Tim Miller stands in the middle of the floor at Highways Performance Space & Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif. He’s surrounded by 25 arts journalists, including me.
He directs us by saying something like, “Let’s take 50 seconds and move around the stage riding a skateboard while frying eggs and dodging machine gun fire and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.”
And we — the fellows of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute and Theater and Musical Theater — slide our feet across the floor, flick our wrists and bend our waists while saying the pledge. People bump into each other. It isn’t pretty, but Miller is giving us an entrance into the creative process of performance art.
In last week’s column, I wrote about a critic’s take on theater that matters. This week, I’m writing about Miller’s take.
Miller may be best known as one of the “NEA Four” — four artists who had NEA grants overturned in 1990 by the first Bush administration because of their subject matter. Miller’s art often has to do with his identity as a gay man, and the loss of government funding was seen as an attempt by a conservative administration to stifle creative expression.
The “NEA Four” sued the government in 1993 and eventually were awarded their grants, though Miller had part of his grant revoked in 1998 when the Supreme Court ruled that standards of decency can be used in federal funding of the arts.
Miller, a co-founder of Highways, tours the country performing and teaching. The exercises he took us through were just a warm up.
Now Miller has us stand in a circle, close our eyes, think about an important moment and to imagine a movement or a gesture that expresses that moment.
We open our eyes and go around the room acting out our movements without words. Some people took a few steps, others seemed to stretch, and one person made a violent shoving motion. Without words or context, the movements were a mysterious dumb show.
Miller puts us in groups of three. He tells us to create scenes from our gestures using our group as actors and to think up six short, strong sentences to go with the movements. We have 10 minutes. Then we perform.
One person re-enacts his wedding ceremony with his partner, reciting lines of Walt Whitman. The man’s shove, in context, reveals he pushed a woman away from an oncoming vehicle, saving her life. The scenes åre intimate and revealing. Some people even cry, overcome with emotion, when we talk about what was shared. It’s the most intense ice-breaker ever.
Then Miller puts our actions into a bigger context.
He says he believes art was vital to our lives, that people were painting on caves long before they were ever batting balls or building businesses.
But, he says, when the tsunami struck Indonesia in 2004, killing hundreds of thousands of people, he felt his ideas about art were worthless. He wished he knew how to do something practical, like a relief worker. How relevant is art in the face of disaster?
Later, though, he saw a BBC news program that showed children orphaned by the tsunami acting out a piece of performance art. One child stood on a chair, surrounded by other children who waggled their fingers and raised their arms to suggest rising water. The interpreter’s voice spoke in short, strong sentences about how the waters rose and one by one people died. Then the BBC program showed the children together laughing.
Miller says the children were doing what we had just done as a group. When he saw those children, then he understand that art was important for survival, that it gave them the tools to get them through trauma, that it allowed them the hope to save their humanity.
Miller’s words leave us silent.