Mike Shepherd

Kneehigh Artistic Director, Mike Shepherd celebrates regional Australia, its inspiring places and the artists who live here

In December a tiny community hall on Kameruka estate, just outside the village of Candelo (population 400) on the far south coast of NSW, has been home to the creative development of the ominously titled Dead Horse Gap. Described by its creative team (myself, co-director Leland Kean from Merrigong Theatre Company and Candelo-based singer/songwriter Heath Cullen) as a “dark trippy Western”, Dead Horse Gap combines contemporary music, black humour, live performance, video, vintage photography and historical fiction to tell the story of Charlie Chaste, an aspiring photographer whose promising career begins and ends in one eventful 24 hour period in Dead Horse Gap, a corrupt hell-hole of a town six days’ journey south of Sydney. Part opera, part folk tale, part concept album, Dead Horse Gap is Antipodean Noir. 

On this creative adventure Leland, Heath and I have had the pleasure of the lively company, embodied wisdom and wild imagination of Mike Shepherd, the distinguished Artistic Director of Cornwall’s celebrated Kneehigh Theatre. The idea of a group of crazy Australian artists making a “dark trippy western” in a tiny country town piqued Mike’s interest, and he readily accepted my invitation to join us here in Candelo. 

Mike has been a hero of mine ever since Kneehigh visited Sydney in 2011 with their darkly magnificent The Red Shoes, still one of the highlights of my time as Director of Sydney Festival. Over 30 years, Kneehigh’s globally acclaimed productions, created in a set of isolated barns on the rugged Cornwall coast, have completely changed the way many perceive theatre making outside metropolitan centres. Kneehigh’s current production of The Tin Drum, directed by Mike, has just opened in London after five-star reviews on tour – I caught it recently in Bristol and it’s a thrilling ride – brutal and brilliant. Having Mike here in Candelo as a guide and mentor for Dead Horse Gap in its early development stages has been an injection of adrenalin into the work’s early life.  

Mike's nimble, funny and insightful presence as a provocateur, or leading improvisation and ensemble focus exercises has challenged and energised our six performers. Locally based actor Patrick Dickson has found the experience “exhilarating and inspiring - and exhausting. He’s got great instincts for what’s at the heart of each moment. It’s great to work with him in our region – a privilege.” Lincoln Vickery, the young actor playing Charlie Chaste, was “blown away” when he saw Mike in that production of The Red Shoes at Perth Festival at 14: “Learning that I would be working with him over this week was surreal. Mike did not disappoint. His experience and understanding of theatre is wonderful to watch - he seems to know instinctively how to elevate the rehearsal space into something truly magical. It has been an awesome experience.” 

For Leland and me it’s been a directing masterclass to watch him dive in to shake a scene up with a big new idea or bold alternative approach. As Leland says: These two weeks mark the first step in a new journey of theatre making that celebrates regional Australia, its inspiring places and the artists who live here. Having Mike and all his experience in the room has been extraordinary. His sheer energy and enthusiasm, his knowledge and understanding of the creative process will travel with me for the rest of my professional career. Mike sharing Kneehigh’s philosophy here at our journey’s genesis as we shape a future vision for the arts and our own processes in regional Australia has been an amazing opportunity for all the artists involved.  

Already Mike’s love of community and generosity in sharing Kneehigh's imaginative theatre-making model has contributed immeasurably to the creative process of this new work proudly made in regional Australia. There is no doubt that his impact, imagination, spirit and skill will be part of the work’s DNA when Dead Horse Gap opens in early 2019.

Written by Lindy Hume

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