Shôn Dale-Jones: Hoipolloi and The Duke
By Caro Moses | Published on Tuesday 23 August 2016
Shôn Dale-Jones – who you may be more familiar with via his Hugh Hughes series of shows – is this year performing in ‘The Duke’, a new show inspired by both his own life and the current refugee crisis, which explores themes of kindness and generosity as well as loneliness.
We gave Shôn a ThreeWeeks Editors’ Award back in the late 2000s, which I think proves we have always been fans of his work. But with such an interesting new show, now seemed like a good time to catch up with him, about ‘The Duke’, his company Hoipolloi, and his love of the Edinburgh Fringe.
CM: Tell us about ‘The Duke’? What’s the general premise?
SD-J: The show is essentially about kindness and generosity and value, in all shapes and forms. A blend of theatre, comedy and storytelling, it weaves together a number of storylines: about me dealing with making compromising changes to a film script I’ve devoted myself to for ten years, my mother’s loneliness, the fate of a valuable family heirloom – a porcelain figure of the Duke Of Wellington on horseback that my father invested in – and my increasing concern for refugees. Across it all, the aim of the show is to increase our ability to empathise.
CM: So in amongst the personal stories, there’s a political element as well?
SD-J: Yes, the plight of refugees fleeing their homes in search of a better life for their families touches on the show at various points as the other stories unfold. In the show, as in my life generally, I question the value of what I do, as an artist and as a human being, and am trying to find ways to make any difference, however small. We have a major job to do as people to stop those in power from dismantling the 151 Refugee Convention.
CM: What inspired the play? What made you want to create a show focused on these themes?
SD-J: I have been becoming increasingly alarmed by the state of the world and feeling increasingly motivated to try to do something to make it better. So I set myself the task of trying to make a show that was ‘worthwhile’ making! I wanted to make art that makes a difference – that’s why it’s a ‘donation show’. At the same time, I was becoming aware of the fact that my mother is only becoming older – another strand of the show’s stories – which makes me acutely aware of our vulnerability and fragility.
CM: Did you create the play by yourself? What is your usual working process? Do you work alone or are others involved?
SD-J: Across many Edinburgh Festival Fringes, I loved performing as Hugh Hughes, and made those shows in collaboration with various artists. But for the first time, I made this show alone. I wrote it and made it simultaneously… It was a pretty practical process… writing, recording, searching for music all at the same time… once I set myself the constraint of sitting behind my desk for the entire show, everything followed. Also, as I wanted to make the show without charging for tickets, I had to do all these things by myself, in order to keep the costs of production to an absolute minimum.
CM: As you say, it’s a ‘donation show’, raising money for Save The Children’s Child Refugee Crisis Appeal (we’ve got one of your donation collectors in our picture up top) . What made you decide to do this?
SD-J: I decided to go this route because I wanted ‘to do’ something. I couldn’t sit and watch the images of the refugee crisis any longer, feeling helpless. I want to try to make as much money as possible for the charity, but also to help raise awareness of the crisis and of the charity’s work. I would love to encourage people to donate ‘actions’ as well as cash – and ‘action cards’ are also handed out at the end of the show.
CM: The show is produced by your own company Hoipolloi. It’s been going a long time now. How has it changed over the years?
SD-J: Hoipolloi opened it’s rehearsal room door in 1993. I formed the company with Stefanie Mueller to make new work. We started with a gang of ten of us making big physical ensemble based devised theatre. We were passionate about collective creativity and improvisation. The company has been through various stages. Right now it exists to make my work. I’m a writer – I tell my stories because I love telling stories that connect.
CM: The company must have produced in the region of twenty shows. Does any one show stick out above the rest?
SD-J: ‘Floating’ was a real discovery. We left behind a more traditional physical theatre making process and production. We felt genuinely liberated making that show. We re-learnt to make theatre. We filled the room with new elements – flipchart, overhead projector, microphones. For the first time I started sharing my own stories. The show was very popular and it toured the world!
CM: That was the first show in your Hugh Hughes guise. Many Fringe-goers will know you best through that award winning series of shows. How different is ‘The Duke’ from those, in terms of a theatrical experience?
SD-J: Not much different! It’s still funny and poignant. It still mixes fantasy and reality. I still love the audience. I wanted to deliver this show as myself rather than as Hugh Hughes, though, so that I could really own the thoughts I was having about current politics and the refugee crisis – and not in any way hide behind an alter-ego. I also wanted to experience all the feelings that come with exposing myself rather than hiding behind a character. Altogether I think it makes for a more intimate performance.
CM: Is Hugh Hughes ever coming back though?
SD-J: He’ll be back!
CM: You’ve brought many pieces to Edinburgh, and you keep returning – what is lure of the Fringe for you?
SD-J: I love being part of it all. It’s so vibrant. It’s not safe. You are taking a risk as a performer and as an audience. I love meeting fellow theatre makers, performers, producers… It holds a particular community. The conversations are inspiring. The friendships made are wonderful.
CM: What’s next for you, and Hoipolloi?
SD-J: I’m making a new show called ‘Me And Robin Hood’ and developing a business model with the company to see if we can keep raising money for the crisis appeal, looking for a way of connecting our work to this world that is changing rapidly. We’re on a mission to increase empathy through a conversation about inequality and migration.
Shôn Dale-Jones performed ‘The Duke’ at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2016.
Photo by David P Scott