Kieran, as co-founder of Knavish Speech Theatre Company, you have years of experience of working intensively with early years children, also in integrated and special needs contexts. What was your starting point to work with such a young audience? Do give some insights into Knavish Speech's work and how you as choreographer adapt the creative vocabulary and methods of devising when working with early years children? Which aspects do you enjoy most? Can you transfer the experiences you gather into working with adults?
Knavish Speech was set up in 2005 as a result of my study on the MA Movement Studies at Central School of Speech and Drama where I was given a placement with Marigold Hughes who was studying Directing. Marigold taught me about how to work with other people, she builds her work really openly with other artists. This inspired me massively as I was previously used to a very prescriptive and old fashioned hierarchy within theatre making, for example, before I met her, I could never have imagined a lighting technician contributing practically to the creation of movement work. Inspired by our collaboration at Central, I co-founded the company and we toured successfully for two years on and off devising theatre for mainstream and special needs early years children and adults. We never claimed to be experts and always entered into the devising process with questions rather than a clear vision. When making our second piece Igloo we were resident in a special needs school in Birmingham and our research question was ‘What is a creative space for an early years child with profound special needs?’. We spent a week making up theatre in their school hall and testing it every two hours on the nursery children.
We frantically discussed the work with the teachers, wrote down our ideas, re-tested our work, basically ate slept and drank ourselves mad with the work! After working with the children we spent time away from the school rehearsing with a composer, lighting designer and scenographers to construct a performance which we then performed to the school and eventually re-developed and toured to London in Autumn 2007. We didn’t answer our question but we certainly discovered that children with these needs connect to shifts in mood more than linear word based narrative.
I also feel that the presence of the performer is more important than their technical faculty when working with this age group. Marigold works with clear ideas exploring presence that she believes is applicable to the work of actors in any production, for children or adults. It was actually the focus of my MA thesis The Presence of a Performer when working for an early years audience. If the children don’t believe that the person is truly engaging with them, if there is a lack of sincerity, then the child seems to switch off. The principle of presence is explored by actors on a daily basis and I believe that good actor movement training reconnects performers with this principle. Although we have decided to develop our careers independently now and end Knavish Speech, this was an important foundation for my professional life. I think meeting Marigold and developing 'Knavish Speech' has given me the strength to have an opinion and be proud of asking clear questions about theatre. There seems to be a culture of needing to know exactly what your doing both within theatre and early years work, but having spent the past two or three years doing movement within these two industries I have developed more questions than answers and I feel like that’s a good thing.
I now work frequently as a movement practitioner for early years children and have spent one day a week pioneering a movement programme for under 5s in Sandwell and Dudley called Time to Talk which aims to improve communication in this age group through the expressive arts. My interest in working with very young people is discovering how we can access play together, as humans, rather than labeling ourselves as adults and children or actors and dancers or performers and audience. It is during the moments of shared, safe playing that I feel like I’m living in the present tense. I think this is my aim whenever I am making work or engaging with people through movement, to play; share ideas that represent who I am and develop them through other people, allowing them to do the same.
You are currently working as a movement director with iceandfire Theatre Company. Separated, a play for young people, inspired by the experiences of unaccompanied minors in the UK, was initially created in 2007 and will be touring London secondary schools from February 2008. Would you give us some insight into aspects of your inspiration as a choreographer in the research and rehearsal process and also your role in revisiting the piece for the forthcoming tour?
Separated was written by Sara Masters who is the co-artistic director of Iceandfire Theatre Company for whom I am the Associate Artist. This is the second time I have worked as movement director on Separated and within the script there are very clear physical problems for a movement director to solve: football, cooking and fighting. As a movement director I believe that your role is to deepen the vision of the director and respond to the action of the text. My inspiration is always from the energy of the director and Sara was very clear that she wanted a slick physical language for the performance that allowed a sense of coherency to the choppy dialogue. I was inspired by our initial conversations when we fed off each other’s desire to make the movement real, urban and connected to the life of teenagers but respecting the poetic possibilities of theatre and allowing abstract movement to compliment the drive of the play rather than indulge our cleverness!
A lot of my research occurs incidentally I watch people. I’m not really obsessed with the biomechanics of people’s movement, I connect more to why they are moving. When I watch my boyfriend cook he uses very sustained, circley movements with his centre close to the objects he is using. He seems to love to cook. At The Diner restaurant in Old street the cooks always look down and keep their pelvis away from the counter there is a clear distance. They have to cook, their body doesn’t seem to remember when they were indulgent, when they were sustained and circley, they’ve become all straight lined and quick.
When I was working with the actors on the cooking scene I spent a long time asking them to explore how they touched the food, there are seven types of touch and our choice of touch is very revealing about what we feel, or don’t feel about the things we are relating to. I spent a long time looking at why they were cooking and what this made them do. The techniques a movement director is expected to teach like miming, floor patterns and choreographing sequences are skills anyone could master but I believe only great people like a lot of my tutors at CSSD and GSA could connect them to the world of the play. This connection of craft to humanity is really the thing I’m interested in and relates back to my discoveries when making work for Knavish Speech.
Kieran, you have also choreographed for Actors for Refugees and Actors for Human Rights with performances at the Young Vic and a forthcoming performance of Rendition. Do briefly explain the background of the organisations. Working in a political context, what influences and research feeds into the physical movement vocabulary you create? What nurtures your inspiration?
Actors for Refugees was launched in June 2006 at Amnesty International London and has been touring the UK ever since with their testimony - based piece Asylum Monologues. The network is made up of over 300 professional actors whose mission is to draw public attention to the harsh reality of seeking asylum in the UK. In June 2008, this network will become Actors for Human Rights and will take on a broader remit. The first human rights issue they will be focusing on is extraordinary rendition, the secret transfer of terror suspects into the custody of other states, such as Syria, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan, where torture is a prominent feature of interrogations.
The script for this production has been developed in conjunction with high profile legal charity, Reprieve. My inspiration on Rendition has actually come from extensive reading around the area. I try to think about what it is that I connect to as a human rather than a political activist. I wanted to explore how movement/dance could add to the verbatim pieces that Christine Bacon, Artistic Director of Actors for Human Rights, uses to promote social change. Christine is one of the most inspiring women I’ve met, working tirelessly to use theatre as a tool to promote social change on an international scale.
I believe that the raw material they work with is really emotional because we know that it is testimony, however, I believe that the use of movement to extend the images in the words and emotions of the text, will heighten the impact of the work in the case of Rendition. I am inspired by the images of torture described in the testimonies. I think that within our culture we are numbed to a number of images of torture because of frequent exposure in the media therefore I am going to play with the idea of making the torture beautiful to connect the audience to the horror of the atrocities in a different manner. There is a really awesome sculpter in New York who has been exploring this idea in his photography and performance art, therefore I plan to work with these images as a starting point.
The other thought I have been really struck by is the fact that the wives of these male victims just have to wait for their husbands to return, they know nothing about where their husband/ lover has gone and just have to wait, suspended! Therefore I am keen to capture these more domestic images, which are also really part of the torture in a psychological way. This connection of movement/dance to issue based theatre is important as I feel it is the most ethical use of performance it channels it in the least narcissistic manner. The body within performance connects to emotion because it is real and universal, torturers, nurses and dancers all have bodies and all move, therefore it hooks into us more than words, more than even music because movement can be understood in an instant and mean so much more if it is clear.
You have a broad training background of acting, contemporary dance, movement direction and choreography and alongside your work with young audiences, you also work extensively with adults and students. Having been a movement coach/teacher for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Head of Movement for London Centre for Theatre Studies (LCTS) and many other London drama schools as well as recently becoming a Performance Tutor at the Circus Space. How is your training background reflected in your work today and does your work as a tutor feed into working with a professional cast?
I believe that everything I do is a direct result of working with actors in training because I am in the privileged position to be constantly testing ideas. For two years I have been head of movement at LCTS which is directed by David Harris who has been an incredible inspiration to me. His openness to my work with actors has allowed me to develop a varied movement curriculum which incorporates devising and animal studies as part of the movement syllabus. Working as part of the Actors Company, means that I am constantly demanded to deliver a training which meets the highest industry standards. I am lucky to work in such a supportive environment which places movement and voice at the centre of an actors work rather than many other courses who focus more on the productions at the end of course.
I don’t separate my work as a tutor or movement director as within both roles I am aiming to facilitate a body that is expressing something which is connected to the actors imagination, has a sense of physical accuracy and emotional clarity. I think the actor can achieve this state through doing a plie, rolling down the spine or swinging from a trapeze as much as they can by playing King Lear in the Court Yard Theatre. I can’t say how you do it but it seems to have to do with grounding, relaxation, awareness of space, heightened sensory awareness, developed physical relationship to environment and an embodied consciousness of physical shape. I think that most movement systems offer these skills but I enjoy working in a manner that references systems ecclectically rather than bind actor’s imaginations with a methodical approach to perfomance. I think that most movement people would convincingly argue me out of the room about that but I’m arguing for a person centred approach, rather than a one system suits all approach.
As an emerging artist you have already gathered such a varied experience to date and you continue to branch out to work in new environments. At this stage, do you have any projects lined up for the coming months? Where would you like your career to take you?
I am keen to continue to pursue my passion for actor and performer training, developing my ideas and skills as a movement practitioner. The next piece I’m working on is with Tiger Theatre Company on a piece of new writing called Lead Us Into Temptation which will appear at The Old Red Lion pub theatre in May.
I am steadily working towards developing my own work on a piece called Fish as part of the Clarence Mews residency programme. I am working with choreographer Fiona Rae and our aim is to explore a simple folksy story through a dance theatre duet. We will work together to choreograph this duet with a sharing in July. Fiona possesses a great understanding of how to link dance with narrative; I am hoping to learn a lot from her approach to this project.
Really, all I am interested in as a theatre maker is seeking out new collaborations that allow me to stay positive about how theatre can reach audiences in honest and exciting ways. I never want to turn into one of those people that seem to be in pain because they are so obsessed with their art. I have to keep reminding myself how fun it all is. I have to keep spending a lot of time working with real people, thinking about real communication and the part of dialogue that is listening and about others rather than vacuously recreating myself through my work in various forms and never changing or opening myself.
I think it’s important to balance work between facilitating community groups through movement and creating professional theatre. I don’t want to make work for the clever people, I want it to help others and challenge current styles. I guess my aim is to keep this balance in my work forever as it helps me to see how theatre is clearer when it is made for people who exist outside of the theatre industry when it is accessible, rather than clever. I’m still working out how to do this, obviously. I think lots of people are! It’s really important that I surround myself with people who are trying to do the same thing so that I can learn from them and try to answer these questions in the work we make.
Then again maybe what I’d really like to do is just run away and join the circus for a bit.