INTERVIEW: Theo Adams
Illustration by Fernando Monroy based on an image by Nick Knight
theo adams is the founder of performance collective 'the adams company'. the company is an ever growing and changing london based collective of multidisciplinary artists, designers, dancers, musicians, and performers from across the globe, brought together by artist and director theo adams. they create unique large-scale theatrical productions, film, immersive events, photography and sound work.
when did you start going out on the scene?
i started going clubbing at 14. i grew up in london so i never had that thing of 'going to the big city'. i never had that thing of dreaming of another world because i knew that it was 15 minutes away on the tube. cashpoint was a certain type of club where you could dress up like... like you weren't even human any more. that really helped me because if i dressed up loads i wouldn't get id'd. for me dressing up was fun but it was also a necessity because that was the only way i was going to get in anywhere. so i dressed up to such a degree that you could not tell how old i was. i could have been a seventy year old woman.
my attendance at school was getting worse. i had a meeting with the school and i was like 'i think i shouldn't do my gcse's this year cause i haven't done any work and i haven't turned up. i'm going to take a year off and come back next year and do them.' and i just never came back'
i'll be back! wink!
i know! so i never went to university...
do you regret not going?
i've done talks at universities and the minute i walk into one i'm just like, get me out of here, this is horrible.
i did go to university and i felt like that the whole way through
i think a lot of people go to university to 'meet their people'
and you'd already found them..
yes - so i didn't need that. i'm sure there's a shit tonne of things i could have learnt... i've just always been really curious about things... I've been really lucky that i've grown up in this generation of the internet. i'm not a social media person but i am a person who will go on youtube, find something i love and get lost in that. everything is at the click of a button. i'm curious. i just want to know. i've always been like that. but at school, everything i was being taught, i just wasn't interested in.
do you remember the first queer person you encountered?
there were loads of things- the idea of 'queer' is a bit odd. growing up that's what i was drawn to. i was drawn to things that were a bit odd. i wasn't aware that it was queer. from the very beginning, the first film that i watched religiously.. my grandparents are very very greek cypriot and they had pirated vhs videos of 1960s greek musicals. and i would watch this one over and over. and she was the star of greek cinema called aliki stamina vougiouklaki... she was the most gorgeous woman - she's dead now - blonde, like the bridget bardot of greece. in the film she has to escape her horrible parents and then she has to hide on this island and she cuts off all her hair and pretends she's a boy
wow so it's gender transitioning in greek cyprus?
yeah! and i just used to love that film. i didn't know why. but now looking back it had a huge influence on me because it just showed that you could just be anything - it doesn't really matter. i would watch that over and over again. my mother eventually threw it away because i watched it too much and started speaking with a greek accent! my mum's favourite film was 'some like it hot' so i watched that...
wow so these are all about gender, performance.. maybe what was attracting you was the idea of things being elastic. you can perform. you can shift and shape shift. but they're also very glamourous.
all this was about when i was four or five. then there was dame edna [ an australian drag queen comedian ] dame edna had a tv show that was called dame edna's neighbourhood watch i would watch that religiously every saturday night. it was my favourite programme.
there's a real common theme here.. what age were you dressing up?
i had an older sister so the dressing up was her dressing up. that's what i wanted to wear to. also, my parents once won a charity raffle at my primary school and on elf the teachers could make clothes. so they were like, what do you want? a nice little suit or something? no! i want dame edna's neighbourhood watch dress. it was like a ball gown. it was a purple and silver... i designed it myself aged four. my parents are not these liberal people. i was just kind of this annoying brat, 'that's want i want'. it wasn't like 'let theo express himself' it was 'if we don't let theo have that dress our lives are going to be a nightmare'
"my parent's weren't liberal, i was a brat"
then i watched 'kiki and herb' perform when i was twelve or thirteen. they were a lounge act - their schtick was that they kept on going and so now they would do nirvana covers. it was the most punk, the most visceral... by the end everyone was crying. kiki would be on the tables screaming in people's faces.
was that when you first saw that you could go to such an emotional place, because your shows are really visceral?
it's one of the big things. there's other things. a lot of my greek heritage... greek popstars. the biggest greek popstar, the madonna of greece is called anna vissi. her songs which are pop songs- translate like 'i'm gonna kill myself. i'm gonna gas myself myself to death cause you haven't called me.' and that's a pop song. the drama is ingrained in greek culture.
we've got the greek popstar, then dame edna, then kiki and herb and then..
when i started to go to cashpoint i started to meet scottee, matthew stone and they became my family. they were the ones that encouraged and pushed me to do performances in clubs.
how did you go from theo adams the 14 year old boy to theo adams the theo adams company?
i was doing these solo shows for three or four years and then i was doing them all over the world. then the wowwow collective were asked to do a 'late at tate' at tate britain events. we had a meeting and it came to me and i said, i don't know what i want to do yet but i know i want to be last. and everyone said 'theo that's not the point' and i said no i want to be last, i want to be the finale.
that's the same little kid that insisted on the dame edna dress!
yes! so then i had the finale and then i realised it was a huge venue. i got some of my friends who i thought were great performers - i had scottee and gwednoline christie [game of thrones] - so that was how it started. from there we found people. we've never done auditions.
it's like a family..
what would you say to young people who don't have the confidence you had?
in terms of advice? you have to be bit fearless. you have to be prepared for people to tell you you're a twat. that's one of the main things.
i'm terrified of that
see i never cared if people didn't like me. and if people don't like me i'm drawn to them... i'm just interested in what i can do. i've always been annoying and i've always been aware of that. not intentionally...
... you're killing me...
at my secondary school there was a charity fundraising thing and mine was, i would get the sixth formers to pay me a pound a week for me to not annoy them. and i made shitloads of money [laughs]
so you made money just by leaving people alone? that's fucking genius. i've never heard anyone describe themselves as annoying before.
what's essential viewing for lgbtq+ young people?
definitely kiki and herb at carnegie hall. that's fucking amazing. they should look into 'lindsay kemp company.' i didn't know much about lindsay kemp company and then i did this film where i played this guy called jack birkett whose stage name was 'the incredible orlando'. jack was lindsay kemp's right hand guy and was in a lot of derrick jarman's films. he went blind when he was quite young and lindsay kemp retrained him. he was performing, and no one knew and he was completely blind. i don't know how he did it and how he didn't fall off the stage. it was the most incredible performer.
when i read interviews with people from a certain generation they always say david bowie was the thing that changed their lives. it wan't for me. i really respect what bowie does. but learning more about lindsay kemp, bowie was a child of lindsay kemp. it started from there.
that's a hidden history
bowie was trained by lindsay kemp. kate bush trained with lindsay kemp. all these queer interesting, weird, wacky, british performers - that's where it started. and people don't talk about it. it was the late 60s. it's where all these people trained.
who else should we know about?
bulent ersoy. bulent ersoy is the biggest star in turkey. 'burlent' is like being called 'john' in turkey. she was already a star and when she was like 20 she went to paris and had a sex change, then came back to turkey... she does traditional arabesque music.
wait.. she was a star, then transitioned, came back, and was an even bigger star?
yes. but still called 'john'. if you go into any kebab shop and tell them, 'bulent ersoy?' they'll be like, 'bulent - we love bulent!' so that's something that i find really interesting.
in a lot of cultures there are these huge trans stars from years ago before trans was as mainstream in our culture. they are totally adored. these are cultures that we see as backward in terms of lgbt rights, and in a lot of ways they are, but people try and over simplify things. cultures are so complicated. i'm sure in turkey lgbt rights are completely fucked up but at the same time, their biggest star is trans - you have to look at a photo. [ when i got home fell into a youtube vortex of her videos - they're incredible ] before bulent soy there was zeki muren who was more like liberace. that was the biggest star - a really effeminate man. then bulent took over. at zeki murex's funeral - they were rivals - when bulent went, she sobbed and took all the attention
classic move... she stole the show!
[ laughs ]
one of the major problems with today - people try and oversimplify things to such an extent to where they think they are being liberal... but you're boxing even more. the world is messy. the world is fucked up. you can be really progressive and really reductive at the same time. that's the thing people aren't talking enough about. only in the last few years.. people will come up to me and the first thing they'll ask me is 'what pronouns shall i use for you'...
i'm sorry, did i misgender you before when i described you as a little boy?
i don't give a shit. call me whatever you like. people are so obsessed with not offending me that they're not actually treating me just like anyone else. just speak to me like a human being.
because as soon as you do that you're creating a distance?
exactly. you're 'othering' me from you. in some respects i am different, of course, but there's a lot more we can have in common.
of course. we both grew up demanding dresses aged five [laughs]
exactly! there's this weird barrier... people think that if they get all the pronouns right and use all the right terminology, they're a good person. but actually you can use all the right pronouns and get all the terminology right and just be a boring twat. and you can you be someone that's a bit ignorant and doesn't really know, but actually is a really lovely person. i would much rather speak to them.
i'm ignorant and nice.
do you know what i mean! of course it's important that people don't offend. but it's more important to..
.. to connect as human beings?
how would you describe the theo adams company?
it's really difficult, but basically we're a collective of performers and artists and backstage creative and we put on theatrical productions. we are interested in spectical and jolts, and audience manipulation in a positive way. when i go and see something i want to be taken on this wild emotional journey. at the moment it's not a narrative thing, it's more like when you want to go and see beyonce perform? you just want to feel? we're creating theatre to create a feeling
i remember going to see beyonce and grabbing the poor 14 year old next to me, who was a stranger, and screaming in his face 'i'm losing fucking my shit!' and they screamed back 'me fucking too!' that's what you want?
exactly. yeah. it's difficult to describe things- maybe that's one thing university would have helped me with.
Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch.