Howard Gayton: biography

Howard Gayton in a Commedia production of Robin Hood

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 and mask theatre, as well as live art, puppetry, foolery and theatrical clowning. 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 theatre work:

Howard's primary project is the creation of a new company, Foxhole Theatre, with award-winning playright Peter Oswald. Based at Dartington Hall in Devon, the company is dedicated to the exploration of verse and mask theatre in all their forms. Foxhole's first productions are Egil, a "collision of Viking slam poetry and rock music" (2016), and Sorry About the Poetry, a new verse drama with Commedia roots (2017). A Foxhole Theatre website is forthcoming.

Howard is Consulting Director for Hedgespoken Traveling Theatre, created by artist Rima Staines and storyteller Tom Hirons, presenting folk theatre for all ages on a traveling off-grid stage. (Keep an eye on the Hedgespoken website for announcement of their first show in December, 2016.) He also performs with Marcus Violette in the Who Ever We Are ensemble, dedicated to live art and tomfoolery. (Their shows have included connected:disconnected, directed by Sandra Löwe of Sprachhaus M in Basile, Switzerland, and The Grey Gnomes, developed with the aid of master Fool Jonathan Kay.) And he is working with The Abyss Theatre Company on a play by Peter Oswald based on Dante's Divine Comedy.


In addition to these ongoing projects, he teaches Commedia, mask work and physical theatre at drama schools in England and Portugal; gives workshops in masking, clowning, and puppetry to theatre professionals seeking to expand their skills; and has worked as a performer or director for a wide variety of productions in the UK and abroad.

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

Commedia PuppetsPuppetry:  Howard has written, directed,
and performed in puppet shows for The Little Angel Theatre in London, Norwich Puppet Theatre in Norfolk, and Dreamgrubber: Figuren Theatre in Devon - including popular versions of The Musicians of Bremen, The Selkie Bride, Romeo and Juliet, and King Arthur.  New works in development include a Commedia puppet show, a new take on Punch & Judy, and a re-telling of The Handless Maiden (with folkorist Terri Windling). He teaches classes for professional puppeteers at The Curious School of Puppetry in London and other venues, specialising in glove and rod puppet technique and movement skills.

Music:  Howard plays guitar, mandolin, accordion, and percussion, and is currently a member of Nosey Crows, a Dartmoor alt-folk band consisting of Jenny Dooley (vocals), Stephen Dooley (percussion), David Wyatt (lead guitar and bouzouki), and Howard (vocals, rhythm guitar, and accordion). The band plays a mix of original songs and classic tunes covered in their own unique way, drawing on  musical styles from traditional folk to rock-and-roll.

The Nosey Crows

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

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 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 scholar & pastry chef in London.

In addition to receiving a BA in English & Drama from Exeter University, Howard studied Physical Theatre at the Desmond Jones School in London, the History of Western Esotericism as a graduate student at Exeter University, and 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, tap dancing, learning new instruments and new languages, cooking, travel, esoteric history, and sleight-of-hand magic.

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