Clayton Jevne: from fossils to footlights

By Linda Rogers, October 2011

The founder of Theatre Inconnu is known for his innovative productions.

Clayton Jevne, Theatre Inconnu co-founder and artistic director, has weathered as many storms as the average four-masted sailing ship. Somehow he has survived, in a small city with several theatre companies, through government apathy and demographic fluctuation. Besides running Theatre Inconnu for three decades and 100 productions, Jevne was the artistic director at Victoria’s summer Shakespeare Festival for over 10 years.

Richard Olafson, Ekstasis Editions publisher and Theatre Inconnu board member says, “Clayton is one of the most committed artists in Victoria. He has been struggling and enduring many hardships and triumphs over the course of decades in the arts with consistency and vision.” 

Although he has continually challenged the conventional wisdom through his innovative productions, the polymath downplays his significant influence as a Victoria cultural worker. He is essentially a shy man of ideas, a philosopher fool in foolish times. 

Originally drawn to study paleontology, Jevne discovered his real vocation when he participated in student productions and moved from fossils to footlights. When a related opportunity knocked, he segued to puppets, which he still integrates into “regular” productions, most famously his “One Man Hamlet.”

I ask him why he finds puppets so compelling. Is it a control thing, managing all the characters? Or does he like the separation of himself from the physical entity in the spotlight?

“Probably both,” he laughs. “It took me a decade to get over stage fright, and the puppets taught me a lot.” Now his signature is bravura solo performances.

Jevne’s solo Hamlet has been re-staged several times in the past 20 years and his Moscow Station, which he’s been invited to show in New York in the fall, is an acting tour de force. Is it economics that dictate theatre uno or does Jevne enjoy the challenge of holding an audience all by himself?

“I like to experiment on myself, but I also love to work with an ensemble,” he answers. “However,” he adds, “there are uncertainties that plague repertory theatre. It is hard to predict how the federal and provincial governments are going to change the rules and undermine continuity.” 

Olafson agrees, “Clayton is an example to all of us who work in the arts. He has stayed the course through the dry spells when he was the only alternative to commercial theatre.”

Keeping actors alive and working is a challenge; and theatre is an expensive art form. Jevne is grateful that the new intimate stage at the 80-seat Little Fernwood Hall has given him an ideal platform for alternate “chamber” productions. “If we performed to full houses all the time, we could almost meet our financial challenges.”

I wonder if he sees theatre, the most socially interactive, the most political medium, as a threat to governments that thrive on ignorance and superstition—and therefore being an obvious target for cuts?

Jevne smiles and shrugs. When a trained actor makes a gesture, it speaks large. He says he tries to stay focused on the human condition. “I just wait for change,” he says enigmatically. 

Jevne has a Bachelor’s degree in acting, a Master of Fine Arts in directing, and a PhD in theatre (more specifically, actor-training research) from the University of Victoria, where he also teaches in the theatre department. If Jevne has an obsession, it is authenticity: “I am looking for the authenticity of the actor whose responses are conditioned by good training.” 

About the only thing Jevne hasn’t done for his productions is write his own scripts. He admits, “I have insecurities about my literary skills, and prefer to produce great plays rather than attempt to write them.” 

This season’s ambitious, diverse lineup proves there are others who Jevne—and Inconnu’s associate artistic director Graham McDonald—can rely on for script writing. Following the exquisitely written Shining City (by Conor McPherson), which runs through October 8, they will re-mount the popular rock musical Love Kills at the Phoenix Theatre from October 13-22. Based on a true story—which also inspired Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers and Terrence Malick’s Badlands—the thought-provoking musical is by award-winning playwright Kyle Jarrow. Its four characters, both the criminals and the sheriff and his wife, are seen examining—and ultimately assuming responsibility for—their own actions and responses.

In December, Theatre Inconnu presents the black comedy A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, still socially relevant when special needs have yet to become a social priority; and Emily Carr House will see an on-site production of A Christmas Carol with an egalitarian message that Carr’s ghost would likely applaud.

Married to ethically committed playwright Ellen Arrand, and the son of prairie schoolteachers descended from pioneer farmers, Jevne brings the values that gave us Medicare and populist politics to scrutiny under the spotlights. “My father wanted his herd to be a legacy handed down the generations.” Perhaps that is what he is giving us in performances that have a common root in the 4-H pledge to lead community with head, heart, hands and health. Do we hear his appreciative audiences mooing?

 

See www.theatreinconnu.com for details about productions and tickets.

Linda Rogers is the editor of Framing the Garden, a poet laureate legacy project. Please contact Ekstasis Editions (ekstasis@islandnet.com) to inquire about sponsorships and readings and signings by Victoria poets and visual artists.