Updated: Mar 16
Ahead of his new show YOU ARE GOING TO DIE appearing at VAULT Festival on 14th March - 19th March, I interviewed theatre-maker Adam Scott-Rowley about the process of making the show, holding pain and humour, and getting naked.
Then I went to the first night, and wrote about that too.
I first saw Adam Scott-Rowley’s work in a black box theatre in Edinburgh. It was years ago but I still remember the facial expressions clear as day. THIS IS NOT CULTURALLY SIGNIFICANT was a one man show with a brilliant cast of characters, that was both awfully funny and awfully sad. The next time I saw it he was naked, a streak of white paint across his body, transforming his way between characters at the Bunker Theatre. It was a blistering show, a surprising show, that was unsurprisingly followed by awards and sold out audiences. And compassion lay at the heart of it all.
And now Adam is back with another show which sounds as character-filled, as honest and as moving as the last.
I call Adam on a Monday evening. We talk in soft tones over the phone. We have arranged this over voicenote as Adam has broken both his wrists. He assures me it isn’t painful, though he will be performing in casts.
I’d like to start by talking about the title of your upcoming show: YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. It’s an impactful title. Can you tell me a bit about when the title came into being in the process of making the show, and how you landed upon it?
I think it was one of the first things, actually. I think the title emerged before anything else, or emerged alongside wanting to do something about anxiety, existential anxiety. I also wanted to do something that immediately focused on the macro rather than the micro. Something that’s touching on themes and ideas and concepts that are not in any way domestic: the big hitters, the big questions of life and what it means to be here. And there’s a lot of my own anxiety and existential fear thrown into it too. That was the starting point, really, I think.
Another one of the starting points of the title was thinking about the way Buddhists view life and death. I did two years of a three year masters degree in the studies of mindfulness, and there was loads of Buddhist philosophy and psychology in that so it’s something I’ve become very interested in and I’ve been wanting to make a show that is centred around that for a while. And this idea of contemplating death every day, evey moment you get. You contemplate this idea of impermanence, and that you won’t go on forever. Nothing will. And that all sounds obviously very morbid, sounds depressing, people going around thinking about that all day. But it’s actually the reverse. If you do contemplate that this isn’t going to go on forever then you actually hold the present moment much more dear. There’s a preciousness to things that can emerge from contemplating their impermanence.
So that’s what led me to the title, the backbone of the show, the initial idea.
How did the project come about? Where did the idea spring from and how did you grow it?
Gradually. Lots of conversations. I’ve got two co-creators working on it with me this time, two friends who I went to LAMDA with. One of them has done the same mindfulness course so we have a shared language.
As far as development, I think it’s just ideas. Sometimes it comes to you in the shower and it works in quite a visual way. You see this image working onstage. Then you might improvise the story and the context around that. Some things have definitely come up in meditation as well. You might get a feeling of something that you can’t quite put into words, but then you think: what would it be like to express that physically? You might use that in movement. Where is it in the body? Lean into that and see how it changes the expression of other parts of the body and then that can lead into a character of some sort.
The other way is long improvisations, spending time with an idea or a character and going with it for as long as possible, seeing if it’s making people laugh, if it’s getting some sort of reaction in the room. And playing with that. The laughter and the humour elements are really important to me. I like to go to the extremities of emotion, whether that’s negative emotion or positive emotion. It’s the humour, the sense of common humanity in these people, that has to underpin it at all times.
Following on from that, the show touches on some pretty big topics from loneliness to pain to humility. How did you go about handling these, and then bringing humour into that?
I don’t really know. I don’t know how it’s going to land or what people will think. We’ll have to see.
As far as trying to hold a space for those sorts of things I think it has to come from a truthful place. So the seed of it has to be from personal experience.The recreation of it onstage has to be connected with some sort of truth. I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you can’t fake. It requires quite a lot of vulnerability and mindfulness, to make sure that you keep checking in and that what you’re doing is as honest as it can be and not drifting into something performative. If you imagine a scale of being very performative on one end and being blind-scared on the other, you want to pitch it in the middle somewhere, so that you’re in control. You’re working towards a combination of both. You’re not allowing it to be so intense that you just want to run offstage with your tail between your legs but at the same time you’re allowing it to be vulnerable enough that it doesn’t lean into some demonstrative, performative behaviour to protect the actor. It’s always working on that scale.
And then the humour side, again, comes from being honest and holding these concepts, having respect for them and undermining them. Trying not to let the thing get too pretentious. And always bringing it back to a relatable level. Corporial elements are really helpful for that kind of thing, bringing it back to sweating, bleeding, shitting, crying, pissing. These are the things that people can really relate to on a guttural level.
And it’s a great leveller as well. If you’re doing these sorts of things naked, but you’re taking it back to a very base bodily function level, it’s about allowing yourself to be the most vulnerable base person in the room. You allow this humour to be projected onto whatever you’re doing.
Maybe. We’ll see if it works.
As you mentioned you’ve worked with Joseph Prowen and Tom Morley on the show. Can you speak a little about working collaboratively and what your process is as a group? And how it compares to making a show alone?
It’s nothing special really. It’s just improvisations. Sometimes I’ll go off on one and just do somsething for an hour. Or sometimes it’s quite stinted and I can’t find something and they’ll help me and guide me. They’ll say, “add a bit of this ingredient” or “take some of this out.”
We just really talk, I think, about people, characters, personalities. Or even just aspects of a personality or aspects of a feeling that we can all relate to. Then play around with that.
Sometimes it’s just a catchphrase. That can be really helpful. Something comes to you, this phrase, and you might just repeat it a few times and see how it aligns with the character, with the physicality. It’s very loose. We really just try to egg each other on to keep being creative and provocative.
And we just take the piss out of each other. That really helps with the humour too. We have a very similar sense of humour.
A great place to start is what annoys you. Who are the sorts of people that piss you off? You recreate those people but then the interesting question is why are they like that. What’s the heart? What’s the vulnerability? What’s the thing underneath? What’s the aspect of compassion, of common humanity, that we can bring out of that person? Because a lot of the show is about expectations. You set a character up that’s maybe very unlikeable and then you show an aspect of them that might help you learn where that behaviour’s coming from.
This is your second show that will be performed naked. THIS IS NOT CULTURALLY SIGNIFICANT, I know began clothed and then in later versions became naked. What was the process there? Why has it been important for this show and for THIS IS NOT CULTURALLY SIGNIFICANT? And leading on from that, how does it feel for you as the performer to be naked on stage?
I think with the first show, the clothed version actually lacked vulnerability. There was a sort of aggressiveness to it, that I liked, but it wasn’t reading in the way that I wanted it to. It was overly aggressive, maybe. I wanted to keep the themes and style of the show the same but I wanted to do something about making my performance more vulnerable and giving the audience a real insight into the characters. So I decided to do it naked and it really changed the show.
Since then I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what performing naked can do. To an audience, in a space. The sort of assumptions an audience has on a show, when the whole thing is done naked. The big thing is about vulnerability. This show, it’s quite dreamlike. It doesn’t move as quickly, it’s not as linear, it’s not as stabby as TINCS. It’s an hour long dream, really, with very slow transitions.
Being naked worked symbolically, removing concepts, removing layers - literally. You just see a body, so you can’t reach a more basic level than that. It’s just a naked body. We all have one. That’s what we are when we remove our clothes, and get back down to basics. That’s the reality of this thing that houses our consciousness. It’s a very nice, neutral place to start from. As soon as you add clothes you’re moving into a more conceptual space. Being naked has nothing to do with the show, it just links into it being a bit of a dream state. It’s to really get people to drop out of their conceptual mind, to not get so caught up in thinking or language. To connect with the show in a felt way, to connect with the show from their gut rather than from their heads. And weirdly, a naked body can kind of facilitate that. People always used to say after TINCS, that you forgot you were watching someone naked after a minute, it just became part of the show. I’m interested to explore that again and go a little bit deeper again.
Do you have any advice for aspiring and early career theatre makers? Any advice around making a show, conceptualising a show and taking it into the world.
I think you have to develop your taste, and be quite clear about what it is you like and the sort of thing that you want to make. There are thousands of ways you can develop work, but I think it’s mainly just exposure to things and gradually finding your way through that.
I’d maybe say that if you’re interested in making things that are a bit more avant-garde, and not in the traditional style of theatre, then do away with the script. The reason why so much theatre is deeply boring is because it starts from script. All of this interesting collaboration, deivisng, people’s minds coming together in a room, you sort of cancel out that process. Some scripts are great and they work as a really interesting starting point, but if the script’s got all the answers from day one then I think that’s quite problematic for the style of theatre that I’m interested in.
And find people you enjoy working with.
There aren’t any golden answers to this. Develop your taste and give it a crack. Just do it, try not to filter yourself. That’s particularly helpful in rehearsals. Try and keep it open for as long as you possibly can, and then at the last moment bring a bit of structure into it. But everyone works differently.
Anything you’d like to say to people coming to see the show?
Come and see what it’s like. It’s not all doom and gloom. There are a few references to death but it’s not so much about that. We use death quite loosely. There’s death of ego or death of a moment. It’s more about these dreamlike endings, really than it is about the end of life. So, come with an open mind.
YOU ARE GOING TO DIE: A Review
On stage Adam Scott-Rowley waits for us to enter, naked - but for the black casts on both his wrists - and sitting on the only piece of set in the Cage Theatre at the Vaults: a porcelain toilet.
As the show begins he walks, whimpering, towards the light, trembling and apologising. Then he takes big breaths until he is red in the face, each breath inflating him more and more until he is ‘bloke’. Over the course of the next 55 minutes he oscillates between characters: a godly man, hands together in prayer; a TikToker who has got stuck in a well and spirals into increasingly chaotic #tellmewithouttellingme scenarios; a singer who can’t stop eating Madras for dinner curled over a toilet bowl.
Sinister faces grow out of serene ones, tongue out, teeth bared, eyebrows high. Then back again.
Some characters are funny and some are disgusting and some are saddening, and there’s all sorts of emotions in between too.
Each character is so physically and facially distinct - something Adam does so masterfully, morphing from one to the next like he is shaping clay. The lighting has been designed to highlight this, pouring in from all over the stage, different lighting choices for different characters. But despite the clear distinctions, as the show goes on we get a sense that the boundaries between people are not as solid as they might appear. This is a cast of characters but it is also the many sides of many people.
“Compassion is robust,” says a professor.
Many of the characters carry a common sense of loneliness, some through the way they interact with the world, others as we realise who they truly are isn’t seen at first glance.
This is a manifesto for looking again at the people around us, for seeing the worst in somebody and wondering what they are like at their best. Life has pain in it, all the characters seem to agree, but it can be alleviated if we fill it with love and good people.
At last, our singer is able to get up from the toilet bowl and perform. Surprisingly, the show ends in a rousing and moving song about togetherness and dildos.
YOU ARE GOING TO DIE is on at the VAULTS as part of VAULT Festival from Tuesday 14th March - Sunday 19th March. You can find out more about YOU ARE GOING TO DIE, and book your tickets here: https://www.adamscottrowley.com/you-are-going-to-die