Adrian Howells: an appreciation of the talented theatremaker
Howells' unexpected death at 51 is a sad loss for both Scotland and the international performance community
As an educator, mentor, friend and performer, Adrian Howells has been an inspiration to generations of Glasgow artists. His own pioneering work in intimate theatre insisted on a theatre that communicated directly with the audience, breaking down emotional barriers and transforming mundane experiences into profound meditations on the connections between life and art. His unexpected passing, at the age of 51, is a sad loss for both Scotland and the international performance community.
Howells' work was always serious and intense, without ever losing a playful sense of humour: his series of one-to-one pieces were delicate, ephemeral and spoke of his sincere commitment to a compassionate theatre that refused empty spectacle and celebrated genuine emotions. From his early work as an actor at The Citizens, through to his most recent pieces through The Arches, Howells used the theatre to explore ideas of identity, intimacy and acceptance: feeling that traditional theatre gave too little space to express his experience, he embarked on a journey that took in drag, spiritual rituals and broad, yet kind, comedy.
In the past decade, his close association with both the RCS and Glasgow University, where he was artist in residence for three years, gave him the opportunity to act as a mentor to many of the young theatre-makers who have made Glasgow such a dynamic hub. Tales of his enthusiasm for new work, his generous advice and ability to cultivate potential are legion, and his influence is expressed in works as diverse as Rantin and Nic Green's Trilogy: the gentle passion that was at the heart of his life and work is reflected in their tentative, nuanced explorations of ideas.
Yet his calm, relaxed presence belied his artistic restlessness: having been a member of The Citizens' company during the 1990s, when it was famed for its bold exploration of sexuality and gender – working under director Stewart Laing and alongside Leigh Bowery – he worked with physical theatre innovators DV8, before finding a place, through his Adrienne alter-ego, in the emerging experimental cabaret scene. Troubled by the lack of engagement with audiences, he sought out one-to-one theatre, defining its interest in a personal interaction: while acknowledging this expressed his personal worries about a lack of intimacy, the generosity of his performance ensured that it was neither selfish nor self-indulgent.
In recent years, Howells was increasingly interested in theatre as a community building process. His time as artist in residence at The Arches was marked by collaborations, and through Sense Scotland, an engagement with adults with learning needs. He was a familiar face around the theatre community, often at the centre of playful conversation and filling the room with his distinctive bawdy laughter.
If there were always hints of melancholy in his shows, it was an expression of his unflinching honesty: while it is too simple to recognise his depression as a driving force between his art, it was his emotional suffering that allowed him to be supportive and appreciative of others. He will be deeply missed by the theatre community both as an imaginative creator and a guide.