Will Adamsdale: ‘I just try to not get my knickers in twist over whether it’s comedy or theatre’
Will Adamsdale describes himself, with very British modesty, as “an enthusiastic amateur”. The writer, performer and theatremaker has certainly been eager to embrace new challenges over the years. Having initially trained as an actor, Adamsdale later found himself devising his own shows, as well as increasingly straddling theatre and comedy.
More recently, he has also branched out into screen work, taking on roles in the Richard Curtis film The Boat That Rocked and the Channel 4 comedy Campus. “I really enjoy that energy of just trying different stuff,” he says by way of explanation.
Adamsdale performed in school plays and went on to train at the Oxford School of Drama, but the Edinburgh Fringe and Battersea Arts Centre were the artistic environments that proved most influential for him. Trips to the Fringe from the age of 17 onwards were what first prompted him to think, “Hold on, maybe I could do this,” while the work he encountered at Battersea Arts Centre transformed his idea of what theatre could be: “It was more can-do, a bit less fussy, a bit messier, and a bit more improvised.”
Battersea Arts Centre’s scratch programme of work-in-progress showings was also crucial when he began making his own work. “I suffer from exactly the same thing as everyone else does, thinking I couldn’t get up in front of those people and do that,” he says. “But then if you try a little bit in front of some people then you go ‘that didn’t go so badly and maybe I could do a bit more’. The scratch nights allow you to do that.”
Adamsdale’s foray into comedy, like his surprise Perrier Award win in 2004, came about by accident. “I was more interested in being a serious actor,” he tells me. “I just found myself playing comic roles in some of the devised theatre pieces that I was doing and getting laughs, and then that led to me making a character that ended up being in the comedy section of the [Edinburgh Fringe] brochure.”
That character was Chris John Jackson, surreal motivational speaker and star of Jackson’s Way, the show that bagged Adamsdale the Perrier. The “Way” of the title is a programme of impossible, futile actions – trying to make two random words rhyme, or putting your hand in two places at once. The character of Jackson and his absurd “Jactions” captured audiences’ imaginations and has kept Adamsdale returning to the piece, most recently at the end of last year at Battersea Arts Centre.
“People felt for him,” Adamsdale suggests. “He’s got a likeability about him. He’s very determined, but he’s so obviously deeply misguided. He’s kind of heroic in a dreamlike way. His theories are so perverse and so ridiculous, but he has such a belief in them that somehow people want to go with him.”
Q&A: Will Adamsdale
What was your first non-theatre job? I think it was probably working for six months at Cafe Rouge.
What was your first professional theatre job? A Tennessee Williams play called Small Craft Warnings directed by Rufus Norris at the Pleasance, Islington.
What is your next job? I’ve got a couple of shows in development.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? It’s all right to make mistakes. That’s how you learn.
Who is your biggest influence? The American writer Richard Brautigan and my father, who’s a very to-the-point critic. He’s about as far from a luvvie as you can get.
If you hadn’t been a writer and performer, what would you have done? I painted myself into a corner a bit – I don’t have any other skills. I might have tried being an illustrator or something.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? Yeah, loads. So many that I forget what they are. They seem extremely important at the time. I had a superstition about not wearing particular colours of shirt, but then I ran out of all shirts except for the bad luck ones and had to wear them. The show seemed to go alright and that really confused me. Right now I’m developing new superstitions.
Misguided belief characterises a lot of Adamsdale’s creations, be it the unlikely hero searching for the owner of a receipt in The Receipt or the middle-class writer blithely destroying his flat in the process of trying to impress his girlfriend in The Victorian in the Wall. “I seem to enjoy playing characters like that,” Adamsdale says, “guys who have eternal optimism.”
Adamsdale’s latest project The Joke, devised with Brian Logan and Lloyd Hutchinson, is interested less in characters and more in types. In the show, an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman find themselves trapped inside the narrative of a joke. “They’re just normal people who want to get back to their lives, but they’re in someone else’s bloody joke,” says Adamsdale. He compares the situation – “this can’t happen, but it is” – to the stories of writer Richard Brautigan, one of Adamsdale’s artistic idols.
No show of Adamsdale’s has fitted quite so snugly in the overlap between theatre and comedy as The Joke. “It feels like a natural show for me right now: it’s a theatre show about comedy.” Despite so much of his work bleeding between categories, he’s still unsure of how theatre relates to comedy and vice versa.
“I’ve thought and talked a lot about that sort of crossover,” Adamsdale reflects, “but I think I know almost less about it now. I just keep trying to make things and not get my knickers in a twist about ‘is this comedy? Is this theatre?’ ” Ultimately, he says, it’s about the audience experience. “Whatever you went in the door for, if you’re transported to somewhere else you’ll go with it.”
CV: Will Adamsdale
Born: 1974, Hereford
Training: Oxford School of Drama
Landmark productions: Jackson’s Way (2004), The Receipt (2005/2006), The Human Computer (2010), The Summer House (2011), The Victorian in the Wall (2013)
Awards: Perrier comedy award (2004), Fringe First award (2006)
Agent: Rachel Blond Associates
The Joke is currently touring and will run at Camden People’s Theatre, London, from May 17 to June 4
The Stage have three pairs of tickets to The Joke to give away. For your chance to win click here