Will Adamsdale is a 31-year old actor and performer who found fame in 2004 when he was the shock winner of the Perrier Comedy Award at the Edinburgh Festival with his show Jackson’s Way. After a hectic year of Jacksoning, Adamsdale now returns to the BAC (where Jackson was conceived and nurtured) with his fellow performer and sound designer Chris Branch with their latest project, The Receipt. Tom Bowtell went along to ask Will about his statutory rights.
Anybody who has only seen Will Adamsdale as his alter-ego, the legendary life-coach, guru and man, Chris John Jackson, might assume that he is a hyper-active, white-toothed American, complete with mid-west drawl and kooky slacks. In reality his teeth are white, but the rest of him, including his leg-wear, is measured, modest and very English.
It is an intriguing fact that while Chris John Jackson claims to have transformed the lives of literally trillions of people throughout the world, there is only one person whose existence has been irrefutably altered by the magic of Jackson’s Way, and that’s Adamsdale himself. In the two years or so since Jackson’s Way first lurched into the public consciousness, Adamsdale has not only earned the prestige of being one of only 25 people who can call themselves a Perrier Award winner, but has also toured with his creation to cities ranging from Melbourne to Leicester. For now, however, Jackson is taking time out, resting and polishing his aphorisms, while Adamsdale returns to the BAC with a new show, The Receipt.
“We’ve been working on The Receipt sporadically for a year and a bit. It has been through the usual BAC process, we did a Scratch of it, and then we did a 40 minute version last year, the show currently lasts around 120 minutes, although it varies, it’s constantly changing. It’s sort of quite hard to pin down the process, it’s kind of scripted now, but then bits aren’t. I like to keep things fairly, um, fluid…”
“I like to keep things fairly, um, fluid.”
This fluid process is centred around a single starting point: the city where the action is set. This city (“whose name sounds something a bit like Glinton”) is an oppressive, utterly recognisable place where passing through a door requires coloured dockets, where cafés come with ludicrous written instructions for use (“come in, drink coffee, relax”) and where everyone says mate without remotely meaning it. “Basically, there’s an atmosphere that we quite liked and wanted to explore, and the story emerged from that. We knew that we wanted to get this feel of modern living, living amongst slogans in a place where language falls apart – and I do think we live in this place. We wanted to capture the chaos of the city, a slightly insane corporate world where things get passed from one place to another, but it’s unclear what’s actually being done. So we came up with lots of little vignettes about the city, and we tried to flesh one of them out. They were all slightly surreal stories where things are taken to extremes and very odd things happen right alongside very commonplace things.”
The ReceiptInsofar as it is entirely devoid of faux-American life coaches doing marvellously pointless things while bellowing “achieved”, The Receipt is fairly unlike Jackson’s Way. Having said this, Adamsdale feels that the two pieces share thematic elements: “There are similarities. There’s a definite kind of cross-reference between the two shows. There’s certainly something Jacksony about the thinking in it, about the way the audience is asked to think in an unusual way in order to access the stuff, like in Jackson. There’s something of that in The Receipt, but there are two of us, and there’s quite a lot of play between us, and there’s also more of a narrative. We have a story and things!”
Ah yes, the story. The Receipt tells the story of a man who finds a receipt. Rather surprisingly, he quickly becomes utterly obsessed with this receipt and, in his efforts to track down its owner and chart its journey across the city he loses both his job and his home. Intriguingly, however, through this pointless, thankless quest, the man also finds something else; something ineffable and sad, but not wholly awful. Something which, if nothing else, makes a change from the clogged city which throbs around him. The final part of the story, where the protagonist goes to ever more eccentric lengths to trace every step of the receipt’s journey is one area where the piece seems to overlap with Jackson’s way of thinking… “Yes,” agrees Adamsdale, “he’s basically doing something impossible. And that’s the point of it. It’s almost as if he’s done a Jackson course! But he hasn’t.”
“It’s basically doing something impossible. And that’s the point of it.”
This ‘pointless’ receipt quest recalls a specific part of Jackson’s Way, which involved coffee cups. Jackson told us how he picked up a discarded coffee cup on the streets of Melbourne and travelled with it back to London where, at an opportune moment, he searched for another, English, coffee cup littering the street. When he found just such a vessel, he picked it up, put it in his bag, and replaced it with the Australian cup. Then, warming to his subject, he flew back to Melbourne and placed the English cup in exactly the same place on the street where the Australian one had originally been. If this appears to be pointless it is because it is; that’s the point. Jackson’s Way is to revel in the freedom of performing actions which A) cannot be achieved and B) would offer exactly no benefit if they did happen to be achieved.
While this may sound like a glib dollop of paradox, or the claptrap spouted by the sort of tele-guru Jackson lampoons, the conscious act of doing pointless things actually probes some interesting philosophical areas, and may well have been what made Jackson’s Way stand out from its competitors on Perrier Award judgement night. When watching these shows, one feels much like a character in The Emperor’s New Clothes: aware that something interesting is going on, but not wishing to say anything in case someone laughs-at or executes you. As Adamsdale himself says – “you have to think in a slightly twisted, off key way.” Or as, Brian Logan in The Guardian put it: “Pointless? Yes. But also, almost, profound".
So what exactly is going on here? Is it almost or actually profound? Does the above paragraph prove once and for all that I am just a pseud who has fallen into a rather obvious trap, or is there indeed method to the madness? In short, what are Adamsdale's shows, and specifically The Receipt, about? “Well, I was just speaking about this earlier to someone who saw the show. They said that they think that it explores the idea that there’s all the really big stuff in the world which we can’t deal with, so we find something small, manageable to focus on. There’s something of that in it.” This is true enough; the most dauntingly incomprehensible example of “big stuff” in The Receipt is the Londonish city in which it is set. Faced with this horribly slick and baffling place, one almost understands how someone would turn to something – anything – else for stability; even if it is a receipt stuck to a foot.
“I don't know what it's about, really.”
Adamsdale also agrees “that there’s something a bit Becketty about it, enjoying utterly heroic failures – there’s certainly some Absurdist stuff there”, but he is noticeably keen not to provide me with any neat thesis, explaining: “I don’t know what it’s about, really.” This eagerness to avoid definition creeps into many of Adamsdale’s answers. When I ask him whether he describes what he does as comedy or theatre, he says that he’d “rather not classify it, actually”. What could be mistaken for fence-sitting is, however, a carefully thought-out a stance: “Often I find myself not really knowing what those terms mean. Having spent the last year or two in a comedy world, I guess I’m more aware of something which is just purely comedy, but I think the industry is always intrigued by giving things labels and making them fit in a fixed category.”
This keenness to avoid the modern obsession with categorisation, coupled with a strong desire to continue to explore what he himself finds interesting, is one of the reasons why Adamsdale didn’t immediately leap into the world of mainstream comedy and television, which tends to become available to the winner of the Perrier Award each year. “I didn’t feel totally ready to go into TV, I wanted to go on doing what I wanted to do, not necessarily what was best for my career. But I’m certainly very interested in developing stuff for TV and radio. I don’t want to have a crazy amount of control – I’m not a freak – but then I also don’t want too much control ceded away from me. I want to live with it for a bit, and think about it. But all the people I spoke to were great, and had good ideas.”
This desire to continue to explore what interests them is surely what has drawn Adamsdale and Branch back to the famously fertile womb of the BAC, an environment which “allows you to take risks with ideas you might not otherwise explore”. The Receipt is thus “filled with stuff Chris and I [Will] like” and further develops ideas they first came across working on Faster with Filter Theatre, a show which also opened at the BAC before going on to international acclaim. “This is definitely indebted to that show. We continue to explore the language that we helped create with Filter.”
Another area of mutual interest explored by the duo is sound, which is Chris Branch’s area of expertise, (he has recently finished a remix for Björk). In a show with virtually no set and only a couple of props, Branch’s varied soundscape virtually creates a third presence on stage: “We’re trying to explore possibilities of using sound in a theatre piece. Chris knows a lot about sound, he enjoys fooling around with it. For most audience people, that’s quite a surprising thing .They don’t necessarily think that sound is an integral part of a show, as it is with this. That’s exciting. He’s brilliant, Chris.”
“There’s just something about that line, a feeling, something Jacksony.”
As you may have sensed while reading this interview, The Receipt is very much the sort of show that has to be seen to be understood (or at least to be misunderstood properly), especially as Adamsdale admits that his influences tend to be of the eclectic and fragmented variety. “I used to paint a lot and went to art school, then I studied literature, and all the time I was acting while doing that, so I’ve drawn on a lot of different artistic areas – although I don’t do much painting in my work! Comedically, I’m a big Woody Allen fan and there’s the Absurd stuff; but in terms of specific influences, it can sometimes just be lines from a song. There’s a line in a Dylan song which goes 'you know it balances on your head / Just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine', there’s just something about that line, a feeling, something Jacksony.”
There he goes again. After around 150 performances of Jackson’s Way, it is clear that Jacksony, Jackson, Jacksonian and Jacksonesque are words that have slipped into Adamsdale’s daily vocabulary, describing a whole genre of behaviours and atmospheres which have hitherto remained nameless. Does Will Adamsdale hope that one day the word Jackson (in his unique context) will take its rightful place in the Oxford English Dictionary? “I don’t know. I hope so… It should!”
If any passing lexicographers would like to discuss this matter further with Will, The Receipt will be playing at the BAC until 4 December.