After several months working as a Project Assistant at Cornwall-based theatre company Kneehigh, Shakera Ahad tells us how her employers have encouraged her to give her all and how a mentor on the DCMS Jerwood Creative Bursaries Scheme helped her find her direction.
I graduated in 2009 with a joint honours degree, as a craving for a variety of experience meant I’d been intent on keeping my options open; I wanted to learn it all. At university I’d taken summer plays to the Edinburgh Fringe because I wanted to do it all. And after leaving, I applied for absolutely everything because I wanted to try it all. Needless to say, there was some lack of direction. After 18 months of gruelling London work in theatre and “other”, this small-town Yorkshire lass was feeling a little bombarded. Stressed by three decidedly different jobs, keeping track of where I was that day was hard enough not to mention carving out my own opportunities in… well, whatever I’d finally decide to do after all my insistence on open options. I thought I’d never be able to settle for one role – it was too much commitment. Talk about sins of the father.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself on a train to Cornwall for an interview with Kneehigh – a company that had rendered me speechless with awe and glee at numerous past productions, in particular Nights at The Circus, The Bacchae, Hansel and Gretel and Brief Encounter. I had suffered with a total inability to handle interview nerves, so already had some terrifying experiences to look back on with mortification (I even cried at one artistic director). But it transpires I needn’t have worried; my Kneehigh interviewers were friendly, welcoming and so at ease we even had a game of “name the Company members” (terrifying and elating). Friendly and quirky, I almost forgot this was an international, critically-acclaimed touring company.
This welcome extended to the two introduction days before I started my contract. I was taken to the famous Kneehigh Barns (where the company rehearse on the cliff tops of the Cornish coast) and everyone took part in the annual barn cleaning day, involving much fun, sun and food. What struck me was the open, friendly and welcome atmosphere that emanated from everyone at Kneehigh. They managed to fuse a totally professional awareness of their company roles with a non-elitist approach that demonstrated how a hierarchy can provide a genuinely positive organisational structure. I was included and accepted and couldn’t have felt more a part of the team. And then the real work started.
Kneehigh’s nomadic home is a large geodesic dome. Commissioned by Kneehigh, built by the Dome Company, The Asylum’s inaugural season (2010) presented three re-imagined shows, in a tent, in a field. This year, they were even more ambitious and created two entirely new shows: Midnight’s Pumpkin and The Wild Bride. Kneehigh’s national presence has been steadily rising for the past 31 years and they’re in national and international demand. However, they decided several years ago that they could and should make their own opportunities and options – keeping their options open, one might say. This loyalty to the local community is a huge part of what holds the Asylum up, and after a short while I was as dedicated to making that connection with Cornwall as everyone else in the company.
Like Kneehigh’s pride in its Cornish roots, its dedication to the work produced was also catching. The strength of the creative team, the actors and the production team meant the standard of delivery in the Asylum was second to none. There was always that striving for absolute quality of performance and production. However, what I really never knew before this placement, was the sky-high volume of administration that supports such a venture, and the capabilities of the – in my eyes – omniscient administrative team. When I think back to venues I’d worked in previously and the floors of administrative staff needed to run them; here was one of the smallest teams not only running a venue but also putting it up, keeping it up and taking it down. This team taught me my first, very challenging lessons in supporting a theatre company: an absolute dedication to making things happen. I gained an unprecedented level of stamina and 5am on the night before opening, after an exhausting last day of preparation in the office, we found ourselves painting the entire floor of the 650-seat venue. I’ve never been more inspired by a team to push for only the best.
Alongside this whirlwind of running The Asylum was the added responsibility of various other projects. I was entrusted with the delivery of the Connections programme to community groups all over Cornwall. This involved making friends with just about everyone in Cornwall and building a level of professional courtesy I never knew existed. The most surprising challenge to me was the endless reams of administration. This was particularly lengthy on the Kneehigh Barns Workshops, when I was given the task of brokering a relationship between Kneehigh and London Drawing, a company based at the Tate Modern who create inspiring spaces for the public to respond creatively through art. Learning how to administrate, negotiate and practically support all of the workshops was a great challenge that gave me the opportunity to take a lead on a project with the help of the team. I also learned the benefit of combining strong administration with creative openness, when a London Drawing workshop at The Barns led to an exhibition and another workshop at the Lyric Hammersmith. Anything can happen if you have the ideas and the skills to make it happen; this working approach echoed company founder Mike Shepherd’s first piece of advice to me back in May – “just do it”.
Manchester International Festival
Saying and doing are two different things. So when the bursary scheme arranged a networking event at MIF, I attended in the hope of hearing about possible options. What I found was a confidence-inspiring experience. Myself and fellow recipients were able to talk informally to each other, meeting possible future collaborators in a relaxed and mature environment. We gained invaluable advice from speakers at the forefront of contemporary theatre programming and practice, such as Baba Israel from Contact and Rachel Clare from Crying Out Loud as well as sound practical (albeit less glamorous) advice from law firm Cobbetts. We saw The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic and the set of Punchdrunk’s Crash of The Elysium and Crying Out Loud’s Music Boxes among other diverse and exciting new works. We were inspired, focused and reminded that our placement was also about gaining knowledge and skills for us as individual artists, which I feel is rare in many internships and had a hugely positive outcome for me. To reinforce this positive, active learning process we were appointed mentors to guide us through the experience. Mine helped me see clearly where I could make the most of what I was learning at Kneehigh and how to invest in both the company and myself. I found having a mentor motivating and grounding – for once I knew what my options were and began to find a direction in them.
One lesson Kneehigh taught me that I’ll keep throughout my career is how to push myself further than I believed possible. In all areas that are needed to create artistic work – administration, communication and creative courage – Kneehigh have taught me the balance needed to make it happen to the very highest standard. Taking a break from the pressure I felt working in London has given me space to discover what work I want to make as an artist and I now have a sure and steady confidence in myself and my abilities that, without the bursary scheme, I wouldn’t have discovered. This experience has been the most challenging of my career to date; because of this I have gained skills, knowledge and experience that make me a stronger and more ambitious contributor to the future national and international theatre landscape.