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Renowned theatre director Adam Lenson (Public Domain,Vaudeville Theatre; Wasted, Southwark Playhouse) fuses his own battle with skin cancer with an exploration of parallel universes to create an interdisciplinary work merging gig theatre, memoir,and lecture.

Anything That We Wanted To Be looks at how small acts can lead to big changes and how human lives branch, bend and curve.

Everyone has that one big decision, that one big choice, that one big what if?There’s a you that made that choice, and there’s another you that didn’t.

Alone on stage, Adam Lenson acts alongside other recorded versions of himself through an immersive soundscape, using a loop pedal to perform original songs with a choir of Adams.

I got to speak to Adam to find out more about the show and to find out the feeling of performing his own show at this year's ED fringe festival.


What is Anything That We Wanted To Be about? 

It’s about how to reckon with constant wondering about what life might be like if you had made a different decision. It’s about the versions of us and learning to let go of our regrets and accept the choices we made. 


I was nearly a doctor but decided to become a theatre director instead. In 2019 when I was diagnosed with cancer, I started to again wonder what my life might be like if I had been a doctor instead. And as I went through cancer treatment, I decided to make a show about how to learn to live with what happened instead of regretting what didn’t. 


What is it like performing your own story? And how did you feel when writing? 

It can feel a little uncanny performing as myself although writing it down and rehearsing it somehow acts as a way of distancing myself from it a little. So it can sometimes feel like I’m telling a story that happened to someone else. To be honest even as I was going through all this it did feel sometimes like it was happening to someone else. I also wrote the show in second person because I really want the audience to feel like they’re inside the story with me and it’s happening to us all. The idea is we all experience the stages of anxiety, grief, acceptance and recovery together. 


I think it’s always a risk with solo shows that the work feels selfish, but I’ve worked hard alongside my director Hannah Moss to make sure that the show focuses on the audience experience rather than mine. 


What influenced you to tell your story on stage? 

The story is all about me becoming a theatre director instead of a doctor and so it makes sense that it’s a piece of theatre I made to tell the story. I also knew that the experience of being seriously ill didn’t feel at all naturalistic or realistic. It felt like a blurry, confused, mess. Theatre lets you do that better than any other form; skipping and glitching through different times and locations and layering things on top of each other.

The subject matter of the show is one of those subjects people find hard to talk about.  What are you hoping the audiences will take away from the show?

If making the show has taught me anything it’s that difficult things happen to all of us. And sooner or later we have tolearn to figure them out and find the best way of moving forward. This show is my attempt at making a piece about moving forward and so I hope it takes something difficult to talk about and makes it more accessible. 


This show is about an already anxious version of me crashing into a terrifying diagnosis and in the show I say that my illness in some way cured me of my decision anxiety. It forced me to live in the moment a bit more and enjoy as much of life as I can. 


Work in progress audiences have been extremely kind about how uplifting the piece is even though it of course navigates and discusses difficult things. It was always my intention to try and come to terms with where I was in life, and I really feel as if making the show did achieve that. So hopefully there is something to be gained from sharing that with audiences. 


Also while the show does lean into some dark topics, I also have intended to make sure it’s funny and observational, relatable and optimistic. 



Why did you choose the style of Gig theatre to perform the show? And why do you think this style of theatre works in this case? 


I knew that the show would contain songs and live music because both are incredible tools for processing and communicating emotions with audiences.  I think of the show as a gig memoir because the songs in some way function as standalone songs but are interspersed at specific moments in the story to unpack a feeling, an emotion, or a state of mind. 

Since the show is about versions of me, I quickly had the idea to use a loop pedal to make song arrangements where I could be accompanied by a choir of other mes! I find there something quite moving about getting to sing with other mesas I tell a story about anxiety of what lives different versions of me might be living. 


What was the biggest challenge of being a one man show?


I think the biggest challenge is being on my own both onstage and off. Onstage I have to do everything to tell the story. The show is a mix of storytelling, music and technology so I make sure there are lots of tools to help me out but it’s still tiring. I have recorded a load of lines for other characters so I get to act alongside myself playing various other people, but it’s still just me out there which take a lot of emotional and physical energy. 


Offstage I suppose I’m just anxious about finding an audience who want to spend their time with me. It’s scary writing and performing a show and then saying to the world ‘do you want to come?’ So I hope some people come. 


Why did you decide to perform the show in a second person narrative? And what do you think that brings to the audience's experience?


The whole experience of getting ill felt like it was happening to someone else. So writing in the second person feels a much more accurate depiction of what it felt like in my brain. I also love telling a story to the audience where I get to say ‘you do this’, ‘you do that’, ‘you go here’, ‘you find yourself there’ because my hope is that audiences start to visualisethemselves in the story. As if it’s happening to them too. As I say, everyone knows what it is to have to make decisions and to deal with the good and bad outcomes. Everyone reckons with the versions of themselves. So my hope is the story is hugely relatable and hopefully in some way useful to audiences. 


I also think that songs and gigs work in a similar way to the second person by extending the emotional landscape over an audience so they’re part of those feelings.  So the mix of songs and second person narrative felt really good.


The Show is described as “an act of imagination”. What do you mean by this and how do you show it on stage? 


A big part of the show is the way we spend a lot of imaginative energy on the other lives we might be living. Sometimes to the detriment of our actual self. In the show I spend time imagining things that might have happened if I’d made slightly different choices and try to look at how useful that really is. 

The piece also attempts to construct a multiverse and travel back and forward in time and in some cases returning to the same events from different perspectives. That is of course an act of imagination until scientists get a lot better at quantum physics! But really the show is about the difference between what we imagine and what really happened and learning to close that gap. 


How do you feel about performing at The Fringe?


I’m excited and scared. I’ve always wanted to take a show to Edinburgh and for it to be this one is hugely special. I’ve also long admired the programming at Summerhall so to have been given space there is so so exciting. Of course, I’m scared about my little show getting lost amid the noise of Edinburgh but I’m just hoping to go in with realistic expectations and turn up and do my show and not worry to much about the things I can’t control. 

The piece arose from a period of intense personal challengebut I think has grown into something quite optimistic. Sowhile I know Edinburgh will be challenging I’m going in with a feeling of optimism too. 


Describe “What is Anything That We Wanted To Be” in one sentence?


A gig memoir about decisions, the multiverse and recovering from illness. 


The piece moves from lecture theatres, to scanners, from Tetris to Fleetwood Mac, travelling backwards and forwards in time and across multiple universes. Anything That We Wanted To Be investigates Adam’s decision not to be a doctor, the branching lives that ensued,and marks his journey through cancer and the different versions of him that got different results.

This life-affirming new show is about learning to accept the choices you made, instead of worrying about the ones you didn’t.

The show is fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support.




Anything That We Wanted To Be

Wednesday 2nd–Sunday 27th August 2023 (not 14th, 21st), 12:30

60 minutes

Summerhall (Cairns Lecture Theatre)

Preview: £10

Shows: £15 (£13)

Age rec: 14+

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