Life is no drag for Adrian Howells

The toast of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival brings his cross-dressing alter-ego to Holon for the International Women's Festival.

Adrian Howells 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Adrian Howells 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Performance artist Adrian Howells is no drag queen, and "I never refer to my work as drag." His Adrienne is "a persona, an alter ego, an extension of me, Adrian," who wears women's clothes and makeup "to express my more feminine self." From March 6-9, Adrienne will invite viewers into her "living room" a few at a time for An Audience with Adrienne at the Holon Theater. Audience members are served tea and cakes and can listen to stories about her life that are chosen from a menu. They can also ask or answer questions or even offer up their own personal tidbits because, as Adrienne often repeats, "It's ALL allowed." Whereas drag is sometimes "just an excuse for a bitter and misogynistic gay man to vent his spleen, being intimidating and confrontational with an audience," says Howells, being with Adrienne is all about "making people feel really relaxed and comfortable," so that those who so desire will feel ready and able "to open up and share their [own] confessional stories. I like to think that I'm doing something a bit more subversive and deconstructed and even radical, than just drag." All the above precisely describe what Howells has been doing for the past 20 years. An Audience with Adrienne is the latest in a string of Adrienne shows that take place in non-traditional venues, such as a self-service laundry, a beauty salon (where he performed for an audience of one), a hotel bedroom and a store. He's also played in physical theater, as a transsexual and a female impersonator. Explaining his choice of career, Howells maintains that in contrast to an actor, who works with plays and characters, "a performer tends to play him or herself and very often their material is their own life and life experiences." Moreover, performance art leaps genre boundaries, and so "allows for a greater freedom of exploration and experimentation. The work is also often more aligned with contemporary issues... and there is a terrific emphasis on the live experience of it." An Audience with Adrienne premiered at last year's Edinburgh Festival where critics raved, talking about Howells' extraordinary rapport with his audience. The Adrienne format was a deliberate choice because, says Howells, "I think that we are all craving to make meaningful connections with other people. I think we have a need to unburden ourselves and be listened to - I think we all need to be touched and held and experience greater intimacy with other people. It's a mystery to me why we are not all doing this all the time for each other, because isn't it this that makes us human?" The swift advance of digital and electronic communication in an increasingly fractured world, he says, "is somehow negating a basic human need for visceral intimacy. I get a huge thrill from being able to facilitate this kind of encounter, and it inspires me with a great deal of confidence. It's no accident that I do work about intimacy because I also have issues around intimacy with other people." Perhaps issues of intimacy date from an often lonely boyhood during which he got mercilessly teased by his peers because he preferred dolls, playing with girls and dressing up in women's clothes. BORN AND raised in Sittingbourne, Kent, Howells says that he liked to think his childhood was idyllic, but the truth is "I was a very anxious child." Due to the fact he was often teased and was a bed-wetter, he admits to having "all kinds of fears about irrational things like escalators, brass bands and people dressed up as clowns." Often retreating to his bedroom, Howells created his own wildly imaginative fantasy world, creativity his parents and teachers approved and fostered. At school he became involved in theater, was a member of the Kent County Youth Theater and won his school's drama prize in 12th grade. From 1981-84 he studied English and drama at Bretton Hall College which was affiliated with Leeds University. Today Howells is a teacher as well as a performer. He has directed and taught at the Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and is currently AHRC Creative Fellow at the Theater, Films and TV Studies Department of Glasgow University. He also takes his work as an educator very seriously: "I take [my own learning] just as seriously! I always say to [my] students that I cannot teach them anything, I can only facilitate their learning - I know for a fact that my best teaching has been when I am genuinely learning myself and making discoveries alongside my students." He has also developed "Beyond the Comfort Zone," a workshop for professional actors/performers that he's been teaching throughout the UK for the last six years and that he'll give in Holon. The workshop encourages participants to push themselves beyond their preconceived limits. "I am interested in exhaustion," says Howells, explaining that exhaustion lowers emotional and physical defenses, thus enabling a more truthful approach to any given stage situation. If a performer learns how to access that place in him or herself, both the artist and audience can experience "something that is much more authentic and honest and compelling. And I think this is something that I am always striving for in my work." Adrian Howells's Israel performances are sponsored by BI-ARTS, a cultural exchange program between Israel and Britain initiated by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Culture.