I met British artist Theo Adams for the first time some years ago, when he was teeterin on ten-inch heels in the corner of BoomBox, London's East End freakshow fÃªte. Tears artfully flowed down his face, covered in black glitter and smeared red lipstick, as he lip-synched to a Fantasia Barrino song through teeth lined in a train track of metal braces. "I didn't dress up like that just because I was attention-seeking," Adams tells me of his younger years as a club fixture, "I dressed up like that because I started going out when I was 14, and if you disguised yourself with makeup and crazy clothes, the bouncers couldn't tell how old you were."
Now at 22, Adams' flair for the visually dramatic as honed during his dress-up days as a precocious party boy has segued smoothly into a much-lauded career as a performer and artist. He now serves as the artistic director of the Theo Adams Company -- a group of 20 performers, artists, actors, musicians and dancers who together have recently completed an international tour of their show Cry Out, and will soon begin work on their next project, Entertainment, via a residency at Robert Wilson's Watermill Center on Long Island in March.
Occupying a space between pop and art, drama and drag, the company's performances are emotional spectacles that see a well-woven mashup of influences and homages, both highbrow and low. "Sometimes during our shows, we have seven tracks playing at the same time," Adams says of his often-frenetic soundtracks, in which live music and singing are interspersed with lip-synching to prerecorded vocals. And rather than being jarring, it works. "We use everything from BeyoncÃ© to Maria Callas. My inspirations are really varied, from extremes of pop to classical or avant garde things. I don't see them as any different. And when they work together it just seems right."
Adams' life as a performer started early, having appeared in Stephen Daldry's West End production of An Inspector Calls when he was only nine years old. "It helped me understand audiences from a young age as well as how theater productions actually operated from a backstage point of view," he says of the experience. But it wasn't until 2008 that his company was formed in its earliest incarnation, as the result of what Adams recounts as one of the biggest -- and most telling -- dilemmas of his nascent career. "I was offered to go on Big Brother as a cast member, but at the same time I was also offered the chance to do a performance at the Tate Britain. I chose the Tate -- I don't know if that was the right choice," he laughs. He recruited friends and friends of friends, and for the first time Adams performed with other people. "I mixed Whitney Houston's vocals with Orthodox choral chants and stood on stage covered in white glitter while ten dancers emerged from semi-sheer flesh-tone sacks wearing black wigs that reached the floor." Shortly after, he says, "we performed at Union Gallery, got 500 tubes of lipstick and covered every wall."
As the company took firmer shape with its members and direction, Adams developed 2009's Cry Out, his Japan tour which led to an invitation from Louis Vuitton to help collaborate on the brand's re-launch in Tokyo. "I'm not a corporate slut, but I haven't got much money and I have a lot of big ideas. And companies like that have a lot of money and not many ideas, so why not work together?" For the performance, Adams was able to push his trademark coupling of disparate acts and ideas in a bigger way than ever before -- from a live concert by Sister Sledge ("Well, the Sisters fell out, so now it's one Sister plus a daughter and her random friend -- and they were incredible.") to a performance by a gospel choir exclusively composed of Japanese housewives and a sing-off hosted by a group of Filipino-cleaning lady karaoke superstars. Everyone from Takashi Murakami to Roppongi's most beautiful trannies turned up to take it in.
Though some of his earlier work features lipsynching to the standards of Judy Garland and Jennifer Holliday, for 2012's Entertainment, Adams plans on creating a completely original score. "I'm going to have someone onstage lip-synching another company member's live vocal. People look down on it, but to me lip-synching is a whole art form in itself," he says. "It's choreography for your face. It's not a drag act, and it's not important that I get the look right or the lips right, it's that I get the emotional body of the song and take it to another place. It's about taking the vocal and turning it into a real spectacle."