Howard Gayton: biography


Howard Gayton has worked for over thirty years as a theatre director, performer, scholar and teacher specializing in Commedia dell'Arte and other forms of physical, mask, and folk theatre, as well as puppetry, foolery and theatrical storytelling. He is interested in all manner of tricksters, zanni figures, fools, jesters and sacred clowns, as well as in the use of masks in drama, myth, magic, and sacred rituals the world over.

Commedia dell'Arte:

In its earliest form (in 16th century Italy), Commedia dell'Arte married the rough entertainments of traveling street peddlers with the classicism of Greco-Roman drama and the masks of Venetian Carnival - using stock characters to create a vibrant, slap- stick, highly physical (and often subversively political) form of comedy theatre. Performed outdoors on high trestle stages in busy piazzas and market squares, Commedia was beloved by audiences all across medieval and Renaissance Europe. Its themes can be found time and time again in the works of Shakespeare, Moliere and other great European dramatists.

Howard co-founded his first Commedia company, Ophaboom, with Geoff Beale in 1991. Drawing on medieval theatre, trickster tales, and Commedia's origins, they set out to create a contemporary style of Commedia that would resonate with modern audiences. Working in four languages (sometimes all in the same show!), they spent the better part of two decades touring extensively throughout the British Isles, across continental Europe, and as far afield as North America and Southeast Asia, establishing themselves as England's premier Commedia company.

Howard Gayton & Geoff Beale performing in Hamburg, Germany and Venice, Italy

Ophaboom in Venice 1994

Current work:

In 2016, Howard and playright Peter Oswald co-founded The Columbina Theatre Company, dedicated to verse and mask theatre, and to showing that the verse drama tradition, stretching back to the very beginnings of culture, is still powerful, meaningful, and relevant to modern life. Current productions are Egil, a "collision of Viking slam poetry and rock music" exploring the essence of language itself; A Sleep-Cycle of Poetry, in collaboration with Alice Oswald; and two new verse dramas with Commedia roots: Theatre is Dead and Sorry About the Poetry. In addition, the company conducts workshops, classes, and seminars exploring various aspects of mask work, verse drama, archetypal theatre, and poetry performance.

Howard Gayton & Peter Oswald in Sorry About the Poetry, The Columbina Theatre Company

The Sleep-Cycle at Dartington

Commedia PuppetsPuppetry:  Howard has written, directed, and performed in puppet shows for The Little Angel Theatre in London and Norwich Puppet Theatre in Norfolk -- including popular versions of The Musicians of Bremen, The Selkie Bride, Romeo and Juliet, and King Arthur.  He is currently developing a Commedia-influenced show, with puppets by master carver Lyndie Wright. He is also a Punch & Judy man, touring his lively Punch & Judy show in between (or in conjunction with) other projects; and he is a consulting director for Hedgespoken (created by Rima Staines & Tom Hirons), presenting storytelling and puppet theatre on a traveling off-grid stage.

Howard teaches classes for professional puppeteers at The Curious School of Puppetry, specialising in glove and rod puppet technique and movement skills.

A Punch & Judy performance


Hedgespoken sign

In addition to these ongoing projects, Howard teaches Commedia, mask work and physical theatre at East 15 and other drama schools in Britain and Portugal, and runs workshops for theatre companies and actors seeking to expand their skills. He does freelance directing for theatre companies, playwrights, and storytellers in the UK and abroad, and consults on the areas of movement, mask work, and puppetry within shows.

He has given mask performances in contexts ranging from theatre settings to medieval music revels, street festivals, and folk pageantry; and collaborated on "live art & tom foolery" with the Whoever We Are ensemble.

Howard performing the Obby Oss for a May Day folk procession in Devon

Howard Gayton (unicorn) and Katy Marchant, Daughters of Elvin

Writing:  Howard has created numerous play scripts for Commedia dell'Arte and puppet theatre, radio plays (with Owen Powell), and articles on mask theatre and Commedia published in drama books, journals, and the online Journal of Mythic Arts. He co-created a limited edition graphic novel, John Barleycorn Must Die, with artist Rex Van Ryn. 

Music:  He plays guitar, mandolin, ukelele, accordion, and percussion in theatrical productions, and with various bands including Nosey Crows (alt-folk music) and Panic Pete & the Roughbeats (early rock-& roll).

Miscellany: He portrayed the mad Edwardian "fairy hunter" Quentin Cottington in photographs for the book The Pressed Fairy Journal of Maddy Cottington by Brian & Wendy Froud (Abrams Publishers, 2016), as well as in the book trailer video. He was also the model for the warrior on the cover of The Children of Húrin by J.R.R. Tolkien, illustrated by Alan Lee (Houghton Mifflin, 2007).

Pressed fairies, Brian Froud

Performing Cindermouse at Little Angel, 1990sBackground:  Howard was raised in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, and educated at Abington School and the University of Exeter, Devon. He was then based in London for many years while he toured the world with Ophaboom, alternating with stints at the Little Angel Puppet Theatre. He returned to Devon in 2004, and now lives in a small arts village at the edge of Dartmoor with his wife, American writer & artist Terri Windling. His daughter Victoria is a culinary arts & business scholar in London.

At the University of Exeter, Howard studied English & Drama as an undergraduate student, the History of Western Esotericism as a graduate student, and is currently working toward a PhD focused on The Esoteric Art of Commedia. He has also studied physical theatre at the Desmond Jones School in London, and has researched the use of masks in Native American and Mexican-American communities in Arizona with the aid of an Arts Council England grant.

His other interests include martial arts training, learning new instruments and new languages, dancing (including tap and swing), DJing, and sleight-of-hand magic.

Howard Gayton, Devon 2016Howard Gayton with his dog Tilly in front of his work studio in Devon