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Jon Davison has been a clown, teacher, director, actor and writer for the last 26 years, most of the last 16 in Barcelona.
In 1993 he began working together with Clara Cenoz, performing as Companyia d’Idiotes at festivals, theatres, tents, streets and bars throughout Europe – London, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, Sicily, Russia...
He taught clown, impro, and acting at the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona from 1996-2006, as well as working regularly at the Col.legi del Teatre, El Timbal, Co and Co., etc. Since 2007 he has been co-director o studies at the Escola de Clown de Barcelona. He was recently a research fellow at Central School of Speech and Drama in London. His first book, "Clown - a Reader in Theatre Practice", will be published in June 2012 by Palgrave Macmillan.
how did this all come about?
I started performing at the age of 20 in 1982 while studying French at Nottingham University. On a visit while still at school to see the place I had been strangely convinced by a final-year student called Pete Holdway, mostly due to the good prospects of doing theatre while at Nottingham in its two on-campus theatre spaces. I say “strangely” convinced, because I’d never done any theatre in my life. Well, not since being a bear on Noah’s Ark at the age of 11, which consisted in crawling onto the ark at the beginning of the show and off it again at the end, wearing a too-heavy papier mâché head.
Then, ten years later, in my second university year I agreed to accompany one of my house-mates, the poet and novelist Jill Dawson, to a party. How could I refuse? The booze was free. And we were good pals. However, the real point of the party was for various student directors to announce their auditions for the coming year’s productions. Being a bit woozy from the wine, I put my name down to audition for a play that had plenty of non-speaking parts. Next week, sober, I went along to the audition and got lumbered with a whole slab of words spoken by the character of the Marquis de Sade, whom I was chosen to play. The play was Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade” and the director, Jem Carden, had not the slightest interest in “actors”. Seemed like he preferred people who hadn’t a bloody clue, like me. I don’t quite know how, but from there I went on to perform in a multitude of forms: comedy, political agit-prop, melodrama, surrealism, as well as direct Sartre’s “Les mouches” in French with my old friend Pete Holdway in the lead role.
I recount all this, not to sing my own praises, but to try and shed some light on the fact that theatre has always been, for me, a process that is shrouded in darkness and surprise. I mean, how do we do it? What is it? In those early days I simply “did” without knowing why or wherefore. The other reason for my story is to acknowledge and give credit to those friends and colleagues who have helped me find my way. (I don’t want to just write a list of names saying, “thank you to x, y, and z”.) I worked with Jem on more occasions, most memorably for me on Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape”. And I learned the basics of mime from Pete, which seemed to be the most natural and easiest and most obvious thing to do in the world to me. Like a duck in water, for a while I only thought of and performed and taught mime, aided by the fact of living at that time in France and not having any hope of being allowed to speak on a stage.
Such limits are wonderfully liberating. In early nineteenth century Paris, the most absurd and bureaucratic restrictions were put on what one could perform and where. Only certain “official” theatres were permitted to stage spoken theatre. Hence the not-so-lucky venues had to put up with action without words. But with music. Melodrama took its distinctive form: gloriously action-based plots, where music, taking the place of the spoken and rational word, expressed with its vast emotional vocabulary that which our pitifully small dictionaries have no room for, echoed, a century later, in the technically limited silent cinema.
(And today, here in Barcelona from where I write, I am still wrestling with the obstacles in the path of theatre, still trusting that it must one day lead to a better way to perform, instead of to giving up because it’s just too hard: “national” theatres that only want the provincial (Catalan) or the foreign, as long as the foreign comes from abroad and doesn’t actually live here; “commercial” theatres, that produce no new products but simply re-sell someone else’s (musicals from the U.S.) at a good price; “alternative” theatres that are so dull that even with government finance have to give away free tickets in order to half-fill the auditorium; “independent” theatres, bars and other spaces that ask the performers not to tell too many people about the show and could the audience please refrain from clapping as the neighbours will complain; “organised” street performance, where the council’s mysteriously complicated system states that human statues shall not be permitted to wear masks, perhaps to remove that criminal element who dare not show their face? and that musicians may not gather in groups of more than 3, or one in the case of the area around the cathedral (for religious reasons?!), nor play percussion instruments unless they are pre-recorded.)
On returning from France to England I started to perform in the productions directed by Simon Shepherd, where I also became good friends with Andy Lavender. These were much more than run-of-the-mill student theatre. Brecht, Melodrama, Suffragette Agit-Prop, Music Hall, put on at Labour Party knees-ups (this at the height of Thatcherism) or Yates’ Wine Lodge (known at that time for the occasional broken-glass fight). Far away perhaps from the ethereal world of the French mime, yet I felt equally at home. Andy and I and a regular gang of us kept plugging away at this stuff for a few years. Apart from the politics, what we looked for was form, structure and definite meanings. Quite the opposite to my earlier “I don’t really know why or what I’m doing” phase. We extended our range to Molière, Carol Churchill and our own original work in our search for significance.
It had been when being cast as “Bobby Trot” in the melodrama “Luke The Labourer”, directed by Simon, that I had been bitten by the clown bug, but I didn’t know I had the disease yet. (Still not cured.) Bobby Trot is an example of the requisite comic yokel, in this case from Yorkshire and accompanied by Jenny, played by Kate O’Halloran in this production, who contrasts with the hero and other serious characters. Still not knowing quite why, I soon after formed a new company dedicated to clown and melodrama. Its only other member was Tim Meldrum, a stupendously outrageous histrionic talent. We had two productive years together, touring half a dozen original shows around the East Midlands, Scotland and elsewhere, and discovering new audiences all the time – children of all ages, old people of all ages, mentally disabled people, deaf people, rural people, inner city people, suburban people, drunk people……
It was about now that I felt for the first time that I really wanted to learn something. About theatre. I mean to learn something that I couldn’t learn by just performing, which is all I’d done for the last seven years, apart from my brief mime apprenticeship. I had a vague sensation that I was missing something. I had no idea what it was right then. So I went to study for three months at Fool Time Circus School in Bristol, and…….found it! I remember the first moments of the first class when the teacher touched my chest lightly and said, “There’s a big story here, isn’t there?” I started to cry. Over the next months I began to piece together what had been missing – me. I had felt comfortable among so much structure and form, but what had been lacking was my own spontaneity, life, humanity, heart…. And now, Franki Anderson, this profound and charismatic teacher of clown, fool and play, had shown me where to look. Inside. To her and to Guy Dartnell, who taught voice and what he called “expressive improvisation”, I owe the discovery that set me on the right road, and without which I couldn’t have continued nor done all the performing, teaching and creating of the next years.
I completed my (very brief!) studies with the unique improviser, Jonathan Kay, and the master of clown and play, Philippe Gaulier. Jonathan taught me where play is to be found: right here and now. I was on a residential course in the middle of nowhere in Hertfordshire in February. Snow was on the ground. I had been bored for five days. He asked us to go outside for a couple of hours, preferably barefoot and alone, and play. For an hour and a half I sat shivering and got a very wet bum, huddled up on a tomb in the nearby cemetery, cursing the money I had wasted on this bloody course, when, out of sheer freezing necessity, I stood up and started stomping my feet and clapping my hands in order to warm up. That then turned into jogging, jumping, and very soon I was running around, rolling around, and….playing! The running and rolling quickly became a game of “escape from a prisoner-of-war camp”, and in half an hour, I’d made my way, inch by inch, to the road, playfully but genuinely wary of each occasional passing car. If only I could get across that road, I’d be free and away! Time whizzed by. It all seemed totally real, yet of course I knew it was only a game. My fantasy seemed more vivid than life as I knew it. For it was lived, every moment of it, in the here and now, in the moment.
After that, I couldn’t wait to perform one-man impro shows based on nothing at all. So I did. My great friend, Paul Taylor, who had been at circus school with me, became my director. I began to investigate the essential questions: “how can I improvise? how can I guarantee that I will improvise well?” At times these questions became ever more frustrating and difficult to answer, and at others it was all so simple that the questions ceased to exist. I was constantly devising exercises for myself, which Paul would then direct me in, and many of which appear below. Some of the shows were great. Others were great flops.
At the same time, I started directing Jo de Waal, a singer. She wanted to free up her performing and somehow between us we decided I would train her to be able to perform improvised musical theatre. Which she did. By directing and being outside the inner process, I was able to gain a perspective on my own work. For example, I remember discovering a way for Jo to make herself laugh, by a particular way of breathing and voicing. I then tried it on myself, with Paul’s guidance. All this research occupied me for two years or so, near the end of which a group of six of us formed together to take things even further, though we never performed or even had a name. So, with hindsight, I call it “The Experimental Clown Group”.
As I mentioned, my studies were “completed” at the École Philippe Gaulier, at that time in London. I think that Philippe is the person I’ve met who most understands what it is to “play theatre”, as well as what the clown is. That experience put the theoretical lid on what I’d been experiencing. And here we come to the final stage (so far) of this little story, for it was at “L’École” that I met and began to work with Clara Cenoz, my clown partner from then on and with whom I have shared many years of dedication to the search for the truth of the clown, a time spent mostly in Barcelona, discovering just how the hell you put all this stuff into practice. And it is here that I have had the opportunity to teach many many hours of clown, impro and play, principally at the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona, as well as at the Col.legi del Teatre and numerous other schools, in direct continuation of those years of investigation with Paul and Jo. Indeed, I keep on investigating, as I freely admit to my students. Sometimes I say to them, “That’s turned out well, then. We just invented that game while you were playing it.”
Clown – Philippe Gaulier (1992-3); Théâtre de Complicité (1993); Jonathan Kay (1991);
Karate – Nottingham University (1981-2).
Other training: Clog Dance, Sword Dance, Skipping
1974-81 Hampton Grammar School
1981-85 University of Nottingham –B.A. (Hons) in French Studies
2006 University of Kent - M.A. Drama Practice as Research
LANGUAGES – English (native), Spanish (fluent), French (fluent), Catalan (fluent), German (intermediate), Italian (reading knowledge), some knowledge of Basque, Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Yiddish.
1982 - Marquis de Sade in Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss, The New Theatre, Nottingham.
2006-8 - Solo performances of An Arm and a Leg, at cabarets in London, Barcelona, Edinburgh Festival, etc.
2008 - Solo improvised clown performances, from jontxu...to be, London, Barcelona, etc.
1982 - John (principal role) in short film The House by Simon Brown.
2003-5 - Made feature length documentary on clown/actor training, Play. Barcelona.
1982 - Les mouches by Sartre, P.A. Studio, Nottm.
1991 - Tented show by Fool Time Circus School, Bristol.
ASSISTANT CASTING DIRECTOR
2002 - Assistant to Itziar Hernandez, Barcelona.
1983 - Mime workshops, Languedoc, France.
Instruments: accordion, piano, banjo, violin.
1987-93 - Accordionist with Wholesome Fish, Celtic-Cajun band, Nottm., touring U.K., Ireland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania.
2008 - Formed La Vieja Orkestina, with Ivan Dimitrov, Barcelona.
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