Performance artist Adrian Howells offers ‘soleful’ experience to theatre students

Reading Week brought an unforgettable experience for some 20 undergrad and graduate York University theatre students who participated in a three-day workshop with acclaimed British performance artist Adrian Howells.

The workshop, presented jointly by York’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, ran February 22 to 24 in the Fine Arts complex at the University’s Keele campus. The sessions focused on the intimate experience of one-to-one performance that is the hallmark of Howells’ artistic practice.

An honorary research fellow at the University of Glasgow, Howells creates work that promotes intimacy, mutual nurturing and genuine exchange with an audience. Hailed as “transformative” experiences, his performance pieces often unfold in a one-to-one, autobiographical or confessional context, presented in a non-traditional performance space.

In his compelling work Foot Washing for the Sole, Howells tenderly washes, oils and finally massages the participant’s feet. This unmediated encounter, which those on the receiving end have described as “beautiful, comforting and thought-provoking,” has toured globally and won the Total Theatre Award at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Howells’ most recent work, a co-production with Harbourfront Centre, is even more radical and intimate. In The Pleasure of Being: Washing/Feeding/Holding, the artist invites audience participants to surrender to a deeply infantilized and nourishing experience of being bathed naked in a luxurious bath; dried and then wrapped in a huge, fluffy bath towel; fed white chocolate; and finally cradled in his arms for a long period of time. The intensely personal experience, performed last spring at the Battersea Arts Centre in London, England, moved some participants to tears.

Howells incorporated elements of both of these performances – holding, washing and feeding – into his workshop at York. Through these and other activities, he led the students in an exploration of the nature of intimacy, risk and vulnerability as expressed in physical theatre and confessional performance.

“It was such an honour to lead this workshop with these remarkable young artists,” said Howells. “They were very brave; no one stood on the sidelines. I feel very blessed to do the work that I do, and I was profoundly moved by the honesty and openness this group displayed.”

Students paired up and washed each other's faces, hands or feet as part of the workshop with Adrian HowellsRight: Students paired up and washed each other’s faces, hands or feet as part of the workshop with Adrian Howells

Howells conceives his works as a direct engagement with a critical question in contemporary society: What does intimacy mean in a world where personal information has become a commodity, and individuals increasingly negotiate even their closest human relationships virtually, digitally and electronically, rather than as mutually nurturing, in-the-moment, face-to-face, flesh-on-flesh exchanges? How does contemporary performance respond to, and challenge, this cultural trend?

“I think all of us realized a bit more about ourselves and what our limits or challenges may be,” said fourth-year theatre student Alexandra Maynard, who took part in the workshop. “I’m looking forward to exploring further what intimacy is, not only in my artistic practice but also in my everyday life. I didn’t realize that intimacy like this could exist within friendship. I had always related intimacy with sexuality, and now I understand they can be separate.”

Students explore mutually nurturing, vulnerability and intimacyLeft: Students explore mutually nurturing, vulnerability and intimacy

Following his workshop at York, Howells gave a three-day creation workshop for professional and emerging artists as part of Harbourfront Centre HATCHlab. Buddies in Bad Times’ Rhubarb Festival also engaged Howells to talk about his work in an open conversation moderated by York Theatre alumnus Chris Dupuis (BFA ’00).

Howells’ residency at York was the second project of a partnership launched last fall by Harbourfront Centre and the York’s Faculty of Fine Arts to create opportunities for dialogue and exchange between emerging and established artists. Coming up next will be weeklong residency in fall 2011 by Break It Down, a professional breakdance group commissioned through Harbourfront Centre’s Fresh Ground series. Break it Down is creating a new work about the history of hip hop, including local stories from Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighborhood. Their residency will include teaching and rehearsing with students in York’s Department of Dance, as well as showing and discussing their work in progress.