The play that started without a single written word: '946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips'

Let’s start with an easy quiz. Biggest spoiler alert ever: All answers are right, and “D” is most correct of all.

The play “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips,” opening Friday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, includes:

a) Jivedancing and a jump-rope contest between Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill.

b) The World War II back story of a real D-day invasion training incident in which hundreds of Allied troops were killed, many by friendly fire.

c) A band, a singer and cast members performing original, contemporary music for two hours (though the show remains a play, not a musical).

d) Everything above, plus a whole lot more (for one thing, puppets).

In lesser theater-making hands, this array of ingredients could make for jumbled slop. However, if audience reaction at a recent tour stop in Berkeley were any indication, the British theater company Kneehigh has simmered “946” into a nourishing stew.

This same theatrical complexity has been on display during Southern California’s two previous meetings with Kneehigh: “Brief Encounter” at the Wallis in Beverly Hills in 2014, and “Tristan & Yseult” at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa in 2015.

All three plays were directed by longtime Kneehigh leader  Emma Rice, now the artistic director at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. During a recent chat from England, Rice matter-of-factly described her counterintuitive methods.

Warning: Theater mavens who worship the written word might want to fasten their seat belts.

“In traditional plays, everyone sits around a table with a script and by the end of the rehearsals nobody has a script because they have worked out what the words meant,” Rice said.

“We work the opposite way ’round, in which nobody has any scripts at the beginning. Bit by bit you feed in the words, and people learn their lines at the last minute because I see the words being the tip of the iceberg, not the iceberg. The story is the iceberg.”

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Elaborating on Rice’s recipe, Paul Crewes, who produced “946” as the last of eight plays he oversaw during a 12-year run with the company, succinctly captured the starting point for a Kneehigh production. The play is “not driven from a script-based point,” Crewes said, “but a storytelling point.”

The story of “946” comes from a book written by English children’s novelist Michael Morpurgo, who also wrote “War Horse,” which Nick Stafford turned into the 2011 Tony Award-winning play. For “946,” Morpurgo co-adapted his own book for the stage, working with Rice.

But the words didn’t come first. Rice initially thinks about the music for her theater projects. “I love music because it’s such a direct route to the emotions.”

Musical exploration is almost always a starting point in a Kneehigh play. For “946,” composer Stu Barker helped Morpurgo and Rice establish lyrics and pointed to places in the story where songs might fit.

Music would be created later by the assembled team, sometimes in the form of songs, sometimes as incidental instrumentals or brief, arranged riffs.

But not, Rice pointed out, in a way usually seen in musicals, which she said she finds “a little bit embarrassing on some deep level.”

“It’s very rarely in first person,” Rice said. “Nobody sings out, ‘My heart is broken.’ ”

In the meantime, Rice had charged the actors with her usual preliminary admonition.

“I always say, ‘Come on Day 1 and do no research. … I don’t want somebody to fill their minds with facts or ideas, the book they read or the film they saw.”

After a preproduction period of picking a story, conceiving music, writing no script and making sure the performers were suitably unprepared, Rice brought everyone together.

“Everyone” included Rice, Morpurgo, actors, trained musicians, scenic and costume designers and writers assembled into what Rice called “the youth club. It’s like an after-school club.”

Theater-making commenced.

Rice said her instructions would run along these lines: “Right, you two go off and see about the tractor sequence. And you three go off and work up how to make a chicken.”

And when those tasks had been accomplished? “Maybe we learn a song or dance or doing a puppet.”

British actress Katy Owen, 34, plays a dominant character in “946,” a 12-year-old girl named Lily who is preoccupied by her cat going missing.

Owen has a background in British TV and films and with other theater companies, but during a Facetime chat she marveled at the three times she has collaborated with Rice and the Kneehigh crowd.

“Really, it’s a free playing field,” Owen said. “Not ‘what does this text bring to the actor?’ but ‘what does this interaction with others get you to bring back to the table to present and share?’

“You are allowed to go with your instincts and what you discover.”

Kneehigh has a penchant for finding certain types of performers to thrive in communal creation.

“There is a Kneehigh wildness, an oddness you can smell almost across a bar,” Rice said.

“Not everyone can sing, not everyone can play, not everyone can act, but everyone has a spirit of adventure.”

There is a “human catechism,” she said, “that rises up all different talents.”

Owen has two benchmarks for what it takes to be a successful Kneehigh actor: a lack of vanity and a willingness to commit fully.

“You can guarantee you are going to not look really polished, pretty or presentable,” Owen says. “Emma asks of you to stick with it and don’t question too much and don’t worry too much.”

An underriding but crucial backdrop to the Kneehigh methods is the location where plays are developed.

Unlike most British-born theater exported our way, Kneehigh is not London-based. The company is a product of Cornwall, a rural region in England’s southwest tip known as West Country.

“Kneehigh was isolated from the mainstream, away from the theater chit-chat you have in London,” Crewes said. “And that allowed it to be free and not constrained by what people thought was the norm.”

Crewes had a 35-year career in the British arts scene, an early chunk at Bristol Old Vic and then work for producer Cameron Mackintosh’s West End theater ventures. In 2015 he was announced as the new artistic director at the Wallis, and he started there last year.

He notes another anomaly with Kneehigh: It never performed in a bricks-and-mortar theater of its own. For more than two decades, its shows were seen in West Country community spaces and even the outdoors.

In the off-season from touring, Crewes said, the environment where Kneehigh hunkers down to build plays facilitates the approach.

“Kneehigh owns rehearsal barns on cliffs overlooking a seaport village called Mevagissey,” he said. “These are the creative spaces where they make work and rehearse, even where company members would sleep.”

Owen recalled with glee the process behind “946” and how it brought out her “naughty” side.

“When you are in Cornwall, maybe out in a field with this group of people, sometimes your discipline slips and you go a bit insane,” she said.

Rice said collaboration and locale develop storytelling.

“You’ve gone off and, if it works, have very carefully laid the foundations for the world and the story,” she said.

“You end up with something that is the greater than the sum of its parts.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦  

‘946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips’

Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: Preview Thursday, opens Friday, ends March 5. Performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (check for exceptions)

Tickets: $29 and up for the preview, then $39-$129 (subject to change)

Information: (310) 746-4600, www.thewallis.org

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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For the record -- An earlier version of this post said that producer Paul Crewes had had a 35-year career at London's Old Vic; those years were spent at Bristol Old Vic. The post also said that Kneehigh had not performed in a bricks-and-mortar theater of its own for more than three decades; the story should have said "two decades."
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