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Learning from the Lionesses

As England reach the semi finals of the Women’s World Cup, Kneehigh’s Artistic Director Mike Shepherd reflects on how great theatre needs great teamwork.
I’ve always liked sport.

I like being physical, playing in a team, getting sweaty, being in a heightened state of alertness, being brilliant, helping others to be brilliant, but over and above everything, BEING PART OF A TEAM with a shared aspiration beyond individual achievement: to play well, to score, to win or, in theatre, to tell a story, to engage an audience and transport them to somewhere they didn’t expect to be.

In the early days of Kneehigh I read something in Keith Johnstone’s brilliant book Impro which I still employ today. He said, “go on stage to make everyone else look good”. In these times of self-aggrandisement, individual aspiration and agents seeking the Big Break for their clients, this notion seems ridiculous. But theatre is a team game and if it’s to fly and truly live in the moment it needs this generosity of spirit. It’s not easy but when it happens the chances are that your show will produce something more than the sum of its individual parts.

A couple of years ago there was a brilliant example of this in football, when against all odds Leicester City won the Premier League. It was so clear when you watched them: they played as a team, they worked so hard for each other, celebrated and enabled each other’s brilliance and had a love of the game which brought freedom, daring and a true sense of “play”. They also had a manager who knew how to get the best from his players, instilled belief and confidence and let them play with freedom. The same came be said of the current England Women’s team. They play for each other with a joy that creates more than the sum of their individual skill.

Why is sport so popular and so riveting for so many? It’s because it’s live and, more than that, it’s alive.

How do we keep theatre alive? It’s hard but vital.

Theatre should be like stepping onto a tightrope every night not plodding down a well-trodden path.

Even when you’re on your 300th performance there should still be a sense of spontaneity, a fizz of adrenaline and a feeling that the actors themselves don’t quite know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to manufacture this during a long run of repeated performances but if you can then you have a chance of keeping an audience on the edge of their seats as opposed to dozing in the stalls.

More and more rehearsal processes include games and a ball. Games are good to energise and to bring a sense of camaraderie but, more and more, I want games to be used as an important means to reproduce energy and adrenaline and to sharpen technique.

A simple game of “keepy uppy” can heighten alertness and awareness of the group, sharpen antennae and focus, and build ensemble. A good theatre show needs a team who are actively practicing these qualities. Know where your teammates are, know where the focus is and always know what the story is otherwise the ball will run into touch.

Kneehigh’s Ubu! is a good example of a team working together to produce something special. We knew the stepping stones of the story and quickly found the best characters to tell that story. We used accomplished performers with a “shared language”. We’d worked together before and could embrace each other’s spontaneity with understanding. The show isn’t too long, about the length of a football match. It uses improvisation, choreography and an accomplished and exciting band who can also respond in the moment. When we first performed the show in 2018, audiences recognised this spontaneity and the theatre became more alive. More like sport.

Just like football, theatre needs strikers, midfield dynamos, solid defence and great playmakers. It also needs inspirational leaders. It needs instinct, bravery and play. It needs generosity.