Obituary: Adrian Howells, performer and teacher.

Adrian Howells at Govanhill Baths, Glasgow. Picture: TSPL
Adrian Howells at Govanhill Baths, Glasgow. Picture: TSPL
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Born: 9 April, 1962, in Sittingbourne, Kent. Died: 16 March, 2014, in Glasgow, aged 51.

A drian Howells: The autobiography of you, me, us.

I write as Adrian’s friend, colleague and peer. I know this is meant to be an appreciation of Adrian, but really it’s all about me. Adrian and I built careers on the back of autobiographical work so I am confident he would appreciate my acknowledgement of egocentricity (though we agreed to banish the term “self-indulgent”, thinking it a lazy descriptor). I write about Adrian through me because nothing else is possible. This is how I know him.

Our mutual interest in autobiographical performance – his practical, mine academic – brought our life stories together. The first time we met was to work on a funding application, which secured him a Creative Fellowship at the University of Glasgow.

For three years, he explored how risk related to autobiographical performance, taking personal psychic risks in the process. For three years, I was his audience of one – an academic mentor, a critical friend, an informed interlocutor.

And for three years I tried to persuade, cajole and forbid Adrian from using words like “genuine”, “authentic” and “real”. If you ever heard Adrian talk about his work, you will know – and likely be immensely glad – that I failed miserably.

Adrian would turn up at our regular meetings with his journal brimming with notes, questions, insights and ideas. He loved having an office, loved being a researcher. His belief in the potential for performance to be transformative was unshakeable, with that potential anchored in real – in his words, genuine and authentic – exchanges; exchanges made/given in the shared time and space that theatre offers.

His journey over the three years of his Fellowship 
was remarkable, as he discarded his habitual performance-mask of “Adrienne” (described by Adrian as “less a drag queen than another version of me; a man wearing thick make-up and rather unglamorous, woman-next-door clothes”), but also, more radically perhaps, what we came to recognise as the mask provided by “confessional talking”.

The closeness of sharing intimate dialogue was replaced with a physical intimacy, often performed in silence and with an audience of one. Exploring the tactile and haptic – holding hands, washing feet, bathing bodies, spooning, feeding – Adrian found a different mode of risk taking, communication and transformation.

The hundreds of tributes already posted on Adrian’s Facebook page – but also the many academic articles about his work and the feedback he gathered after each performance – pay testimony to his incredible performance skills of generating intimacy, making connections across selves, closing the gap between one and another. He made it look easy but it wasn’t.

The first performance I experienced was An Audience with Adrienne and I will always remember the opening moment of “welcome”. Adrian/Adrienne stood at the door of his homely, kitsch “living room”, introducing himself and asking in turn our names before ushering us in. He asked only once but he listened and remembered and then made sure to use every single name during his performance. Each of us was addressed personally.

Though Adrian’s work was ostensibly autobiographical, in his presence I felt present. He saw me. I was there. To participate in one of Adrian’s performances was to feel like you knew him, but really, he used his work to provide space and time for you to learn a little more about yourself. (It’s all about me.)

I know this is meant to be an appreciation of Adrian Howells but really it’s all about us. As a Fellow of the University of Glasgow, Adrian transformed work colleagues into close friends and students into serious practitioners. He turned up at a graduation ceremony in his Bretton Hall gown, proud to celebrate our students’ success.

His pedagogical practice – which travelled with him to many institutions around the world – proved inspirational for most students and life-changing for some. No life is lived singularly and Adrian’s crossed generations and continents, creating new and lasting connections with people in Canada, Australia, Germany, Vancouver, Singapore, Israel.

Adrian always returned home with renewed enthusiasm, relating stories about the interesting people he’d met and the insights gleaned. And when he returned, it was to Glasgow.

I am sorry I wasn’t at Adrian’s 50th birthday party, celebrated in camp style in 2012 at the Arches (his home within a home, you might say). I received a message from him a couple of days later: “I really did miss you on Monday night, Dee, but DID manage to mention you in my thank you speech (I was talking about the sense of family and community I’ve experienced in Glasgow over the last 22 years and working in such places as The Citz, the RSAMD, and The Uni, and how the majority of the people there were from one of these places.)”

Adrian would not be surprised to know that this Glasgow community of which he was such a huge and important part is now holding on to each other tightly. (This is about us.)

There’s a tear in the fabric of our community which, though we will tend lovingly, we are unlikely to ever mend. Anyone in receipt of written communication from Adrian will be aware that he was a) a man of very long messages and b) fond of punctuating his messages with performative emphasis. In and to the spirit of Adrian: You are 

Adrian knew well that a life is made – and continues – from the stories told about it. The stories circulating of Adrian this week tell mostly of generosity, care, compassion, openness, talent, love and laughter. But there are other stories that we should tell too: of anxiety, depression, despair and struggle.

The Adrian performed on stage was only one version, as is the Adrian with that big smile. Adrian and I spoke a lot about the self that is a shifting and multi-dimensional entity. There are as many tales as there are tellers.

In his performances, Adrian would often invite the audience to select the story they wished to hear from a menu of titles. In having to make a choice, you chose to hear some things over others. It’s an effective technique – holding something back, leaving room for the imagination.

In homage, I end by offering a menu of titles created by just a few of Adrian’s many friends in Glasgow, each nesting a favourite story about the friend, artist, mentor, teacher, Fellow, son, brother, uncle, lover, peer, collaborator. I write about Adrian through them. Then it’s over to you and your imagination. (It’s all about you.)

“Gurrlll, you know you’ll be wearing the saffron robes” (Katie Gough).

“Stuck a feather in her hat and called it…” (Laurie Brown)

“Tonne up kid” (Minty Donald and Nic Millar)

“Fart joke revisited” (Nick Green)

“Don’t worry Adrian, if we get caught we can just tell everyone that we thought it was all complimentary” (Jackie Wylie)

“Glittering up disability” (Gary Gaizely-Gardner)

“Tilly top up and the Tunnocks caramel wafer” (Jess Thorpe)

“The man with the silver angel in his pocket” (Peter McMaster)

“The only thing that’s not allowed is wearing a play suit with tiny buttons” (Lucy Gaizely)

“Frying tonight!!!!!!” (Robert Walton and Ryan Galbraith)