Highways Performance Space was founded in 1989 in direct response to the AIDS crisis and the urgent need for a venue to present relevant, progressive works of theater, performance and storytelling of the LGBTQ community. Through three decades of challenges and triumphs — and upsetting Sen. Jesse Helms — this core mission has only expanded, never wavered and resulted in the development of upwards of 1,000 works for the stage.
Danielle Brazell, currently general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and once a performance intern and later the artistic director of Highways, is passionate about the soulful legacy of the place. “They made space and sites for a deeper civil discourse, staging provocative work and creating communities across multiple generations,” she tells the Weekly. “And this is really hard work, to research and develop theatrical pieces, from multiple points of entry. But to have a truly engaged democracy, sustained discourse is required. We need ideas! This is where Highways excels — not the commerce of creativity, but rather, the freedom of it.”
Highways has welcomed once and future legends to its stage over the decades, like Rachel Rosenthal, Los Angeles Poverty Department, Gronk, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, John Fleck, Beth Lapides, Barbara T. Smith, The Dark Bob, Paul McCarthy, George Carlin, Roger Guenveur Smith, Vaginal Davis, Phranc, Jackie Beat, Simone Forti, Ron Athey, Diavolo Dance, Nao Bustamante, Marcus Kuiland-Nazario, osseus labyrint, Karen Finley, Margaret Cho, Leon Mostovoy, Rosanna Gamson, My Barbarian, Kamau Daáood, Elia Arce, Danielle Uyehara, Sue Dakin (who ran a campaign for president as a piece of performance art in 1980), and Kristina Wong (who just this year won a seat on the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council), and so very many more.
Even through the 2008 financial crisis and, notably, without NEA support, Highways has survived and thrived. Now it's celebrating its 30th anniversary in style, with a two-month slate of new and landmark works, looking back in awe and striding forward with love. Behold! began in May and continues throughout June; notable upcoming works include Tyler Matthew Oyer performing Roy Cohn / Jack Smith / Ron Vawter. Vawter was a founding member of the Wooster Group and died from HIV/AIDS in 1994, and this first restaging of the work since his death continues Oyer’s “Calling All Divas,” an interdisciplinary international project of the last four years.
Patrisse Cullors (Black Lives Matter co-founder) also returns to Highways, in two days of cathartic and healing spoken word sessions. On June 30, artist and activist Michael Kearns, a great talent and a hero, as the first openly HIV-positive actor in Hollywood (The Waltons, Cheers, Body Double), assembles a diverse cast to deliver the stories in wet hankies — Wanda-Lee Evans, Dean Howell, Dale Raoul, Dave Trudell, Tim Miller, Leo Garcia and Ron Dennis. Besides intimacies, produced in Highways’ first season, Kearns shares new monologues tracing his career in the context of LGBTQ politics in America.
Back in May, theater artist Tim Miller (a founder and original co-artistic director of Highways) kicked off Behold! with a performance from A Body in the O: Performances and Stories. Having served in leadership since 1989, in 2000 Miller stepped down as artistic director to focus on social activism through his performance work; that’s when Brazell took over the position. She served until December 2003, when Leo Garcia came on as AD, which he was through 2017. That year Garcia became executive director and Patrick Kennelly (both men are also performance artists) took the AD position, where both currently remain. We spoke to these three head-office legends past and present about how they got there, what they learned and what they’re most proud of about their tenures.
Danielle Brazell doesn’t hesitate. “Highways was the zeitgeist,” she says. “They truly embodied West Coast performance art. They were inclusive, and they recruited actively. No other space offered a platform and incubator like they did, supporting art as a vehicle for social change. And there are so many people you have to mention who made that possible.” Beginning with Tim Miller, “of course!” she says. “He was always such an advocate, mobilizer and storyteller. But Jordan Peimer and Nicole Werner, Linda Burnham and her daughter Jill Burnham, they were all a huge part of the engine that made this incredible vision operationalized — and grant-funded! — in those early days. Jill Burnham gave me my first job in art. I got paid $30 a night to work the door, and I saw all these incredible performances that were relevant, timely and radical. I interned there and apprenticed with Tim Miller. Those free performance workshops, made possible by grants from the [L.A.] County Arts Commission, are where I found my artistic voice. Highways was my university. Shout out to public funding for the arts!”
Patrick Kennelly also came to Highways via the CAC intern program, some 14 years ago. An impactful early show he saw was Stephanie Gilliland’s Tongue dance company. “They did this incredible, high-impact dance performance that merged elements of a runway show,” Kennelly recalls. “I came to Highways because of the practice in performance art around issues of identity; I really hadn’t had that much exposure to modern dance at that point, and it was pretty eye-opening.”
Since then, Kennelly estimates he’s worked with hundreds of artists to develop and present their work. “I’m most proud thus far of the great, mass success of discoveries we’ve made or artists whose early works we’ve presented,” he says. “We give people an opportunity with very little track record because we see something in it that needs to be supported and developed so that they can grow beyond our space into large venues across the country — and even, in some cases, the world.”
For his part, Leo Garcia first came to Highways to see Tim Miller’s performance My Queer Body in March of ’92, with his then-boyfriend who knew Miller’s work from New York. “I remember sitting in the audience and feeling that something great was going on here,” Garcia says. He recalls visiting Highways again two months later, on May 2, 1992 — the fourth day of the L.A. riots. L.A. was in trouble, and “there was no place to go but Highways,” he says. “I’d heard of Annie Sprinkle, who presenting that night, so instead of watching the continuing horror of the riots on T.V. I drove to Highways. No one was at the door and I peeked through the side curtain and saw Sprinkle presenting Post Porn Modernist. There were like seven people in the house. I kept coming back after that. It was the closest thing to a black box experience I could find in L.A. — and it was open during military occupations!”
Garcia might remember those early days with a bit of dark humor, but he turns pensive when contemplating the magnitude of its legacy. “I think of Highways as a durational work of 30 years, the longest running performance in history,” he says. “I have seen every performance (except one, maybe two) since 2003 and am moved by the sacredness of the space, by the creation process, by the freedom expressed, by the exploration, by the spirit, by the politics, by the transformations, by the flesh, by the discovery of all things human. When the performance is done, I will name it.”
Highways Performance Space, 18th Street Arts Center, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Learn more at highwaysperformance.org.