Don‘t expect Tim Miller to go softly into that good night — that good night being Canada, where he’s already researching legal papers for political asylum. In fact, don‘t expect Miller — one of the “NEA Four” who helped fan the flames of the controversy over public-arts funding — to go softly anywhere. Miller has built a career on his agitprop performances, on loudly railing against the likes of Jesse Helms, the Christian Coalition and the Republican right, and he expects to visit 60 U.S. cities in the next 18 months in order to “make a fair amount of fuss” about the cause of his latest incendiary rage. “I feel the laws of the U.S. are going to force me to leave the country, that my intimate life is being degraded,” Miller says.
Miller is in a committed binational gay relationship with his Australian partner, Alistair McCartney, whom he met in London in 1994, and who is here on a student visa that’s due to expire in about a year. Because of the nature of the visa, the only kind for which McCartney is currently eligible, he must remain a student to live here legally; being a foreign national, he must pay exorbitant out-of-state tuition; furthermore, his entry visa precludes him from working in order to pay off the bills — all of which “makes it financially impossible,” Miller explains.
The crux of the matter: Were Miller and McCartney a heterosexual couple, they‘d have the option of getting married, which would make McCartney a candidate for U.S. citizenship, not to mention land him a work permit — just two of the 1,049 advantages married couples have over nonmarried ones, a statistic, culled from the Lambda Legal Defense Web site (www.lambdalegal.org), that’s cited in Miller‘s latest show at Highways, Glory Box. And, of course, no state in the Union yet has legally sanctioned marriage for same-sex partners.
Were they able to get married, Miller says, he and McCartney could consider planning a life together in Southern California, a dream they share — understandably, since Miller recently purchased a house in Venice. Miller feels that perhaps a new U.S. Congress will wake up and change American immigration and marriage laws.
“We’re the only [Western] country that doesn‘t acknowledge gay partnerships,” he says, “just as we stand alone on capital punishment. We have the highest percentage of people in prison. We have sodomy laws.” (It’s still illegal in 16 states.) “Because of these and other policies, like those concerning gays in the military, America could not be in the European Union. Yet I think the American people are way ahead of the Republican leadership. There‘s been a big shift since the uglier days of race-baiting. Remember, Pete Wilson almost destroyed his party in this state with his support of Propositions 187 and 209. The Republicans have finally given up on Latino bashing, but gays are still in the line of fire. The troika of the right is still the same — lowering taxes, even when people don’t want them lowered, owning guns and beating up on gays.”
Miller grew up in Whittier — also the home of Richard Nixon. In Glory Box, Miller tells of walking to school at age 9 with his schoolmate, whom he describes as a relative of the former president, who held Miller down in the ivy and stuffed a Twinkie wrapper in his mouth until Miller took back his assertion that he dreamed of one day marrying him. “Republicans have been fucking with me all my life,” Miller quips in the show.
“But I‘m hopeful that things will change,” he tells me. “In my piece, I make fun of Americans having this absurd optimism, like retarded children. But I have to include myself in that category. But if things don’t change, I don‘t want to keep paying taxes and contributing to a country that doesn’t want me and my partner here. The question is, do you want to be in an abusive relationship with the United States? A lot of binational gay couples are saying no.”
Which comes off a bit more cavalier than the feelings Miller reveals moments later: “For me to actually leave the country would be profoundly upsetting. I eat, live and breathe American culture. I follow politics very closely — I actually believed civics class. Then there‘s the house. That’s a true marker of the American Dream. I‘d have to give it up.
”I’ve never wanted to be an expatriate,“ Miller says. ”Alistair and I are in it for the long run. My relationship is more important than my nationality, but I‘m very annoyed that I’m being forced to choose.“
In Glory Box, Miller bounces onto the stage and, within a minute or two, is ranting about his personal situation and the cruelty of U.S. policy. But then he stops to make fun of his own soapboxing, thereby tempering self-righteousness with self-deprecation. Still, there‘s no denying that his performance is a kind of sermon. Miller says he’s always had a ”feckless faith“ that art can change the world. I ask him if he really believes preaching to a crowd of like-minded people will change much of anything.
”The most interesting art of the last century is message art, dripping with rhetoric and complex ideas,“ Miller says. ”I like theater to be about things. In every country except this one, theater is supposed to be about something.“
There is, however, a difference between using theater to tell a cautionary tale and using theater to vent. ”Identity-based“ performance, the genre in which Miller works, attempts to tap into the artist‘s, and the audience’s, shared indignation. Glory Box, he says, aims to depict ”what it means to be in exile, and to be in an oppositional stance to the failings of society“ — hardly a forum for debate. ”I‘ve never felt more urgency, even with the HIV issues,“ Miller says of Glory Box. ”I’m living this panic. Theater really can be an extraordinary tool to raise consciousness and outrage.“ (And there is indeed cause for outrage. The Knight Initiative [Proposition 22] on the March ballot proposes to ban same-sex marriages in California.)
Still, I say, the dramas that challenge rather than reinforce perceptions are usually not about right vs. wrong, but right vs. right, or wrong vs. wrong.
After a moment of reflection, Miller answers, ”The point of this piece is to chart my nightmare. Two rights, you say — but I don‘t feel compelled to defend the overt desire this country has to destroy my life. At the same time, I also want to say not only how fucked-up America is, but also how fucked-up I am.“
”And how fucked-up are you?“
”There’s the standard commitment stuff. It was difficult for me to commit to Alistair, and not because of the political problem. I found it difficult to say ‘I love you,’ even after he‘d traveled across the world to see me. But I’m not that big a jerk,“ he hastens to add. ”I exaggerate my jerklike qualities.“
Now we‘re getting to the heart of the matter — I suspect Miller actually feels pretty good about himself, that all that self-deprecation may be, well, for show.
Miller performs Glory Box at Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica, on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. through February 12. Call (310) 315-1459.