Showtunes and Striptease

Tim Miller takes a bare-ass, lighthearted look at civil rights struggle

The image could come from the morning routine of any married couple. As performance artist Tim Miller fielded a phone call from an interviewer, his partner of nearly 10 years, writer Alistair McCartney, prepared tofu scramblers for breakfast in their Venice Beach, California, home.

But the scene that Miller shared while exchanging pleasantries contains a somber specter that doesn’t haunt the households of couples who can legally marry. McCartney, holder of Australian and British passports, lives in the United States with the aid of a temporary work visa and Miller cannot sponsor his “spouse” under current U.S. immigration laws. Each time McCartney’s visa nears its end, the couple packs a few more boxes and sweats out another round of the waiting game that will decide whether they can remain in their home or must relocate to London.

Living in a state of exile within his own country has given Miller ample material for his politically charged one-man shows. In 1999, “Glory Box” focused largely on the injustices facing gays and lesbians on American soil, and with his latest work, “Us,” once again put the screws to his country’s anti-gay attitudes.

While the topical issue-oriented material has plenty of bite, Miller always tempers his work with ample doses of humor. In this instance, he finds levity in the confessions of a showtune queen.

Yes, it’s true. The performer who gained so much notoriety back in 1990 as one of the so-called NEA 4, a quartet of artists who lost their National Endowment for the Arts grants in the conservative political climate, is finally coming out as a big fan of Broadway musicals.

“I think there’s some kind of residual weird showtune queen shame, especially for me as such a wild, political performance artist,” Miller said. “Then as I was making this show… it was sort of about lesbian and gay marriage and feelings about exile and the whole idea of getting ready, because we’re having to pack our bags—and what do you take? At that moment I was writing, I do have hundreds and hundreds of Broadway cast albums and they’re a heavy part of my belongings, literally, in terms of pounds. Throughout the piece, I realized they were just coming up again and again.

“I finally rethought the piece and it became in a way a little more about that, the role these musicals had played in my identity as a gay man and my politics. It makes the show very, very fun, which is a good trick to find. Some of the lurking political material is quite hard.”

Whether it’s “Man of La Mancha” or “Fiddler on the Roof,” Miller can produce a tale that links the childhood of a precocious gay activist-to-be with his modern-day material. He said he not only learned from musicals in that “diva gay boy way” of identifying, but also picked up radical political lessons from their scores.

“‘Man of La Mancha’ at the age of ten meant that I could personally stop the war in Vietnam. Oliver Twist in the musical ‘Oliver!’ becomes the kind of primary future gay activist who confronts authority and asks for more. You could imagine Oliver in a little ACT UP T-shirt,” he said. “I always like figuring out how to link—because it’s true of my life—my kind of deepest-held political ideas, agendas with humor.

“It’s something I think you have to do in a culture like ours, which is suspicious of political discourse and suppresses it in all kinds of ways. … We’re happier talking about sex in public in a way. [I’m] using humor to get at that, or in this case, a fun and accessible narrative of the showtunes, which many people in the audience relate to or have a working knowledge about.

It’s also well known that Miller has a tendency to strip himself naked, literally and figuratively, in his performance pieces. The roots of his exhibitionist tendencies are revealed in “Us,” and once again, a musical holds the key.

“As a little kid, my favorite Broadway musical was ‘Gypsy,’ so that a future gay activist-stripper-performer as a little kid his favorite show [features a stripper], it means there is a God I think,” Miller laughed. “I used to do stripteases in my neighborhood when I was seven or eight and make little shows. [‘Us’] kind of builds toward a very wild ‘political striptease,’ kind of a montage of all these quotes from Broadway musicals and this wild political rant. It finally explains where all this taking your clothes off comes from.

More than a decade has passed since Miller got his first look at the cultural landscape from the hot seat of the NEA brouhaha. But the current political climate begs the question: Have things changed for an outspoken gay performance artist?

“There are many, many layers,” Miller said. “The NEA 4 stuff in 1990 was a peak opposition moment of lesbian and gay culture and ACT UP and Queer Nation, and enormous excitement and enthusiasm about lesbian and gay cultural manifestations of newspapers and festivals and theaters. It was a very charged time, in some ways, coming out of the challenge and energy of the late ’80s and AIDS activism and AIDS cultural response. Certainly right now, after a couple years of people feeling really, really cowed by the Bush-Cheney crooks and silenced by 9-11 flag-waving, I feel like people are finally again [coming around].

“I’ve been performing all through that period, performing my kind of oppositional funny/sexy/political pieces. In the last year, year and a half, the war, the insanity of this Bush family obsession, kind of broke people’s silence. They speak out in the pieces, they’ll hoot and holler, where when I first began premiering this piece a-year-and-a-half ago in Atlanta right as the war started, people were shouting at me and walking out. We were in such a propagandized moment. Certainly now, post millions of people going to see ‘Fahrenheit 9/11,’ people are feeling emboldened. I think the next months are going to be really, really charged.”

Miller will perform “Us” across the country this fall as he and McCartney approach their tenth anniversary as a couple. And they will continue their waiting game. McCartney, who teaches creative writing, has a valid visa until October and that’s all they can count on, Miller said.

“There’s a possibility of getting extended; it may happen, but it may not,” he said. “We could get an unpleasant thing in the mail that says we have to leave, basically immediately. Here in the land of the free, ha ha, that is the kind of existential dilemma we’re in pretty much once a year. Unfortunately, there have been times when we thought something was going to happen and it didn’t, and we were thrown into complete crisis and had to spend thousands of dollars with lawyers. It’s possible and probably more than likely we’ll be able to get a last few months out of his work visa. Right now, politically things are so horrible. With a complete bigot like Bush in the White House, who is using gay bashing as his primary social plank, it’s really hard to say what could happen.”

But there’s no question about whether or not Miller wants to leave the United States.

“This is my country, I belong here,” said the native Californian. “They’re the ones who did the coup and hijacked our country. I would never even think of leaving if it weren’t to preserve our family. That would be the only reason. It’s pretty gross right now, certainly the ugliest and meanest and most violent [time] in my life. I wasn’t old enough to really be functioning during the Vietnam period. I have this little kid’s perspective on Vietnam in this show, and two years ago when I wrote it, I thought, ‘Oh God, how can I be doing anything about Vietnam? That’s so old.’ And now that is the section in the show that plays the most potently.”

Whether it’s through his performances or his books—a new collection of essays and interviews is due next summer—Miller plans to keep challenging the country he loves to do better.

“There’s no question the main civil rights issue of our time is marriage equality,” he said. “And the immigration issue is a very powerful example of how our relationships are treated like crap in this country. Alistair and I are lucky. We’re from two civilized countries; we have places to go. I work in Britain a lot, we could hit the ground running there. I know so many lesbian and gay couples, their lives are really being destroyed by America; they’re either being separated or forced to go underground for years or emigrate and live illegally in another country.

“Right now, I feel really lucky to be in a position to get to do performances all over the country and abroad about the central civil rights issue, not just for lesbian and gay Americans, but also for our country generally. It’s a real test right now. To get to do that in a humorous way that includes showtunes and a naked political striptease, that’s kind of my formula of how I get to engage people that might not engage otherwise.”

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