Shon Dale-Jones: ‘I want to create opportunities, not wait to be offered them’
The artistic director of touring theatre company Hoipolloi tells Nick Clark how he turned his back on national portfolio organisation funding in order to take the company in a new creative direction.
Few fringe acts have inspired as much affection as Hugh Hughes, the comic creation of Shon Dale-Jones, artistic director of touring theatre company Hoipolloi.
Hughes, a “Welsh multimedia artist”, has travelled to five continents, performed a sell-out run at the Sydney Opera House, enjoyed a month-long residency at London’s Barbican, and won several awards. Dale-Jones has now returned to the fringe, but left his alter ego Hughes behind.
Dale-Jones and his wife Stefanie Mueller, the founders of Hoipolloi, are not afraid to make bold decisions. Four years ago the company slimmed down, turning its back on national portfolio organisation funding from Arts Council England, and is currently “rebooting” to a much more flexible, agile organisation. “Making theatre for over 20 years, you keep on learning about it,” Dale-Jones says.
As the Cambridge-based company prepares to turn 25, this boldness extends to the work on stage. For the second year running, Dale-Jones is stepping out from the shadow of the puppyish Hughes’ persona and performing as himself with shows that are socially charged, urgent and angrier than before.
Dale-Jones’ shows have always weaved stories with humour, wry observation and emotional heft. He regularly breaks the fourth wall to interact with the audience and establish a kind of “raconteur pub-type” atmosphere. It is like stand-up, he says, a “democratic” space. He is now bringing an urgent social message to his work.
The writer, performer and director discovered a love for the stage aged 15, when he was told to “dress as a woman and act in a play”, though he cannot remember the title of the one-act work or the part.
He studied drama at the University of East Anglia, graduating in 1990 before going to the Jacques Lecoq physical theatre school in Paris. “I was always a sucker for improvisation and that was the real inspiration to go there. Learning to create your own theatre with your own ideas,” he says. That Complicite – “the most exciting theatre company of the time” – trained there only increased his urge to study at Lecoq.
It was there that he met Mueller, and together they formed Hoipolloi shortly after leaving Paris. The company’s rehearsal room doors opened in 1993 and it staged its first production, The Naked King of the Morning, the following year.
“It’s a big decision to make to live the life of an actor,” Dale-Jones says. “As a young man, I didn’t enjoy the prospect of waiting for someone else to give me an opportunity, I wanted to create my own. It’s as simple as that.”
They started the company in Norwich, then moved to Cambridge 18 months later. The work is largely improvised, with the script often the “final part of the jigsaw in the rehearsal process”.
For the first seven years, the company worked collaboratively with artists from around the world, including Europe, Africa and America and received just £300 in funding.
As it grew, the funding pressures changed and at the turn of the century Hoipolloi applied for, and received, Arts Council money as a regularly funded organisation – the forerunner to being an NPO.
The creation of Hughes came in 2005, after a best man speech in which Dale-Jones realised his own stories could be the basis of entertainment. The first show was Floating, which told the story of the Isle of Anglesey drifting away from the UK. He has called the character “wish fulfilment” of being able to edit out the messier bits of reality.
Dale-Jones admits the company went from its idealistic roots to a “more pragmatic way” of working during this time. Hoipolloi became successful, touring all over the world.
After the turn of the decade, Dale-Jones began to reappraise the company’s direction. “I didn’t think we were making the best creative decisions, we started to make decisions based on budgets,” he says. “As soon as I realised that, I said we can’t do this any more.”
So in 2013, the co-founders decided against reapplying for NPO funding – instead applying for Grants for the Arts for more flexibility – and slimmed the company down.
“We are putting it back on its feet in a different way,” he says. “We’re interested in looking at the collective thing once more. We’re as excited by that idea as we were 20 years ago. The journey we’ve gone on as a theatre company has mirrored some sort of political journey.”
Changes behind the scenes have extended to the work on stage and, after a seven-year hiatus, Dale-Jones brought a show to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016.
He is currently performing that show, The Duke, at this year’s festival as well as a new work called Me and Robin Hood. “I’m trying to establish new ground for myself,” the two-time Fringe First-winner says. “I can begin to communicate again what this work represents… We can put our stall back out again.”
The Duke was inspired by the refugee crisis – “we saw so much of it last year I thought I had to do something about it” – while Me and Robin Hood was sparked by the rising levels of inequality at home and abroad.
“I’m more affected by the outside world than I ever have been,” he says. “This is what Hoipolloi is trying to achieve now; this is what we want to talk about. This is the way we want to talk about it. We are at the beginning of a new chapter.”
Q&A: Shon Dale-Jones
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in my dad’s greengrocers – I must have been about 11 or 12.
What was your first professional theatre job?
I did stand-up at the Norwich Arts Centre in 1989, employed by Guy Myhill [a director and writer whose films include 2015’s The Goob]. He gave me £25 and I went and bought a Paul Klee print. I still have it. We still make stuff together.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
“Be generous to other people making work around you.” The older you get, the less competitive you feel.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
I try to avoid auditioning… just do your best, I guess.
If you hadn’t worked in theatre, what would you have done?
I’ve thought about being in the theatre since I thought what it would be like to be a grown person. The only other thing may have been a lawyer. I used to watch [US legal TV show] Petrocelli, I thought he was an awesome guy.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I listen to music before each show, mainly upbeat stuff. At the moment I listen to Try a Little Tenderness before Me and Robin Hood, and Northern Soul before The Duke. It gets you in a good mood.
There is a clear through line from The Duke to Me and Robin Hood, which tells stories of his growing up in Llangefni – a small town on the Isle of Anglesey – to protesting in front of a bank as he becomes angrier at the growing inequality he saw around him.
“It is much more challenging to the audience than The Duke, which was warmer and funnier,” he says. “This has warmth but there is real frustration and anger. I don’t think I have ever made a show like this.” At the same time, the work is interwoven with personal stories bearing real heart and shot through with Dale-Jones’ impish humour and lightness of touch.
It combines the traditions of political theatre with the genuine heart of a personal story. “I think the craft of the show is around the emotional journey, as all good stories are.”
The production has also been stripped back. During the rehearsal process the lighting effects, then the sound and finally the microphone were removed. It culminated in Dale-Jones alone on stage with nothing but a bottle of water, and – as with The Duke – no alter ego to hide behind. For now, Hughes is not returning to the stage, but may be seen in a screen project Dale-Jones is working on.
“To de-robe and stand in front of the audience is a new thing,” he says. “I wanted to find an intimacy with them. I wanted to give myself no room to escape the questions I ask. You’re really there. That’s emphasised by having no theatricality.”
The Duke and Me and Robin Hood are coming to London’s Royal Court next month, and Dale-Jones talks of how inspiring it was to see the theatre’s recent revival of Road by Jim Cartwright, about a depressed northern town in Thatcher’s Britain. “When you see work that speaks of now, it is very powerful,” he says.
The shows not only have a social conscience, they are putting their money where their mouth is. The Duke has raised more than £40,000 for Save the Children, and Me and Robin Hood is collecting for Street Child United, so far raising £4,000. As well as helping a good cause, Dale-Jones says it gives his work value.
“It’s inspiring, I have a much deeper motivation now,” he says. “I love going on stage and I know why I am telling my story. I think that’s what every storyteller needs to connect with an audience. This has rebooted all of that.”
CV: Shon Dale-Jones
Born: 1968, Llangefni, Anglesey
Training: University of East Anglia; Jacques Lecoq school
Landmark productions: Honestly (1995-99), Floating (2005-11), Story of a Rabbit (2007-11)
Agent: PBJ Management
Part of the Edinburgh Fringe, Me and Robin Hood is at Pleasance Dome and The Duke is at Pleasance Courtyard, both until August 27