Friday, March 28, 2014

Adrian Howells...RIP

Adrian Howells April 2014 

Battersea Arts Centre and the Arches have been working together for years supporting artists. Adrian was one of the most important.

I first met Adrian when I was starting out as a Producer nearly 10 years ago. My job description when I started was one line - “to find the future of theatre”. So I went to see “Room Service” at The Great Eastern Hotel in Liverpool street. You booked an hour in this beautiful hotel and Adrienne came in with a tea trolley of snacks and old photo albums and I sat on the bed with her wrapped up in the hotel slippers and dressing gown, eating biscuits, listening to music and sharing a hazy nostalgia for family in faded photographs of special occasions.  It was this beautiful, generous, intimate exchange. I felt cushioned and amazed at how easy it was to get that intimacy with a stranger.  Soon after that I asked him to present Salon Adrienne as part of Batterseas’ BURST festival. It was an important show for the building and one of the leading stories of the festival. He was based in Ocean hairdressers on Lavender hill. It was a one on one encounter where he washed your hair and made you tea and then you had a conversation about what you felt when you looked in the mirror. The work accessed a very vulnerable place but his care and generosity, his ability to wrap the conversation in the theatre of the everyday, in his own camp confessions, allowed his audience to feel  safe enough to open up. I can remember audiences, staff, other artists during that festival coming back up the hill and being overwhelmed with what had happened. Giggling nervously at what they had revealed, both to Adrian but also to themselves. 

Adrian was a pioneer in one on one and intimate work, his practice and professional development workshops were a catalyst for many  artists to consider working in this area. He has had a profound influence on the arts scene in the uk and beyond. At Battersea he went on to present many of his works in our major festivals, including A Xmas with Adrienne, 14 Stations, Won’t  somebody dance with me, Foot washing for the sole, The pleasure of being, washing, holding and most recently he remounted Salon Adrienne and presented Unburden; Saying the unsaid. 

In 2010 Battersea opened a major festival of one on one work that may never have happened without adrians influence, he presented “The pleasure of being..”   as part of this festival and the season was a huge critical success making waves and prompting articles about the impact of intimate work from The Guardian to The New York Times. ..

In a society where we are increasingly isolated from each other or our interaction is mediated though technology or social media Adrians work was an oasis. His presence, humour, patience, empathy and incredible ability to really listen and sense what his audience needed meant he was constantly changing lives, and I don’t say that lightly - at Battersea working with him over the years we have heard many incredible stories of audiences members who through Adrian’s work were able to open themselves up to their darkest fears, to allow themselves a vulnerability, who through him were able to understand themselves better,  or who were simply changed by the bottomless love he was offering. You cannot ask for more from another, he was working beyond art and theatre and touching our deepest needs as humans to be heard, touched, loved and understood.

I worked with Adrian for nearly 10 years producing his work at Battersea alongside my partner another producer at BAC Richard Dufty. The last time I saw him was in a performance of Unburden last October at Battersea Arts Centre as part of our autumn season. I went to see the show in the middle of a hectic working day so wasn’t prepared for what happened. I walked into this magical space filled with hundreds of candles and the smell of pine and there was Adrian sat at the end just smiling at me. There was a walkway up and as I walked up to him before he could say anything at all I just started sobbing and laughing in a weak but happy anticipation of our conversation. Just seeing him and embracing felt like a release. We went on to have a conversation that I can honestly say I feel like changed my life. It was his most powerful, true and generous work for me and I was ready to receive it. He was such an incredible pioneering artist and beautiful human being. We  will miss him so much.

It is easy to think of Adrian’s personal generosity first and foremost but I’d also like to remember his place within the UK and international arts scene.  He was prolific, ambitious, influential and toured extensively. 

My first experience of Adrian was An Audience with Adrienne, at the Drill Hall in London. We were welcomed in to a perfectly designed kitsch living room, he had an exceptional eye for a kind of detailed set design that immediately put the audience at ease in its timeless , comforting,  reference points . He crafted an autobiographical approach where he revealed stories of himself in order to acknowledge a kind of shared vulnerability.   He was a master of improvised dialogue, encouraging the audience to reveal their inner truths and lies.   He allowed us to find strength in accepting our weaknesses and together understand that the recognition and revelation of emotion was a powerful and important part of life and not something to be frightened or ashamed of.

Adrian is possibly the most highly critically praised artist that the Arches have ever worked with.  An Audience with Adrienne represented the most exciting work in Scotland at the IETM  in 2010 as well as going onto the Munich Opera House, Warwick Arts Centre and a British Council funded tour to Singapore and Israel. 

Some of his most acclaimed work happened after he shifted his focus, removing his drag persona to present work as Adrian, rather than Adrienne. This transition happened through his Creative Fellowship at the University of Glasgow where he had the opportunity for a period of research and critical reflection with the support of Dee Heddon as his academic mentor.
Foot Washing for the Sole in 2008 was particularly successful. In the show Adrian asked me to consider where the soles of my feet had been that day, where I had walked, where i had come from, where i wanted to go.  It offered a contemplation of religiosity and suggested a universal spiritual connectedness achieved through this ritual.  
As Joyce McMillan described:  ‘It is as if our thoughtless abuse of our own feet , our main point of contact with the Earth, were a metaphor for our maladjusted relationship with the universe, put right here by the mystical power of touch, and love’ .

Like all his work Foot Washing was carefully and meticulously crafted. Aesthetically, but also as a type of choreography where every second of experience for the audience member had been thought through.  Foot Washing was one of those shows that programmers and festival directors are desperate to present as the experience for the audience member is so transformative that it ripples out across the city.  

It won a Total Theatre Award  and toured  to  international festivals in Italy,  Spain, Belfast, Kilkenny, Brighton,   Singapore, the  Bavarian State Opera Arts Festival, the Connected Festival Tokyo, the Fierce festival in Birmingham,  Burst festival at Battersea Arts Centre, the Harbourfront Centre Toronto and perhaps most notably to Tel Aviv and Nazareth in 2008
Adrian really did care about what people thought of him, audiences and peers.  He worked hard and what he achieved in the UK theatre scene meant so much to him.   He wasn’t afraid to admit that he loved critical praise and that he took any negative critisicim to heart. Possibly this was because he felt so deeply all his personal interactions and for him these were no different.
Adrian presented work comfortably within the experimental sphere but he also took it to a more mainstream audience when he worked with Tim Crouch in the Author, at the Royal Court in autumn 2009. This process challenged him, it took him out of his comfort zone but the result was a unique performance style that few could rival and gained him critical acclaim.
Lifeguard in 2012 was another notable accomplishment where he worked with the National Theatre of Scotland, the Arches and Govanhill Baths Community Trust to bring his audience with him right into the re-opened swimming pool. 

Adrian was the Arches Artist in Residence and he loved all the small marks of belonging that came with this -  having his key fob that allowed him access all areas,  he was delighted to have his own business cards and whenever he travelled abroad for work he would be so proud to speak of and for the Arches.   

Lucy Gaizely who was then the Creative Learning Programmer mentored him through his residency and was a huge creative influence and support to him.  Latterly he worked with Touchbase Sense Scotland and had a deeply reciprocal and transformative relationship with the organization.  As well as working with influential Canadian company Mammalian Diving Reflex,  Adrian ,   Ian Johnston and Gary Gardiner working intensively last year to create  He’s the Greatest Dancer and will be shown at the Southbank Centre and BAC this year.  
He was within the very fabric of the Arches organisation - he came to speak at our staff away days, he ‘hosted’ as Adrienne - making fabulous satirical speeches at our press launches.  He was an enormous personal support to me, offering incredible insights into the purpose and value in what everyone at the Arches works for.   He looked us all in the eyes, listening carefully with that serious nod of the head in encouragement. ‘Come on,  you can do it’. 

Even after he has gone he continues as a unifying force, bringing us together. The last month and a half has made me realise the strength of the artistic community in Glasgow, which he was at the heart of.  There has been an intensity in the way we have come together which has brought life and love in to sharp focus and indeed this was what his artistry also achieved.

Shelley and Jackie