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Mike Shepherd discusses Dead Dog In A Suitcase

The Kneehigh creator discusses his latest show, rehearsal methods and his personal highlights in 34 years of the company.

Mike Shepherd

Dead Dog In A Suitcase (and other love songs) is currently playing in Bristol after successful runs at Liverpool Playhouse and Kneehigh's own theatre in its homeland Cornwall, The Asylum. It's a customary Kneehigh show, musical theatre in its purest form, entertaining, subversive, funny and full of political zeal, it is a glorious remake of John Gay's 1728 The Beggars Opera. Recently in a phone conversation with Mike Shepherd, director of Dead Dog and Kneehigh founder I asked him why this was the time to create a new version. ‘'In Gay's original he ranted about the world as he saw it, the haves and have not. The chattering classes went to Italian opera, so he wanted to create a beggars opera, the dirty ditties of the street, and created arguably the first musical. Brecht''s Threepenny Opera was written in a world where fascism had risen. Like them our thinking was what the hell is the world coming to. We have a dreadful government, who are asking us to buy into austerity and recession, who are telling terrible lies to keep in power. The NHS is up for sale, bankers bonuses are skyrocketing. In relatively recent times the company had travelled in Syria and Libya, its shocking what's happening there. Now is the time to rant, to have a revolution.''

No rehearsal period for Kneehigh is the same. It is an evolving thing and changes are inevitable. But what Shephard can identify as a common factor is the work the company do to help nurture conditions for creativity. ‘'We always try to start in Cornwall and our barns. There we have colour, musical instruments, costumes, lighting states, the sea and good things to eat. These can help make you feel creative.'' He is prone to equating the rehearsal process to that of preparing a dish, one feels his method of cooking is very much like that of his reheasals. ‘'You need to balance possibilities, as a group you want to work with those who offer ideas, but then you need to offer time to generate and harvest and finally time to select, edit and craft the work.'' Kneehigh tend to allow new pieces to develop over time, he tells me he hates the process of rehearsal into press night, they try to give some space to it.

‘'You need to nurture new work. You're giving birth to something, which is quite painful. Its really important to go into the rehearsal room not knowing what you're doing. You follow your instincts and you have a hunch, some things you're very clear about, but you have to put that in front of an audience, and see what works and what doesn't.'' The piece has evolved over the course of the run. ‘'In simplistic terms we ask how can we make it better.'' Balance comes up again, about how they have to find the right level of working on bits, changing things and letting it settle. ‘'It is essentially the same show as the first night in Liverpool, but there has been a lot of changes as well. There is a great robustness to it now.''

He mentions the talented cast assembled for Dead Dog, a company of actors that are starting to feel like a Kneehigh ensemble. There is only one newcomer to the cast and when he talks about the summer they spent in Cornwall together, with its beautiful summer weather, where they caught fish and then cooked it for dinner together, you can understand why they keep coming back for more.

Not everything is as rosy though. ‘'Times have changed, venues are definitely more risk averse now. With new shows such as Dead Dog you have to get it out there and try to get the reviews, positive word of mouth. If this is any good venues will be more prepared to book it next year''. Thanks to the positive word of mouth this is one show that will have further life at some point next year.

Ask for personal highlights during the companies past thirty four years and you feel like everything produced is his babies. They started off doing family shows before a version of Woyzeck became an early key moment for him, making him realise the company needed to keep taking risks. Then came a Cornish Faust which saw close to a thousand people at the Minack theatre get to their feet as one. There was a period in the nineties where they toured Europe with outdoor shows. Sam Mendes brought them to the Donmar with King of Prussia and they also had fruitful relationships with Richard Eyre and Trevor Nunn at the National. He also states Emma Rice's time as joint artistic director as a particular highlight, with Red Shoes playing around the world and Brief Encounter also being hugely successful. ‘'The highlight for me though is when it feels as though we're doing more then just the show, when we were walking in the deserts of Syria with young Syrian actors joining us.''

Even though he states that times are hard, the company is as busy as ever. Next year there will be a new version of Rebecca, an adaptation of a Michael Morpurgo's book will play at the Asylum next summer and Dead Dog will be revived. The company are also about to head over to America to tour New York, LA and Houston. Their working relationship with the city of Bristol will continue though, Shepherd name checks both the Bristol Old Vic and the Tobacco Factory as venues they are collaborating with for future projects. Watch this space.

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