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Body Art

Tim Miller revisits his past and looks toward the future in his latest show, Body Blows.

By New York City
For many people, Tim Miller will always be identified as one of the four artists (along with Holly Hughes, John Fleck, and Karen Finley) who became embroiled in an arts funding controversy when their NEA grants were revoked in 1990. However, that's not the way Miller marks his creative evolution: "The NEA 4 is not the influence on how my work developed," he says, "although it's clearly an influence on how my work is seen." The more immediate and pressing concerns addressed in his performances have to do with gay identity, the AIDS crisis, and his struggle for immigration rights for same-sex, bi-national couples.

All of these issues come to the forefront in his latest offering, Body Blows. Based upon his recent book of the same title, which collects six of Miller's solo performance scripts, the show can be seen as a kind of "greatest hits" program. "I like getting to take my shows apart and put them back together again," says Miller. "You get to see what new resonances are there."

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THEATERMANIA: How would you characterize Body Blows?

TIM MILLER: As I put the book together -- and then had the challenge of pulling a few sections from the book for the live show -- I was struck by how much I wrote and performed about moments that are, in some way, a "blow." These were both positive and negative blows. I tell the story of cutting off the end of my finger while working as a carpenter in Brooklyn, but it's woven together with a sweet almost-dreamscape of the slow motion, on-the-moon gravity as two gay men's bodies slowly orbit toward each other and touch, skin to skin. I think a lot of gay life can feel like that. We are always aware of the crap that homophobia throws in our way but also constantly reminded of the incredible sweetness and joy that gay life and love offers.

TM: Is there any new material that you're including?

MILLER: There's a wild, brand new piece set on the Rainbow Bridge over Niagara Falls on the U.S.-Canadian border. This piece brings the audience up to date with all the immigration struggles my Aussie-Scottish partner Alistair and I are going through since gay couples aren't afforded the immigration rights that straight couples are. I was performing in Buffalo last year and, as I always do, I went up to Niagara Falls. I was feeling all existential about America's hard heart toward couples like Alistair and I. At this moment -- balanced over Niagara Falls on the Rainbow Bridge -- an annual tug-of war between the U.S. and Canada takes place, which provides me no end of metaphorical fodder.

TM: What is the situation now for you and Alistair?

MILLER: He just graduated from his M.F.A. program in creative writing in December 2001, so now things will get really difficult for us as his student visa expires. Like every other gay American citizen with a foreign partner, we are screwed in the U.S.! We'll be forced to leave in the new year. Fortunately, Alistair has passports from two countries where gay people's human rights are respected and he can sponsor me for immigration in either Australia or the U.K. I'll go with him and immigrate to England.

TM: This is obviously the subject of your next performance piece, "Us," for which I know you've already got bookings...

MILLER: "Us" explores home, exile, and the injustices that lesbian and gay couples face in the good ol' U.S.A. It's a funny and pissed-off exploration of these most American contradictions as the piece careens from memories of a 10-year-old's plan to flee to Canada to escape the war in Vietnam, to a meditation on why a Southern California child spoke in an English accent, to a tongue-in-cheek guide explaining how not to be angry about all of this. "Us" marks a new challenge for me to speak as an American artist in exile about the human rights violations in our country.

TM: Strong political convictions and activist sentiments drive a number of your pieces. Can you talk about why this is so?

MILLER: There's nothing like being forced to leave your country to get a person's dander up! The particulars of our situation stop [Alistair and me] from being able to be patient and get on with our lives. I do think, though, that gay Americans are ready to tolerate a basic disrespect to their humanity that gay people in other western countries would find unacceptable. We have the damned, radical religious right in the U.S. that other countries just don't have. It infects everything, I suppose. I'm sure if Alistair were a U.S. citizen we might be much less activated at this time. A conundrum! As things are now, I can't understand why every fair-minded American -- straight or gay -- isn't stomping mad at the failures of America. As every other western country races decades ahead of the U.S. in human rights for gay people, it is getting very important to me to someday live in a free country.

TM: How do you think leaving the U.S. will change your work?

MILLER: I'm sure it will have a big impact. I am such an American-identified artist. I have been reading a lot about the history of Americans in exile or under internal arrest. Sadly, parallel to the positive narratives about immigration are all the horrific negative ones: 100 years of slaves forced to flee the U.S. for freedom in Canada, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, the forced exile of a half a million Americans in Canada during Vietnam. I am in no way comparing what Alistair and I are going through to these huge historical narratives, but [the point is that] exile is as American as apple pie.

TM: Getting back to your current show: since Body Blows is a retrospective, is there anything you wrote and performed previously that you're a bit embarrassed by or would do differently now?

MILLER: Hmmm. Nothing that embarrasses me -- but, every now and then, I am bemused at how often I talk about anal sex! As I read the older pieces, there are always things I would do differently. My voice as a writer has kept getting stronger, so sometimes I do want to go back and rewrite everything.

TM: In most of your shows, you tend to remove all of your clothes at some point or another. Can you talk about your use of nudity?

MILLER: I am never that thrilled when nakedness in theater is used as a seduction to display the cutest possible man in the cutest possible light at the cutest possible moment in the show. In my own work, I am more interested in exploring the most vulnerable, human, humorous, and fucked-up parts of myself in a naked performance section. I think the theater and performance has always been a place where the presence of the body is allowed. I'm sure those audiences in the fourth century B.C. were looking forward to seeing the new crop of cute chorus boys in Euripides's new play. In our fucked-up culture right now, the theater is virtually the only place -- other than the occasional nude beach -- where the naked body is allowed a public presence.

TM: You also have a strong commitment to using autobiography as a structural device in your performances. What are the reasons for that?

MILLER: The explosion of diverse life narratives in performance has changed how this country sees itself. Autobiography has been a crucial creative and social tool for gay people, people of color, women, and disabled folks to claim social space. We live in a very different world because of these autobiographies. I think we can't even imagine what the world would feel like without this wealth of life stories that exists now -- how meager the world would seem without new stories and how we would long for them, if they weren't there.


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