One-on-one theatre can be a dangerous game and Adrian Howells admits to Susan Mansfield that he fears going beyond the pale
• Howells dances with one of the select few from his audience
FOR his latest piece of theatre, Adrian Howells is aiming for an audience 25 times bigger than usual. Even then, he's hardly going to need a football stadium. The experimental theatre-maker has spent much of the last decade making work for an audience of one.
Howells, who is based in Glasgow, has engaged in increasingly radical one-to-one theatrical experiments, such as Foot Washing For The Sole, where he washed and massaged people's feet, and Held, a journey in silence through progressive stages of intimacy from hand-holding to spooning together on a bed.
His new show, Won't Somebody Dance With Me?, has an audience of 25, all of whom will have the opportunity – if they wish – to ask Howells for a slow, intimate dance. The show is set at the end of a fictional wedding reception, with the glitterball spinning and the DJ looking out his cheesiest tracks. "People are a bit drunk, a bit needy. I'm there in a suit and a tie sat at a table on my own, longing for somebody to come and ask me for that last slow dance to a love ballad."
Like all his one-to-one work, Howells says the piece "addresses our contemporary need for intimacy, for human-to-human, eye-to-eye, flesh-on-flesh contact". "We live in an age of rapid technological advancement, we spend huge volumes of time on our computers having virtual relationships, but technology is no substitute for a real encounter with another human being," he says.
Howells began making solo work nearly ten years ago, and recently completed a three-year creative fellowship at Glagsow University's Department of Theatre, Film and Television studies, looking at issues of intimacy and risk in one-to-one performances. He is also working on his most radical project to date, The Pleasure Of Being, Washing, Feeding, Holding, for Battersea Arts Centre, in which he will invite his audience of one to be bathed naked, cradled and fed.
He admits this is "really pushing the form", and emphasises that the audience member will be able to stop the performance if they are uncomfortable. "It's really important that they have agency, because even more in a one-to-one show people feel that they have to go along with things in case they sabotage the piece. It's about creating a safe space."
More performers are choosing to work one on one. BAC is hosting a festival of one-to-one theatre later this year; Howells is finding himself in demand at universities and theatre festivals (earlier this month, he washed 80 pairs of feet at the Brighton Festival); and shows such as Ontroerend Goed's The Smile Off Your Face and Internal are attracting global interest.
Howells speaks of his work in terms of nourishment for the soul. "One woman who did Held said to me, 'I've had more intimacy in the last hour than I have with my own husband in the last 15 years'. And you think, 'Oh my god that shouldn't be happening, but it is, and I'm really happy that I might be able to do that."
Howells trained as an actor, moving into more radical performance work in the 1990s with Stewart Laing and Leigh Bowery, but gradually found himself becoming dissatisfied with theatre's conventions. His doubts came to a head when working on Asylum with acclaimed physical theatre company DV8.
"I became acutely aware that I was making work which was about my relationship with my mother, about bed-wetting, about my issues with sexual intimacy, and performing that to a whole load of people that didn't give a monkeys about me.
As a gay performer, I was not seeing my life experience or my interests or the way I saw the world represented. So you look for new ways of doing things."
He withdrew from performance for over a year, but broke the self-imposed exile when he was asked by London artists collective Area 10 to take part in an alternative cabaret night emerging for the first time as Adrienne, his cross-dressing alter-ego, offering tea and biscuits to an audience of three in a space styled as her living room.
Adrienne has remained a popular fixture in Howells' work, with her signature blonde wig and Pat Butcher aesthetic, but he has always made it clear that she is an alter-ego not a fictional character: "It's me, I just happen to have make-up on and wear women's clothes. Adrienne helped me to become more comfortable with who Adrian is."
When he took up the fellowship at Glasgow University, he decided it was time for "Adrian" to emerge from behind the make-up. "I thought, if I am wanting to look at issues of intimacy and risk and vulnerability in a one-to-one confessional context, I need to be brave enough to remove the mask of Adrienne."
Vulnerability, it turns out, includes admitting that part of the reason he offers intimacy to others is because he feels starved of it himself. "I know it's no coincidence that I'm doing work about intimacy because I so crave it myself. I feel deprived of it. I know how nourishing physical contact can be. I'm creating work about it because I don't get it in my own life."
It's risky territory, but perhaps that's the point. It raises many questions: is it theatre or therapy? Self-indulgent, or answering an important need? Is meaningful intimacy possible when the two people are strangers and the context is artificial (one is a performer, the other has bought a ticket)?
Howells does feel that The Pleasure Of Being... represents a logical end-point in his one-to-one experiments. "People keep saying: 'Where do you go after that?' Well, I don't want to do a live sex show. I also think it's important to nourish the idea of community and I'm concerned that by doing one-to-one shows I might be encouraging individualism."
He has a show in development with the Arches about memories of childhood summer holidays, which he hopes to perform for a small audience around a specially installed swimming pool. "I'm really interested in having this collective experience of everyone getting into the swimming pool together and doing something celebratory at the end," he says, the excitement clear in his voice. But be warned, you might get more than your feet wet.
Adrian Howells Won't Somebody Dance With Me is at the Arches, Glasgow, on Tuesday and Wednesday, as part of the Behaviour festival www.thearches.co.uk
•This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 16 May 2010