Tim Miller Mines the Personal and Political for Drama 

Bill McMahon 

Tim Miller, a noted solo performer for three decades, is one of the founders of PS 122, not to mention one of the NEA 4 who fought the conservative climate of the 1990’s when their funding was withdrawn due to political/sexual content.  A dedicated activist and gifted artist, Tim is touring the country now with Lay of the Land.  I had the pleasure of chatting with him after a recent performance at PS 122.


Tim Miller - Lay of the Land

BM:  I'll start with a question about PS 122.  It's been around for 30 years now - which doesn't seem possible, and it's pretty amazing, given the economic/political climate nowadays, that it happened at all. Now that it's reached this benchmark, where do you see it headed in the future? How can it protect its unique position and identity in theater and continue to survive?


TM: Having 17 amazing artists in my workshop this week as we get ready to perform this Sunday is exactly the way to keep it all charged up!


BM: Your body and your relationship to it has always been a major metaphor, a motif that runs through each of your pieces, including Lay of the Land. You've also consistently shared a notable biographical frankness about your sexuality. Has the metaphor itself changed or evolved? Has the ratio of sexual freedom vs. political content in your work shifted?  


TM: To be queer, or a queer artist, in America means that your identity and sexuality [ranges from being] constantly under the microscope (on a good day) or under attack (on a bad day.) My recent shows are simultaneously my most personal piece and my most political – the funniest and the most intense. The subject matter really cooks in that harsh reality of the fact that our most intimate and sacred love relationships and sexuality are treated like shit in America. By necessity these charged feelings bring forward more "accessible humor/narrative” as a way of dealing with the situation and reaching my audience.  In my pieces I cleverly manage to get people laughing about butt-plugs and spanking, etc. This lets people relax, see the fun and joy in our bodies and desires. And hopefully just relax with the journey I will take them on!


BM: Aside from the political content of your performance work, throughout your career you've also been a dedicated political activist on issues ranging from immigration and marriage equality to freedom of speech. Is it a challenge for you to balance your creative life and your political life? Do you ever resent the amount of time and energy that you have to devote to fighting for your political rights?  Or is your creative work fed by your political activism?


TM: It is a project, but we gotta hang in there. I tell a funny story in on of my performances about asking a boy to marry me when I was nine years old. He beats me up and tells me to “take it back.” I do take back that I wanted to marry him, but I cross my fingers behind me before I do. Maybe that was the beginning of my activism!  That gave me the basic dissatisfaction with stuff that just isn't fair.I keep trying to stay close to that little nine-year-old who knew that it just wasn't fair that he couldn't marry another boy!


BM: You and your partner Alistair have had your relationship challenged by the immigration laws in the US since you've been together.  If, and I dearly hope it never comes to pass, but if you are forced into living as an expatriate, can you see yourself working abroad? What would you miss about America?


TM: Not the politics, that's for sure. So poisonous here. I think because we are bombarded 24 hours a day that America is the greatest, most free, most democratic country, it is important to use tiny open-minded public-speaking moments we have to question some of those notions. Clearly there are SO many great things about the US: Our history of individualism, freedom of speech, political protest and so on. On the other hand, we have to really be ready to look at the fact that gay people have less rights in the US than in any other western country, that we are the only western country with no universal health care for its citizens, the only western country that has the death penalty,  highest infant mortality rate and so on, worst split between rich and poor. These are hard truths people don't want to face. Of course, I will not leave the US – unless we are forced to leave – because it is MY country, home, family and so on. My family has been here since the 1740s. It belongs to all of us, and it is our responsibility to make the country begin to truly live up to what we say we are about. That is a life-long challenge! I will not leave MY country any more that Martin Luther King would have ever left in his life, even though the US was the most racist country in the western world after South Africa during the civil rights movement. Someday, we will begin to truly live up to what this country should be about, but only if ALL of us insist on it.


BM: Who is your favorite solo performer?  Whose work affects you most intellectually and emotionally?


TM: Gosh, I love so many solo performers work. I have a special fondness for my fellow NEA 4 artists Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, and John Fleck. I suck up inspiration wherever I can! When I was a 19-year-old starting to work in NYC, my primary influences were Allen Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, Vladimir Mayakovsky and feminist performance art, which brought personal life into creative work in such a direct way. Those sources all were trying to figure out the relation of self to society and they continue to embolden and challenge me. These days I feel really inspired by writers, social justice lawyers and activists as much as any kind of artist.


BM: If you could pressure Obama into coming back to a progressive agenda, what would be the first item on your wish list?


TM: An executive order stopping all discharge of gay folks under DADT and an Oval Office speech against DOMA explaining that when he was born his parents’ marriage was against the law.


Bill McMahon is a playwright whose work includes A WINTER BEAUTY (Emerging Artists Theatre, 1999 season) as well as many one-acts that have been produced in showcases and festivals in NYC and around the country.  His latest project is WORLD OF TOMORROW, a three-act play about New York developer Robert Moses.  It will have a staged reading in April of 2011 by The Artists’ Playground Theater (TAPT).


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