technologies began
to be incorporated more into innovative theatre. Modern theatre company 1927
continues to pioneer this blending of projection, animation, and live acting for
the contemporary audience. Brecht had begun to make use of innovative use of
technology on stage which is still being explored today.

In The
Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, actors often step out of character to explain or
narrate things to the audience. This technique was also used in Kneehigh’s The
Tin Drum, for example where Nana Bronski is lifted on the platform of a moving staircase
to recite a poetic political statement, “Obedience is the lie that makes fools
think they are free.” (The Tin Drum, 2017). This speech provides a poignant
example of how Kneehigh uses the platform of the stage to continue making
socialist political commentary, like the method Brecht developed in the early
1900s.

Brecht’s
political focus on theatre making was largely inspired by Marxist ideology. Other
popular socialist practitioners at the time were George Bernard Shaw, Emile Zola,
Antonin Artaud, and fellow Epic Theatre pioneer, Erwin
Piscator. The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is very clear in its historical influences,
as it is heavily based on 1930s German political figures. However, Brecht was
influenced to tell his stories in a unique and innovative way to explore theatre
as a catalyst for social change. Some of his earlier plays are treated as an
extension of German Expressionist theatre, however Brecht did not consider himself
to adhere to expressionist methods, and was “too conscious of his own
individuality” to identify with any existing artistic movement (Willett,
1984). Naturalistic styles were a large influence on Brechtian theatre, or
rather, Brecht’s theatre was developed as a direct retaliation to the subduing
nature of what Brecht called “Culinary Theatre”. This was a phrase he used to
describe thoughtless entertainment which wasted the potential for an open
social or political forum, brainwashing the audience with drama and pleasantries
which distracted them from the injustices of society (Benjamin, 1998).

Kneehigh are
influenced by many different modern and historical practitioners. For example,
their heavily movement based work takes influence from dance theatre and mime; Les
Bubb who played Alfred Matzerath in The Tin Drum was previously trained as a
mime artist, and due to Kneehigh’s unique collaborative approach to theatre
making, his mime skills were utilised effectively throughout the show (Kneehigh.co.uk,
n.d.). This often meant that various props or set were not needed, which is like
how Epic Theatre used minimal set and props, instead developing innovative
movement to represent changes in the space. Kneehigh are strongly influenced by
traditional stories, often reinventing them for the modern stage, bringing a
fresh contemporary perspective on well known tales. This is another example of
how they use theatre to subvert tradition, adjusting famous stories to maximise
social impact. Kneehigh has expanded on the art form of theatre and opened a
new pathway for collaborative performance, which unlike Epic Theatre, places
value on entertainment and nonsensical whimsy as well as political activism. Kneehigh’s
exuberant and thrilling style of storytelling is a natural progression from
Brecht’s Epic Theatre, repurposed to fit the needs of modern society.