- From Talking to SilenceA Confessional Journey
Introducing Adrian Howells (DH)
Our culture is saturated with confessional opportunities, ranging from chat shows to "Reality TV," from Internet blogs to social networking sites such as Facebook. It seems that wherever you turn people are more than willing to engage with an unburdening of their deepest and darkest secrets. This proliferation of confessional technologies has been mirrored by an evolving genre of autobiographical, confessional live performance. In the UK, a considerable body of work based on the sharing of personal material has been created by artists such as Mem Morrison, Bobby Baker, Ursula Martinez, Curious, and Third Angel, to name just a few.
Over the past ten years, performance artist Adrian Howells has made a significant contribution to this confessional performance landscape, creating and touring performances in which he confides in strangers hoping, in turn, that they will share details with him. Howells structures his performances around dual notions of "transaction" and "transformation," with exchange anchored in the dialogic: the oral/aural, the spoken and the heard. Most recently, his work has tended to be performed for a single spectator at a time. In this form of performance practice—intimate, personal, and interactive—the boundary between performer and spectator dissolves in the process of exchange, an exchange that asks for a committed and at times vulnerable sort of spectatorship.
How does this performance work sit alongside—or in resistance to—the glut of mass-mediated confessions? For the past three years, in his role as a Creative Fellow at the University of Glasgow (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council), Howells has been exploring further the nature of risk and intimacy in performance, asking what sorts of confessions might take place in a secular culture, and with what effects. My own long-standing interest in performances that use autobiographical material has allowed me to act as an "academic mentor" to Howells—a critical friend and an informed interlocutor—for the duration of his fellowship.1 I have had the privilege of seeing first-hand how he works. I have also had the opportunity to [End Page 1] participate in the work itself and to offer feedback from the inside, prompting shifts in the practice as it has developed.
Three years offer a considerable and unusual amount of time and space for an artist to pursue a defined "problem": in this instance, the place of confession in live performance. Time and space afford the opportunity (too often, unfortunately, considered a costly luxury) to reflect, to question, to challenge, and to revise. Prompted by the personal frame of Howells's work, in the following pages we offer personal, reflective accounts of the research journey: Adrian Howells's from the perspective of the artist; mine, from the perspective of the spectator. Both accounts reveal the entirely unexpected shift from a form of performance that uses talking at its heart as a prompt for and signal of "intimacy," to the use of silence as a way to structure other types of intimacy and "confession." Howells's three-year journey saw him not only drop his drag performance mask of "Adrienne," but also, more radically perhaps, what we came to recognize as the mask provided by "talking." In shared silence, he found a different mode of risk-taking, communication, and transformation.
Introducing "Adrienne"—"The Confessing Animal" (AH)
Whilst the ontology of theatre is one of communal experience, my work has been motivated by the sense that in this age of mass-mediation and technological advancement there is a necessity to prioritize opportunities for audiences to have intimate face-to-face, one-to-one encounters in real-time with real people. My work prioritizes interpersonal connectedness and what I refer to as an authentic experience between two people (though the question of "authenticity" in the field of performance is always vexed). My presumptions about confessional exchange have been predicated on an entrenched, perhaps cultural belief in the therapeutic benefits of confession, it being akin to a "talking cure." Indeed, my own oft-repeated mantra is "a burdened shared is a burdened halved." Through my performance experience, I intuited that I...