‘Innovative’ means a new product oridea featuring new methods; advanced andoriginal, or a way of introducing new ideas which are original and creative inthinking (Dictionary, 2017). When regarding theatre, innovation is the processof creating new work which must be creative, original, intelligent, and oftenprovocative. The climate of modern innovative theatre moves fast, as manycompanies continue to push the boundaries of traditional theatre. A company maybe innovative in its unusual storytelling methods, its unconventional staging,and abstract performance methods. For example, challenging the typical locationof live theatre on a stage and doing site specific, immersive performances inpublic spaces as PunchDrunk do (Space.org.uk, 2017), or blending the use oflive actors and technologically created animations such as the company 1927used for their production of Golem (1927, 2017).Kneehigh are a Cornwall based theatre company founded by Mike Shephardin 1980.
They are known for their innovative performance techniques and livelyanarchic style of storytelling. Their company is always changing and workingwith new theatre makers to explore ideas. The team uses a multi-disciplinedcollaborative approach to making theatre which allows all company members toassist in the creation and development of a show. They produce theatre which isoften based on traditional stories such as Hansel & Gretel, Rapunzel, and TheBacchae (Kneehigh.co.
uk, 2017).Bertolt Brecht was a German socialist playwright, born 1898, died 1956.He pioneered a new style of theatre in the early to mid-20thcentury. His socialist plays and poems gained popularity and developed theatreas a platform for the political left. Exiled from his home country for hisMarxist ideology, he wrote many plays at this time which became his most famousfor their controversial political commentary, and blatant criticism of socialhierarchy (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2017).Epic Theatre is a style developed by Bertolt Brecht and German theatredirector Erwin Piscator in the early to mid-20th century (EncyclopediaBritannica, 2018). Brecht wanted his plays to “support the development of classconsciousness” (Brecht, Weber and Heinen, 1980). He developed a style of playwhich exposed the audience to uncomfortable ideas and promoted criticalthinking.
Epic theatre was a direct contrast to popular naturalistic styles ofthe past, which Brecht believed wasted the potential theatre has as a politicalplatform. His goal was to bring awareness of social injustice to bourgeoistheatre audiences (Brecht, Weber and Heinen, 1980). To do this, his plays oftenfeatured unusual or innovative ways of performing. This would often includeplays being performed with the house lights up, which exposed the audience tothe artificial environment of a theatre and prevented them from becoming tooabsorbed by the drama. This is part of the Verfremdunseffekt, or theestrangement/alienation effect.
The purpose of this technique was to separatethe audience from becoming too sympathetic with any characters, to leave theirminds free to criticise and reflect on their own society. Brecht steered awayfrom naturalistic acting techniques, and instead employed use of non-naturalisticaspects, such as puppetry, demonstrative acting, one actor playing multipledifferent 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, thedirect 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 theatrecompany, Kneehigh. Their style is a sort of epic influenced storytelling. They incorporatemany innovative techniques to push the boundaries of traditional theatre styles(Radosavljevic, n.d.). However, Kneehigh do not totally align with the requirementsof epic theatre, as they often use a mixture of naturalistic and not naturalisticperforming styles. Kneehigh often use live music in their shows to enhance thestorytelling. Their multi-disciplined approach to theatre-making is one of thereasons they create such innovative work, incorporating many different artistriesinto one coherent production (Kneehigh.
co.uk, n.d.). They also use a selectionof unique puppets which are specifically designed and made for each show, thesepuppets often have pivotal roles in the story, so creative lighting techniquesmust 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 ofcharacter with a costume change. The Tin Drum is a novel by German author Günter Grass, which was adaptedinto a stage version by Kneehigh in 2017 (Kneehigh.co.uk, 2017). The story followsOskar, 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 ofa child for the rest of his life due to an accident when he was three. We seeOskar learn more about the world as he gets older, and he uses his hypnoticdrumming skills to support social revolution.
This play is very political, andmirrors the topic of many of Brecht’s plays. The audience watches Europe descendinto the chaos of war through the eyes of an eternally childlike puppet, the riseof German Fascism represented by an imposing Black Witch. The Tin Drum is a largely innovative work, incorporating many unusualcreative styles of performing.
Puppetry is key to this play, as Oskar is almostalways played by a puppet. To accommodate this, the company have developedinnovative lighting techniques to bring focus to the puppet when needed, andthe cast must all contribute to the movement of the puppet alongside their ownperformances, as they are occasionally needed to help position the puppetduring more complex movement scenes. For example, the scene where Oskar throwshimself down the stairs requires three performers, including the lead puppeteerto position Oskar in the air, giving the impression of being frozen in timemid-fall, aided by the focussed lighting provided by the technical team. Theresult was very effective and emotive, capturing the audience’s creativeinterest. Kneehigh are dedicated to advancing the artform through creativestorytelling. “Very often when people go to see adaptations they know the storyalready. They are not going in order to follow the plot or to find out whatwill happen.
They go in order to appreciate the way in which the stories aretold. Therefore, the story has to be told in some sort of innovative way” (Radosavljevic,n.d.
). Largely unrestricted by naturalistic conventions, The Tin Drum featuredmany different puppet characters, live music, moving mechanical sets, dance,mime, pyrotechnics, and poetry. Actors were seen playing several differentroles, for example Polish actress Patrycja Kujawska played Oskar’s Arsonist Grandfather,and the sinister and powerful Black Witch. Here a female actress canconvincingly play a male character because the storytelling is morerepresentative than realistic, relying on costumes and visual cues to showaudiences who they are.
Oskar was also voiced by several people, both male andfemale.The band were always on stage in full view of the audience, which directlylinks to how Brecht formed his idea of Epic Theatre. Brecht removed the orchestrapit from his productions to remove the distance between performers and theaudience, leaving the stage as more of a public platform on which to see politicallydemonstrative work (Benjamin, 1998). Seeing the band on stage in The Tin Drumis a sort of modern recreation of that technique.
The audience could see thesound deck, instruments and musicians, bringing awareness to the fact they werewatching a piece of theatre, we are never encouraged to think the action we seeis real, but instead are encouraged to stimulate social and political thought. TheResistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a satirical play, also sometimes known as TheParable Play written by Brecht in 1941, first performed in 1958 (Brown, 2013). Theplay 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 asthe 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 inherentlyinnovative for its time, since it was too controversial to show in 1941 when itwas first written, as the political climate during WWII was unstable, anddangerous. Brecht himself fled Germany in 1933 to escape persecution from rightwing activists (Liedtke, 2018), this shows the political impact Brecht’s newstyle of theatre was having on German society. “It’s worth emphasising, thisplay was written in the spring of 1941. All its furious, mocking energy is ashout of defiance and disgust, directed at one man – Adolf Hitler – and also atordinary people, and their failure to stop him” (Sharkey, 2011). Sharkeyexplains 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 socialrevolution to the modern audience.
Brecht’smethods of performing were so innovative for the time that actors often struggledto demonstrate them correctly. The overbearing popularity of naturalistic actortraining left some actors unequipped to deliver the cabaret, farcical style ofperforming, for example in Erwin Axer’s 1964 production at the Leningrad GorkyTheatre. Here Axer eventually allowed the actors to perform a more naturalisticversion of the play, which resulted in the loss of its raw and uncomfortable politicalcritique. This is directly contrasted by Sergei Yutkevich’s production at theMoscow University Theatre in 1964, which was executed in a “highly stylisedmanner” making use of a fully visible orchestra, farce, clowning, and clips ofnewsreels 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 beganto be incorporated more into innovative theatre. Modern theatre company 1927continues to pioneer this blending of projection, animation, and live acting forthe contemporary audience. Brecht had begun to make use of innovative use oftechnology on stage which is still being explored today.In TheResistible Rise of Arturo Ui, actors often step out of character to explain ornarrate things to the audience.
This technique was also used in Kneehigh’s TheTin Drum, for example where Nana Bronski is lifted on the platform of a moving staircaseto recite a poetic political statement, “Obedience is the lie that makes foolsthink they are free.” (The Tin Drum, 2017). This speech provides a poignantexample of how Kneehigh uses the platform of the stage to continue makingsocialist political commentary, like the method Brecht developed in the early1900s. Brecht’spolitical focus on theatre making was largely inspired by Marxist ideology. Otherpopular socialist practitioners at the time were George Bernard Shaw, Emile Zola,Antonin Artaud, and fellow Epic Theatre pioneer, ErwinPiscator.
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 wasinfluenced to tell his stories in a unique and innovative way to explore theatreas a catalyst for social change. Some of his earlier plays are treated as anextension of German Expressionist theatre, however Brecht did not consider himselfto adhere to expressionist methods, and was “too conscious of his ownindividuality” to identify with any existing artistic movement (Willett,1984). Naturalistic styles were a large influence on Brechtian theatre, orrather, Brecht’s theatre was developed as a direct retaliation to the subduingnature of what Brecht called “Culinary Theatre”. This was a phrase he used todescribe thoughtless entertainment which wasted the potential for an opensocial or political forum, brainwashing the audience with drama and pleasantrieswhich distracted them from the injustices of society (Benjamin, 1998).Kneehigh areinfluenced by many different modern and historical practitioners.
For example,their heavily movement based work takes influence from dance theatre and mime; LesBubb who played Alfred Matzerath in The Tin Drum was previously trained as amime artist, and due to Kneehigh’s unique collaborative approach to theatremaking, 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 likehow Epic Theatre used minimal set and props, instead developing innovativemovement to represent changes in the space.
Kneehigh are strongly influenced bytraditional stories, often reinventing them for the modern stage, bringing afresh contemporary perspective on well known tales. This is another example ofhow they use theatre to subvert tradition, adjusting famous stories to maximisesocial impact. Kneehigh has expanded on the art form of theatre and opened anew pathway for collaborative performance, which unlike Epic Theatre, placesvalue on entertainment and nonsensical whimsy as well as political activism.
Kneehigh’sexuberant and thrilling style of storytelling is a natural progression fromBrecht’s Epic Theatre, repurposed to fit the needs of modern society.