After nearly two decades of explicit and sometimes buck-naked solo appearances at theater spaces around the world, gay performance artist Tim Miller still harbors a shocking revelation. This one should really unnerve the fundamentalist Christian demagogues who had declared him armed and dangerous in the litigious standoff over NEA-funded "indecent" art that began in 1990 under the Bush administration. James Dobson, grab a seat: In addition to being artistic director of Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, Miller is a professor of religion and theater at the prestigious Claremont School of Theology in California. He has for much of the '90s advised Protestant ministers on how to combine personal stories with Biblical doctrine in their sermons.
"Mainstream progressive Protestant seminaries are pretty hip places to be right now," Miller declares, noting that the debate over recognition of same-sex marriages is hotter here than in the state legislatures. "My sermons after Easter [at St. Augustus Episcopal Church] have been SRO, because they knew something wild was gonna happen. I sometimes wonder if the Bush administration became confused when they received a thousand letters from St. Augustus saying, 'Leave our parish performance artist alone!'"
Miller refers to his involuntary enrollment in the so-called NEA 4. Miller, along with performers Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, and John Fleck, sued the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990 after their federal grants were rescinded because of material that was "objectionable"--i.e., discussed the American homosexual experience with brutal frankness. Funding for the four was reinstated, but last June the Supreme Court upheld the decency clause in NEA grant requirements in another case. Miller is weary and a little bitter; his whole life has sometimes felt like a fight ever since he decided to ask a guy out on a date when he was 17.
"I'm 40, I've been in four major relationships in my life, and two [of the men] were hospitalized from gay-bashing incidents," Miller says. "Right now, my boyfriend Alistair, who comes from Australia, is being denied anything more than a student visa because our relationship isn't legitimate in the eyes of the federal government. Gays and lesbians have come to accept limits in our lives. It's when you bump against those limits you realize how fucked-up things are."
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Tim Miller comes to McKinney Avenue Contemporary to present the sour and the sweet of his gay life's recipe in Shirts & Skin, a one-man show whose tales compose the first quarter of his same-titled 1997 autobiography. Miller is half queer firebrand and half nice guy, merging the two into a show that would be shocking for its plentiful sexual details if Miller didn't leaven them with a gee-whiz enthusiasm that could only be described as, well, innocent. If Jean Shepherd, Henry Miller, and Robert Mapplethorpe pooled their ejaculate and donated it to Kate Clinton for impregnation...then Tim Miller would have had one strange, rich childhood. As it happened, his middle-class Orange County upbringing contained a few corkers that merit repeating.
"I love storytelling above all else. It's my strength and my weakness," Miller says. "I'll be talking about what I learned from the lesbian Latina who taught me German in high school and when I hitchhiked to San Francisco after graduation to help Harvey Milk, and what happened then. And I do a segment about clothespins and nakedness, about putting a clothespin on those places where the emotions are layered most complexly. Maybe that's why I perform so much in the South. They love stories, and I see stories everywhere."
Tim Miller performs Shirts & Skin at 8 p.m. March 19 and 20, and 2 p.m. March 21 at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. Tickets are $15. Call (214) 953-1212.