Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Johnny Melvile - Basque Clown Anecdote

It was October 1982. I was pursuing my solo career all over Europe but also working together on a project for theatre with a Swedish company JORD CIRCUS. The show was inspired by the book 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez .

Our idea was to rehearse on the road at various festivals where we could play our own shows but still meet to develop the ideas for the new show which was to be premiered at the World Festival of Theatre in Nancy 1983. The group and I met in San Sebastian in the Basque country.

Spain had transformed from a Fascist dictatorship to party-land after the death of Franco in 1975. The situation in the Basque country however was still critical with separatists and government-forces committing acts of violence against each other in the name of freedom.

But as always in places of political tension there were the enlightened who tried what they could to bring love, light and laughter to the people. One day after being warned by the local separatist movement not to play since we would interfere with an 'important' demonstration against the policies of Madrid, we were told that we would be allowed to play at a festival in Fuentarabia, a small but beautiful village near San Sebastian.

The group Jord Circus was to play its street show - a poetic and stunning piece inspired by Living Theatre and Eugenio Barba, and afterwards further down the street it was to be my turn with my show, which I suppose was inspired more by Max Wall and Graucho Marx. As they performed up the street I waited round my 'pitch' in costume to welcome the crowd which would soon descend from the Jord Circus show, the last one before the 'comida'.

I hate being in costume and be 'off-duty' so to speak….and as there were some pensioners and kids hanging round who were not attracted to the other show, I played and impro-ed my way round the area. It served me well also as a warm-up for the slightly more formal performance to come. I was making them smile, then giggle, then laugh, as gradually they relaxed with this weird looking foreigner.

I realized then as I still believe now that the Spanish village audience is perhaps the best to play to. My impro was showing no limits and I played with some withered flowers which I found on the street; and then proceeding to mime a flower seller.

It was at this point I noticed the Jord Circus show had just finished and also that Juan, the brilliant Spanish actor from the group - in his powerfully dominant character: the BEAST was thundering toward me limping high in the air on his one stilt - there was something in his approach that made me think I had not zipped my fly.….yes he was charging directly at me.

Strange - an actor shunning the acclaim of his audience? As he got nearer I began to react as my clown would, but the look on his face told me something was desperately wrong. I let him approach and still 'clowning' watched the reactions to my audience which had grown considerably since the flower seller impro had begun.

His eyes were wide and I detected a surge of fear in me which I couldn't quite reason with. I faced my audience so he could reach my ear. "Johnny!" he hissed - " zose flowers hiz ha homage to two young people shot last week by ze policia…." My clown character disintegrated inside me but the shell didn't crack…..my heart raced as I carried the flowers back to the wall where I found them, clowned my stupidity with innocence and shrugged forgiveness with Chaplinesque coyness.

I played my show that day unsure what revenge the hard liners might take on me either during the act or later. The show was fantastic but I had a lump in my throat as I packed up. We made our way to the taverna. 'Those flowers-against-the-wall' was the topic of the conversation for the whole comida. I couldn't eat, especially as the jokes about it started to become a bit too personal.

Suddenly the doors swung open ushering the village elders and the organizers of the festival. Like a posse they surrounded the table. I found myself sliding downwards until they laughed and commiserated with me, even thanked me for my innocence as the clown foreigner who didn't know……….. I had apparently shown the village and its inhabitants how to see something with different eyes.

Due to my innocence even such a symbol of sacredness far too touchy and sensitive to mess with could be transformed and used to show people there is another way apart from revenge and hate. To this day I still play and entertain the people of the Basques but play with flowers from the stalls not the streets……

Johnny Melvile CV

Since 1973 JM has entertained audiences in over 30 countries: for (amongst others) her Royal Highness the Queen of Denmark, for her Royal Highness Princess Margriet of Holland, Olympic athletes, Russian spies, German riot-police, African bushmen, American soldiers, Mexican Indians, Paris debutantes, surgeons, film-stars, politicians, rock festival crowds, peace-activists, prisoners, pensioners and kids.

He has directed special theatre projects with groups both professional and amateur, appeared in TV programs across the globe, including the UK and Europe ,Japan and the States, and starred in various international feature films and won the BEST ACTOR award at Brooklyn Film Festival in 2001 for the Danish film NO MANS LAND.

He is now making his own films, having completed the short BACKTRACKER, and the 1 hour feature IT'S A WOMANS WORLD. In 2006 he will be shooting a road movie starring together with his son CYRON.

"Melville’s forte lies in his ability to communicate with his audiences. With his skills in mime and mimicry, satire and social comment, his natural bias to comedy, his quick-fire improvisation and his grasp of languages, he is the complete international performer"

Johnny Melville workshops are an experience, fun, rewarding and designed to unleash the energy potential of every student. Taking in various disciplines, Johnny improvises and guides his alumni with spontaneous, direct and committed involvement.



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