California-based performance artist Tim Miller is unlucky: He's a gay man who loves an Australian citizen who can't get a visa. And his world is the United States, which isn't kind to gays and lesbians: They're denied "the 1,049 special rights married heterosexuals have," including citizenship for a foreign spouse. Miller's most recent work, Glory Box, has been on tour since its premier in 1999. Miller makes a one-time-only Kansas City stop with a performance and lecture Thursday, September 6, at the City Stage Theater in Union Station, and a student workshop the next day at the Kansas City Art Institute.
Glory Box is a funny, smart and tender monologue that uses Miller's mean bad luck as a leaping-off point to talk about what it's like to be a human being -- that is, to love.
"Glory box" is the Australian term for "hope chest." In his performance, Miller reveals that he owns an actual hope chest, a legacy from his mother, but his childlike optimism still has him believing that a hope chest is a real part of our anatomy -- "above our hearts, behind the sternum, a tangible place in the body where you put things you hope for ... the things I need to make my future happy." One of those things is his love for Alistair, his Australian partner of seven years. The couple isn't married -- a problem, Miller confesses, that has as much to do with his fear of commitment as it does with the U.S. government's refusal to acknowledge same-sex marriages. He refers to a "speech impediment" that makes it hard for him to say "I do" or "I love you." Ultimately, Miller must choose between losing the man he loves to deportation or leaving the country of his birth.
The style of Glory Box is performance art as intimate theater, an autobiographical monologue a lí Spading Gray or very recent Karen Finley. At the other end of the spectrum lies performance art as kinetic sculpture, using the body as machine-part, in the vein of artists like Chris Burden and Kim Jones. In between are various hybrids of the two, often combining live storytelling with stage props and multi-media such as video and audio. Miller, who cofounded the two most influential performance spaces in the U.S. (Manhattan's Performance Space 122 and Santa Monica's Highways Performance Space), says that he shifted from the more formal, multi-media performance style in the mid-1980s when the "urgency of the artistic shore that AIDS presented made me feel the need to have my work be as direct and communicative as possible." Since then, he says, he has been committed to "telling a few stories that chart the emotional, spiritual, sexual and political topography of my identity as a gay man." But, he admits with typically self-aware humor, he wants to present "all this highfalutin' stuff as well as wanting to swap some juicy autobiographical tidbits from my love life!" And he does, rocketing back and forth through time, from present to past to future, and into the frustrating political territory of homosexual ... no, human rights.
Miller himself is irresistibly loveable, a charming, sexy thirtysomething who looks like Michelangelo's David come to life. With remarkable wit and intelligence, he has been both the explorer and explored of U.S. politics.
In 1990, Miller was awarded a solo-performer fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, "which was promptly overturned under political pressure from the Bush White House because of the lush, wall-to-wall homo themes of my creative work," he says. Miller was one of the "NEA Four" (along with Karen Finley, John Fleck and Holly Hughes) who successfully sued the federal government for violation of their First Amendment rights. The appalling consequence was a 1998 Supreme Court decision to overturn part of Miller's case, determining that "standards of decency" are constitutional criteria for federal funding of the arts. Unfortunately, those standards arose like noxious gas from the right-wing Jesse Helms and his equally scary ilk.
Although Miller agrees that art thrives when it's under assault by the government, he also says that "it isn't much fun." In Glory Box he tells a funny but sad story about asking a boy to marry him when he was nine years old. The boy beats up Miller and tries to choke him by shoving a Twinkie down his throat, demanding that Miller take back his marriage proposal. "I do take it back," Miller remembers, "but I cross my fingers behind me before I say it! Maybe that was the beginning of my activism!" (The boy, by the way, was Steven Milhouse, a second cousin to former President Richard Nixon. Miller concludes the vignette wryly: "So as you can see, Republicans have been fucking with me for as long as I can remember.")
Miller's continuing refusal to "take it back" -- his homosexuality, his art, his love for a foreigner -- makes him the victim of continued beatings, whether literal (an epithet-spewing shitkicker in Montana hitting Miller with a beer bottle during a Gay-Pride parade) or figurative (losing work -- both performing and teaching gigs -- as whole regions of the country became off limits to him).
"Just last year," Miller says, "when I was performing in Chattanooga, the NEA infamy trailed me. As the audience arrived at the theater, so did the protesters. They set up shop across the street, this motley bunch of a dozen or so men who had stashed their wives and children at the corner. Audience members were forced to walk by the protesters waving their confederate flags.
"The black cops we had hired for security," he adds, "didn't seem too thrilled about these characters. The protestors shouted at the audience the usual charming greeting, 'Faggots! God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!' and 'Sodomites burn in hell!' The children down the street joined in these cries. This seemed to demonstrate this particular church's version of family values: The Family That Mates Together, Hates Together."
These trials are the middle, the here and now, of Miller's political pains. The end lies somewhere in the distance. "Even in the darkest period of George Bush the First and his culture wars," he says, "I never thought that I, an American theater artist, not only would have my grants taken away but could eventually be forced to leave my country [in order to remain with Alistair]." But it is an option Miller might reluctantly choose if his hand is forced, an example of just how far he will go -- Canada, Australia, Great Britain, countries that recognize same-sex marriages -- for love.