Theo Adams Company
by Paul Flynn
Published in Ponystep Issue 5.
Theo Adams is a creative force unseen since the heydays of Leigh Bowery. Onstage, his performances are at once touching and emotional, but delivered with a ballsy conviction that leaves the audience both bewildered and euphoric. Offstage, Theo maintains a lower profile, though in no way less interesting... Paul Flynn gets under the skin of fashions favourite show off!
Between mid-March and mid-April 2012, The Theo Adams Company decamped to the Long Island pile of cultural philanthropist and Einstein on the Beach director, Robert Wilson, for a month long residency. I’d had my ear pricked about this on the East End gossip mill. I first came across Theo as a 15 year-old-schoolboy central to a scintillating brand of gender-dysphoric, mid-00s London nightclub chaos. In seven short years he had turned his arresting social presence and brilliant performance compulsion into high art.
Back then, you could find him in full horror drag, like a demented grandchild of Fenella Fielding lip-syncing to the eruptive Dreamgirls classic ...And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going while spitting glitter over drunken club-kids. He lent the parties at Kash Point, Anti Social and later Boombox youthful dystopian menace. He once dragged the future editor of iD, mortified across a dance-floor by her hair. His look was blood red, black, diamante and hair. His aesthetic located the thrilling intersection between high camp housewife and slasher fiction corpse. He was part of a crowd for whom the real-time suburban nightmare/fantasia of Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent would turn out to be their Sex Pistols on Bill Grundy moment.
At 22, Theo assorted 18 performers to take to Long Island, from Japan, LA and London. The intention was to put into development the first work for his (what? Theatre company? Performance Art troupe? Drag revue?) ensemble that had not been subject to commission. Even Theo finds it difficult to express what exactly it is that he does.
In a British political moment of benefits vilification and state austerity, Theo is part of a third wave of uneducated, Punk descendant London visionaries that relies on the beneficiary of high fashion brands to facilitate their vision. Prior to Robert Wilson extending his palm, annunciating him with international art significance, Louis Vuitton and Mac cosmetics had both proven generous enablers for his work.
At 23, Theo still lives at home with his father, Adam Adams (‘can you believe that?’) in the mostly Jewish North London suburb of Golders Green. His wardrobe is assembled from the off-cuts and cast-offs of the women of NW11. His physical heritage and primary artistic instinct is Greek. He is a fan of the charity shop designer favourite, Frank Usher. ‘He’d dress every Jewish mother for their kid’s Bar Mitzvah, so it was full-on sequins and beading and a lot of appliqué,’ he explains, ‘I have a lot of that. Then I’ll find an Yves Saint Laurent suit for a fiver. Those kinds of women were the women I grew up with. That was my idea of glamour. I don’t believe in trashiness as a concept. One person’s trash is another person’s couture. I think everything is subjective. You like what you like.’
In April 2013 I met Theo at The Hackney Bureau, a cafe on Mare Street, E8 to talk about his transition from night-club enfant terrible to art scion. He is voluble, expressive and infectious company, wearing a white bolero blouse, tight women’s jeans and intricate gold hoop earrings at 4 in the afternoon. Because of the attention gathered around the thrilling night-club moment he birthed into and helped invigorate, his first performance was at The Tate. He sold out two nights at The ICA with no marketing, performed in New York at PS1 Moma. But the new show is clearly bearing a little heavily on his jolly, upbeat disposition. He explains the first scene, of a chorus figure running repeatedly into the curtain of a proscenium arch theatre, before being taken toward the heavens as the curtain rises. He specifies lighting and, of course, costume detailing. He is at his most cerebral describing artistic ideas, clearly and succinctly, and his loudest when talking about another great love, reality television.
Theo has never seen divisions between high and low culture. ‘I’m interested in high drama. You get that from opera and you get it from Big Brother,’ he says affirmatively. His favourite Big Brother characters are Nadia, the Portuguese transsexual winner of season 5, and Makosi, the reformed hooker that behaved like an African Princess in season 6. ‘The box task year,’ he says, conclusively. He was 4 when MTV’s The Real World kick-started the age and parameters of reality TV, 10 when Hear’Say won the first of the big British Saturday night singing show-downs, Popstars. Controversially, he prefers the X Factor-endorsed brand of pop to the 90s processed variant currently being celebrated on The Big Reunion, because the girls are cast on it to sing, now, rather than stroll onto the cover of FHM in a bikini. ‘I like a girl with lungs.’
The roster of reality TV has allowed for further curiosities onto primetime. We spend a full four minutes discussing the Liverpool boyband that almost made it to the final of an early X Factor season, comprising three rent boy-looking types and a delicate out-of-drag tranny. ‘Eton Road,’ he correctly identifies.
Back in the world of high art, Robert Wilson’s place in Long Island, New York State, The Watermill Center, was not what Theo Adams was expecting at all. ‘It used to be an old laboratory for the Western Union,’ he says, ‘They invented the Fax Machine there. I could definitely feel the ghosts of a few faxes in the atmosphere.’ Wilson took 15 years to rebuild the premises to his specifications. ‘The builders would build and he would come in and make them change whole walls as they were slightly too close together. He was used to theatre sets rather than concrete so it took a long time. It was like living in a museum. Every corner you turned there would be some kind of amazing priceless object.’ Theo slept next to a vase dating back to BC500. ‘Just casually there, like it was something from Ikea.’
For its 18 newest collaborative artists-in-residence, selected by a board that includes some of the most dizzyingly high names of contemporary global art creation and curation (Marina Abramovic, Xavier LeRoy, Taryn Simon, Elisabeth Sussman from the Whitney, Jonathan Safran Foer, Wilson himself, amongst others), the immaculate polished flooring of the three-wing, quasi-Brutalist building turned out to be a problem. ‘The whole of The Watermill is incredibly anal,’ he says, ‘One of the rules was no shoes in the majority of the building. Obviously a big signature of our work is the 5-inch stilettos that the whole cast wear, which I was not willing to get rid of. The solution was them supplying us with 1000 yoga mats, which we had to cover the floors of the rehearsal studio spaces in.’
The Theo Adams Company accidentally learnt a new discipline to add to their eclectic portfolio of movement, mime, music, dance and dialogue. ‘We are now experts at dancing in 5-inch stilettos on a foam floor. Which is not an easy skill, I can tell you.’
The representational idea of the significance of the stiletto heel became, perhaps inevitably central to Theo’s work for the month. ‘As part of the residency they encourage the residents to use any of The Watermill’s collection in their work. I was terrified of breaking everything so insisted on moving everything out.’ One item from Wilson’s archive remained. ‘A plinth with a pair of satin heels with a bloodstain on the toes. They belonged to Marlene Dietrich and were apparently her favourite shoes. They were worn by her in her last ever performance. We just had them in the corner of our main rehearsal space, and they proved to be a huge inspiration to us and the work we created. They represented glamour, pain and resilience and had a huge darkness and melancholy.’
Theo Adams is better at explaining his work than he thinks. ‘They really were amazing. I didn’t really realise how much of an honour it is to be part of the residency programme before we went. I knew very little of Robert Wilson’s work, but having taken part in a residency there I feel like I’ve taken part in one of his artworks now. You begin to understand how his brain works after a few weeks there. In America it’s a very well-known and respected place.’ Truly, there is no more thrilling a way of becoming a big deal than not even realising it is happening to you.
In 2010, The Theo Adams Company performed their biggest commission yet, an event across 17 rooms with over 80 performers for the fashion monolith, Louis Vuitton. Theo was 20. ‘I never found out what the budget was because I never asked. Whatever I asked for I would get. It was epic. I learnt from doing that project and working with suits from Paris how to get my own way, basically.’
In 2009, the Theo Adams Company was shot for a portfolio by the amazing portraitist and fashion photographer David Sims for W Magazine. The budget looked astronomical to the young Theo. ‘It was that time when every magazine wanted to do a cool London shoot,’ he says. It was not uncommon at the time to see Jonjo next to Kate Moss on a page in American Vogue. ‘In a way that was the reality of it, though. She did come to Boombox. I was in there one night and this woman came up to me and asked about my fur coat. Like, oh my god, where is this from? I was like “who’s she, she’s on something.” I ran up to Matthew [Stone] and said “that woman’s sort of groping me” and he was like “that’s Kate Moss.” I had no idea. That’s another story.’
He picks up the tale of the W shoot. ‘When I work with production companies what they do is not to tell any guest they’ve booked much about what’s going to happen. We had Lorna Luft for this W shoot and I wanted her in one of the images singing. She walked in on set and there was this huge production with my name in red sequins. We had Europe’s only red grand piano, which I’d ruined in the previous shot by scratching it with a pair of bejewelled leggings.’ He laughs.
‘So I was lying topless underneath the red grand piano with black food colouring dripping out of my mouth and confetti flying everywhere. I wanted her to sing The Man That Got Away. Because it was W they had the budget to indulge me. I like stills images to capture a moment in time. Just before she came in someone said to me “OK, Theo, we have to be very careful about this because we don’t know what her reaction is going to be.” All she knew was it was a shot for W magazine. She had no idea about the 19-year-old topless boy with black blood coming out of his mouth. She just walked up onstage, took her position and said “kid, you look great.”’
It took Theo a moment to compose himself after the shutter stopped. ‘I was like: she came out of Judy Garland.’
Theo says he has always loved the Dreamgirls standard ...And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going. ‘That was always my favourite song, from the first time I heard it.’ He prefers the original, Jennifer Holliday version to the Oscar winning Jennifer Hudson reboot. ‘It’s always the original for me. Her doing it at The Tony Awards. The reason I love her so much is that she’s not afraid to be ugly, which makes her more beautiful. She goes to places that no one else would.’ He says he loves it so much ‘Because it starts somewhere big and goes somewhere...’
‘Exactly.’ He says it is his Greek heritage that infuses his love of high drama. ‘The biggest Greek diva is an amazing woman called Anna Vissi. Her biggest hits are huge melodramatic torch songs. If you translated the lyrics into English they would sound ridiculous and over the top. But this is the mainstream in Greece. It’s pop. And it’s in my blood. I’m not afraid to be dramatic. It comes very naturally to me. It’s where I feel most comfortable, actually.’
Theo Adams was born in 1989, the second child and first son of Adam and Jenny Adams. Jenny suffered hard from Multiple Sclerosis and was instructed specifically by her doctor that childbirth could have a detrimental effect on her health. ‘I was always aware from a young age that she would not live forever, that death was inevitable,’ says Theo. Mortality foreshadowed his life.
The thought warrants some fleshing out. It may have some bearing on his natural proclivity to drama and his fundamental, unshakeable fearlessness. ‘Having a disabled parent is a different kind of relationship. They look after you and you look after them. There is a genuine need for each other. My mum was everything to me. I was a ‘young carer’ since I could remember, but I wasn’t really conscious of it. It was just normal to me. But it did definitely make me conscious of what a gift being able to move was. I think that’s why I love dance and I do what I do. It’s a celebration and gift because I’ve always been conscious it could be taken away at any moment. My mum loved dance and danced when she was younger. I guess in a way I’m carrying that on for her.’
When I first saw Theo lip-syncing in night-clubs with his wild hair and his demonic get-up, I had no idea of his story. Clearly it was born of some other urgency than the simple need to show off. But then, so was everyone’s at that time in those clubs.
‘Her disabilities got progressively worse as I grew,’ he continues, ‘until she finally passed away in 2010. I basically came back from a show in Austria on the Sunday and she was admitted to hospital on the Tuesday. Within a few weeks she was gone. It was a strange feeling because I had never had an hour before where I hadn’t thought at one point. “How is mum” or “I hope she’s OK”. And then I didn’t need to think like that, I guess I felt lost after. A few months after I was given the Vuitton job. I went pretty fast into the biggest show of my life.’
Since his big sister and little brother have left home to study, it is just Theo and Adam Adams at home now. They have a strong relationship. ‘I wouldn’t want to leave my dad alone. My mum and us are his life. I couldn’t just leave him.’
In the finale of the first night of the Vuitton show, Theo had a Damascene moment. ‘I could basically see my mum in the spotlight. It was a really amazing feeling and I knew she was still there, keeping her eye on me.’
For some, performance is a gift. For others, it is a need. ‘Silence scares me,’ he says. The new Theo Adams Company performance will be called Entertainment. Don’t let that fool you. It will be so much more than that.