• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Adrian Howells

Performer and teacher

Performer and teacher

Born 9 April, 1962; Died 16 March 2014

Adrian Howells, who has died at his Glasgow home aged 51, was a generous, loving and compassionate soul who touched the lives of many through his work, his teaching and unstintingly through his friendship.

If Glasgow as a whole - not just its arts sector, but its local communities and academic institutions - benefitted from his decision to relocate from London to Partick in 2006, the move did not inhibit Howells from continuing his creative ministry to the world at large. Without being preachy, Howells simply decided that someone had to provide an accessible oasis for other people in the midst of modern-day stresses and pressures.

Working in the arts was what he knew best, so he turned his heart and mind to creating what he called oasis moments that would be sustained by his own energies, awareness and non-judgemental attitudes. And whether he was allowing total strangers to share a confessional dialogue in one-to-one encounters from Berlin to Singapore, or washing the feet of Jews and Arabs alike in Israel, Howell's whole performative endeavour was rooted in acts of nurturing and solace.

The young Adrian Howells - born in Sittingbourne, Kent, to a father who worked for Marks & Spencer and a mother who loved amateur dramatics - would probably not have listed My Top Career Objective as soaping the day's grime off someone else's soles. As a pupil at Borden Grammar School, and then as a student at Bretton Hall (part of Leeds University), he constantly favoured activities where flamboyant flair - and flamboyant flares - were the preferred style. He had the videos and the souvenirs to prove it too. In time, they would become the set dressing for his performances as Adrienne, the female alter-ego he adopted in his 40s after paying a variety of acting dues and accruing a deliciously eventful CV.

His anecdotes about, among others, Leigh Bowery, Nigel Charnock and Glasgow's own Citizens Theatre - where he worked as both as actor and assistant director in the 1990s - were always told with a flourish: maybe a confidential lowering of the voice, or the arching of a eye-brow. Just a hint of camp flirting with the wry humour, but like Howell's wonderfully rich laugh - which was like a hug to the ears - there was never any malice in the mischievous turns of phrase or the memories.

The only person Howells ever deprecated was, in fact, himself. And when Adrienne arrived centre-stage, this garrulous domestic diva in red lippy, high heels, mini-skirt and rubber gloves was ready to reveal all kinds of personal "stains" - disappointments, follies, hankerings and crushes - when she invited Glasgay! audiences to wash their (actual) dirty linen in her basement domain at the Arches.

Like Adrienne's own persona, that kitchen set was a brilliant mix of the down-to-earth and the wannabe glam - tinsel glitter with your tea and biscuits, folks? But there was a warmth, a discernible integrity to Adrienne's way of interacting in the moment with her clutch of curious ticket-holders that somehow made it feel safe to share secrets and fears, private likes and dislikes with a sofa-load of listening strangers.

Subsequent shows found Adrienne entertaining little groups of visitors on the Edinburgh Fringe - jam tarts and sponge fingers to the fore, along with party games that led to swapping tales of childhood and adolescence. Howells's own formative years ran past us in lurid recollections and glorious technicolour thanks to the family videos that came on-screen while the tea was brewed up.

And then, one night, as the footage played out, Adrienne disappeared and Adrian - in simple vest and sweat-pants - said the goodnights, safe homes instead. For those of us who knew Howells off-stage, as well as on, this was as much of a coming out as his early telling of family and friends that he was gay. No more mask of expertly-applied slap or ticklish tales: instead Howells entered into what would become the last phase of his performative career.

He was now garnering far-ranging recognition for his radical approach to theatre-making as an intimate, cathartic, confessional process. From 2006 to 2009, he was an Arts and Humanities Research Council fellow in the Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies at Glasgow University - the legacy of that period is now emerging in future generations of theatre-makers, not just in Scotland but in all parts of the globe where he led workshops, mentored students and used his own performances to inspire others to risk themselves emotionally and intellectually through a closeness of human contact in one-to-one contexts.

His tenure as artist-in-residence at the Arches brought him into contact with Sense Scotland and the individuals who are supported by this charity. Bumping into him in Argyle Street was a cue for chatty exchanges where he would enthuse about what he was being taught about communication - through movement especially - by people whose disabilities made him re-assess how much he took for-granted.

And that included touch. He would muse on how so much of his own work used physical touch as a pivotal factor. How could he engage with someone who avoided touch? "You know, I think it comes down to just being there," he said. "Not doing anything, but using a sense of togetherness in the same way you and I would hug."

And then he would be off again, to liaise with one or other of the many projects - in Glasgow and beyond - that now suggest that while he had time for everybody else, Howells possibly didn't leave time for himself.

Trying to list all the achievements of his life, let alone those he piled into the last decade, only brings home what a loss his passing is. Latterly, it became impossible to draw any kind of dividing line between the man and the work he made.

The roguish wit, the frank surrendering of his own experiences - some of them cast over by shadows of debilitating depression - and the resolute determination to find joy in the simplest pleasures of life were only in his performances because they were the bone-marrow fabric of the man.

He is survived by his parents and by his brother Julian. They were his immediate kin, but as thousands of friends, colleagues and students across the world struggle to put into words their love and grief, the truth is Adrian Howells made us all his family.

Contextual targeting label: 
Arts and Entertainment

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

220930