Ponystep by Rachel Newsome - 2009
The missing link between Aeschylus – godfather of Greek tragedy, Nietzsche and Irene Cara, where Nietzsche went beyond good and evil, fusing eighties power ballads, queer cabaret and Wagnerian opera in predominantly nothing but a bit of leotard and a pair of nude tights, so Theo Adams boldly goes beyond irony to produce spectacular discharges of joy and pain that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Greek amphitheatre circa 500 BC.
Theo Adams comes from a Greek family. He grew up listening to glass-shattering Greek power ballads, which indicates that at some level the loud, exaggerated body language and the even louder voice, the camp-ness and the flamboyance, together with the love of theatre and spectacle must spring from somewhere deep in the blood. Throw in Dame Edna, Liza Minelli and “Chess: The Musical” and the circle is almost complete.
In equal parts epic, pompous, knowing, self-conscious, earnest, innocent, vehement, Dionysian, celebratory, cathartic, sacred, profane, mystic, revelatory, a Theo Adams performance looks something like this:
Under a spectral blue light a dumb “chorus” with black sockets for eyes and dressed in plain white leotards contort in pain as if being pecked by invisible birds. Frozen in this nightmare, they are rooted to the spot unable either to articulate their pain or run from it. This, to the increasingly feverish attack of bow on strings as the pecking builds and builds.
The set is simple; scaffolding, exposed wings, white strips of linen flowing from the back wall into the centre of the floor like bandages or the ribs of a whale.
Inside this rib cage, perhaps the belly of the beast, the chorus shake and tremble as the strings are swamped by competing operatic voices, which bellow and swoon in turn; the call from heaven and from hell.
As the music unfolds from feverish to menacing, the chorus begin to move, arching their backs and flinging themselves to the floor in acts of hysteria; modern day satyrs – half creatures, half gods, communicating their fear and wonder through wide-eyed stares.
Stumbling into this orgiastic melee with the limp of an invalid enters Theo. His scalp is shaved like a monk from the centre of which flops a fin of black hair. Dressed in a skin-tight, sleeveless black ball gown, shrunk just short of tiny pink nipples on a concave chest, he could be Tiresias, the character from Greek literature who is fully man and fully woman, a priest, a priestess, a prostitute, a seer. Like the chorus, his eyes are black; his mouth bleeds with glitter.
The chorus - writhing now not from pain but ecstasy – tear the dress from Theo’s body. Overcome with obvious distress, he mounts the scaffolding. There, he weeps, he wails, he beats his chest and tears his hair, half-speaking, half-chanting the lyrics to “Going Nowhere”, originally written for Scottish child star turned singer, Lena Zavaroni, who died of complications relating to her life long struggle with anorexia, aged 35.
The music is triumphant now, victorious; song of survivors and conquerors. Red glitter pours from the remains of Theo’s underskirt. It pours from his mouth, from his “lacerated” body. Suffering death by glitter, he too, is in ecstasy, as simultaneously he rises Phoenix-like from his ashes, burnt by the fire, wide-eyed and innocent again. But what is it that Theo has seen? Whisper it gently. The light.
A strange marriage between the bright “Yes We Can!” optimism of Obama’s children and the darker Wildean kind in which we are all in the gutter but some are looking at the stars, Theo – who is nineteen going on ninety – has arrived, a divine messenger in glitter and tights, to re-light the candle and continue the dance.
Rachel Newsome: Theo, your work treads a very thin line between irony and sincerity, is this intentional?
Theo Adams: In the last performance I did I was projecting images from The Wiz. It’s the 1975 Motown version of the Wizard of Oz starring Michael Jackson as the scarecrow when he’s really young and Diana Ross as Dorothy even though she’s 40 or something. It was panned by the critics and it’s very weird but I think it’s the best film of all time. There are flaws to it but I think that’s what makes it beautiful. They should be celebrated not laughed at. When I look at things like that, I genuinely love them. I’m not being ironic. I’m not laughing at it. I think it’s amazing.
RN: We’re living in times of economic meltdown, global warming and terrorism, what is there to be optimistic about?
TA: Everything! Life is amazing! I’m so happy to be alive! Like, I just walk out on the street and I could get spat at but I could also find people dancing. I like the bad and the good and I think I bring them out in my performances. I like to bring it all together in a celebration of life. I was recently talking about power ballads and someone asked me if I thought they were emotionally manipulative and I said, yes they are but I think emotionally manipulative work is the best work as a performer that you can do. You’re changing the way people think. It’s a very direct way of doing things. I think people too easily dismiss things for being cheesy. I think people should step back and stop thinking about taste. I think the idea of taste is so boring. If Mozart was around today, he’d probably be writing power ballads. I do believe that! Some people might disagree but I think that’s the case. What he did was quite direct. It was complex and beautiful but it was also immediate.
RN: Do you make art or entertainment?
TA: I think I try to do both. But entertainment is definitely important because I don’t want to go and see something boring. I like to be entertained and I like to entertain people I’ve always had that in me and I genuinely think that Judy Garland, if you watch some of her later shows, is the best example of performance art you’ll ever see. She was very vulnerable. You can see her. She’s an amazing performer but she’s performing herself and her life and I find that quite interesting. The beauty for me is to be honest while I’m performing. It’s quite funny for me because when I first started performing I was like 15 or something doing it clubs. The press got interested in me. I did a TV show. I had a full page interview in the Metro. But they were all reading about me as “this crazzzeee kid who wears funny clothes!” no one was talking about what I did. It wasn’t a persona that I created, but that they created. It wasn’t honest. I don’t feel I created it. They were just interested in the fact that I wore glitter or something. Then I got offered to do Big Brother. Endemol wanted me to do my own TV show. I was 17. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and it was too much so I just said no to everything.
RN: Why did you say no to Big Brother?
TA: I knew it was completely manipulative. I just don’t think I’d have the patience to do something like that. I don’t think it would be a very good reflection of me because they’d edit me however they wanted to, although I have no problem with people who go on Big Brother. I’m quite a fan of reality TV but I’m a fan because it’s so manipulative and I find that quite interesting. Basically, I’m too much of a control freak to let someone else have control over me. That’s why I do my own thing.
RN: Do you ever stop performing “Theo”?
TA: I’ve always wanted an audience. The audience is what I thrive on. I feel life is a performance. I feel like I’m performing as myself. I never feel like I’m putting on a character. I don’t feel like I’m pretending to be anything I’m not but I am performing. I’m conscious of how I come across all the time.
RN: Who are your heroes and heroines?
TA: I think Judy Garland is amazing but I prefer Liza. She’s vulnerable but she has a survivor in her and it’s the survivor that I find really exciting. Definitely her. Elaine Stritch is another. Most of them are performers. The only men I can think of are men who like to wear heels. Like Justin Bond from Kiki and Herb. I met him when I was about 12. He’s helped me along the way. I’ve been quite lucky with the people I’ve met. I met them quite early on. I was a guest at his show at the Soho theatre. The difference between women and men for me is that women aren’t afraid to act like men a lot of the time. They’re not afraid to be strong so they tread the line with the gender but men don’t really go the other way. I like those people who are in the middle who have the glamour and the feminine energy but also the strength.
RN: What things first opened your heart?
TA: I remember I used to love “Dame Edna’s Neighbourhood Watch”. It was like a reality quiz where she would bring a member of the audience up on stage and at the same time there would be a camera at their home filming someone going through their house and all their things and they would literally just tear the house down so it was very anarchic. That was a big influence on me; the anarchy and glamour – the drag. I’ve never seen drag to be just funny. There’s something strong about drag. Like, I would never get into an argument with a drag queen. They’d kill you. Also, I was going to the theatre all the time when I was young to see musicals and stuff. At nine I was in Stephen Daldry’s production of “An Inspector Calls” in the West End and that was a very big influence on me. I didn’t speak but I was on stage the whole time. Basically, I was making everything happen. I was a symbol. The set was amazing. I could see behind the scenes. I’m really interested in the image that the audience sees but also the other side. I like to reveal that in my performances.
RN: How do you think that will evolve?
TA: I want to do a full performance with the wings exposed so that the dancers will dance, but then they’ll go into the wings and you’ll see them take off their shoes. If there’s ballet, then a lot of the time they’re bleeding and being out of breath. I like that idea of exposing because that is just as interesting to watch.
RN: What are you reading right now?
TA: I only read scripts at the moment. I find them quite fun. I like musical scripts. I’ve just got “Chicago: the musical”. I have the characters in my head. I’m constantly on the computer reading Wikipedia articles about different things. I like information in short bursts. I guess it’s because I’m young. I don’t have the attention span so I have a bizarre knowledge about different things. People always say, “Theo, you’re only 19, how the hell do you know about that?” But it’s from looking at Wikipedia and YouTube. I don’t go to school so I do my own research, I have my own knowledge, so at the moment I’m learning about staging and the staging of “Chess” and how they changed it for America. It’s really fascinating. They had a ‘light up’ stage that moved and all these TV screens at the side. There are a few clips on You Tube of the original version but really bad quality but things like that, I get my inspiration from.
RN: What would you like to do next?
TA: I’ve kind of gone on a little journey from when I first started. Even though the performances are basically the same, it’s still got glitter and power ballads now I’ve got all these dancers. I’ve got David White who I work on with sets. I’ve got Jordan Hunt who I do music with who’s incredible. I kind of want to make it a bit more formal. Rather than it just be Theo Adams, The Theo Adams Company, if you like. Also, I want to do concept albums. Like if you go to a musical, they’ll be a sound track to it, like Chess. I was thinking about it yesterday and I thought it would be really interesting. They made the soundtrack before they did the show. They’re basically amazing pop songs that got to number one in the charts. I’d like to do that – songs within themselves rather than hour long soundtracks. I don’t know if they’d get to number one in the charts but you never know. I’d like to do more film work as well. I don’t see myself as making really obscure art films that are ten hours long and really boring. I think people would actually want to see them. I think they would be quite entertaining. But you need a lot of money to do it properly. And doing big spectacular things like the opening of the Olympic Games and stuff like that. I’d love to direct huge productions.
RN: It’s a shame you won’t be around for the next millennium. Imagine the production for the celebration of the year 3000.
TA: I know. Well, we’ll see what happens. . .
RN: Then again, if you’re going to live forever, you could?
TA: I’m going to live forever, exactly!