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Still on Edge

Michael Stumm survived the New York avant-garde scene of the 80s. Barely.



Michael Stumm stalks his meager opening-night audience like a gleeful rat. Rail thin, skittish, and inexplicably menacing in a rumpled poplin suit and limp polka-dot tie, he's frolicking through Jim Strahs's dizzying and disjointed monologue How to Act, offering a torrent of questionable advice to would-be actors. "Topic: anal leakage," Stumm announces. "What are you doing about it? All the greats suffered." But before we have a chance to consider our rectal health, he makes it clear that most everyone's career is doomed anyway. "There is just so much to know and so little time until the demographic changes and you're too old--so please..."

Suddenly a restaurant deliveryman knocks on the window of the street door of the Lunar Cabaret. Jenny Magnus, one of the proprietors, tries to wave him away, but Stumm marches to the door, greets and pays the man, takes a bite of food, and dives back into the show. The interruption is the sort of moment he thrives on. For him, an evening's entertainment isn't worth its salt unless art and life crash into each other.

He discovered this guiding principle in his fifth-grade lunchroom. The year was 1965, and 11-year-old Michael had been herded with his fellow students into the cafeteria to see a traveling production of Macbeth. "Guys with swords and crowns in front of the steam table. And it made perfect sense to me. Shakespeare and the lunchroom collide and make something bigger. Drama happening right where you are. It was a penny dropping."

Stumm had an itinerant childhood. "My pop worked for Westinghouse, and their idea of a good time was transferring their executives every six months," he says. "It was worse than the army." When he finished high school he was living in Denver, devouring copies of The Drama Review and learning about convention-defying New York companies--the Living Theater, the Open Theater, the Performance Group--that were intent on making theater as immediate and visceral as Shakespeare in a lunchroom. Kindred artistic souls were out there.

Then a bunch came to town. An experimental theater from Milwaukee called Theatre X brought its first tour through Denver, and Stumm, who was 19, took a workshop with them. He clicked with an 18-year-old company member named Willem Dafoe. "I was immediately struck by him," Dafoe says. "Very passionate. Every day he had a new obsession--a band, a book, whatever."

Stumm liked everything about the company. "We had similar ideas, similar aesthetics. And they said, 'Hey, if you're ever in Milwaukee...' And six months later I showed up at their door."

Stumm submerged himself in Theatre X's collective performance work. One of their first shows together was a radical adaptation of a Nancy Drew mystery. With few women in the company, Stumm and Dafoe had to cross-dress. "We had totally different approaches, as always," Stumm says. "He was careful and particular, got just the right hose, just the right bra, filled it with birdseed. Whereas my girl was very thrown together. We would have great arguments after the show."

Shortly after Nancy Drew closed, a clerk in a record shop said "You gotta listen to this" and handed Stumm the first Ramones record. "Nah, I don't like Latin music," he replied. But he took the disc home and dropped it on the turntable. "After I picked my jaw up off the floor I realized this was something entirely new. You could hear the art world turning over in the first song. I had to get to New York to catch the punk thing before it blew itself up."

He didn't know anyone in New York, but a friend knew a painter in the East Village and suggested Stumm crash at his place. "His apartment was right across from CBGB's," Stumm says. "It was sort of the unofficial dressing room for the club. So I show up, 'Hi, you don't know me, but...' Ten minutes later there's a knock on the door, and there's another guy saying 'Hi, you don't know me, but...' We slept on the floor and then went out and found a place."

His new roommate turned out to be an ambitious young painter named Jeff Koons. "He would introduce himself to strangers, 'Hi, I'm Jeff Koons artist.' No comma." Koons liked to invite friends over to see the trinkets he'd picked up on 14th Street and installed in his bedroom as art. "We'd say, 'Yeah, great, let's go get a drink.' But it was cool because no one knew what art was then. It was all changing so rapidly."

Soon Dafoe joined him in New York. "Initially, he was my guide," Dafoe says. "You don't want to overromanticize it, but in those days you really could move to the city with $200 in your pocket, sleep on floors, work out a few jobs, stay out late, and figure out where you can drink for free." One night they headed down to the Performing Garage to catch a show by a new company called the Wooster Group. It was the group's second effort, a fractured narrative called Rumstick Road written and narrated by the unknown Spalding Gray and staged upstairs in the theater's office and dressing room. "Seeing the piece was like listening to the first Ramones record," Stumm says. "Bill and I looked at each other and said, 'We'd be so stupid not to be friends with these people.' I started sleeping with a company member within a week."

Dafoe joined the company in short order. It took Stumm a while to move from boyfriend to performer--but given the Wooster Group's efforts to reposition the line between art and life, friends and neighbors often wound up on their stage. In the early years the group's work left audiences and critics cold. "We would regularly play to crowds of four or five," Stumm recalls. Things began to change in 1982 with a piece called LSD.

Work on the show began with an exploration of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. "We all responded deeply to the great American dramatists," Stumm explains. "Williams, O'Neill, Wilder, Miller--those guys were giants in our cosmology. But the notion of doing those plays as written didn't appeal to us. So we think to ourselves, 'What if we stripped out all of the emotional climaxes--that is to say, any part where anyone is screaming or throwing something--and bump them all together.' So we did that and got a 20-minute version of The Crucible, which was just like watching an automobile accident. Sheer mayhem."

That kind of chaos nicely complemented one of the company's other interests--drugs. "Part of what we did was incorporate material from our everyday lives into every show. So there it was." They bought a Timothy Leary record and played it as a kind of prelude to their hopped-up Crucible. After the piece was up, company members bumped into Miller at a party and invited him to see it. "So we look out one night and say, 'Look, there's four people and Marilyn Monroe's ex-husband.'" The next day a letter from Miller's attorney arrived. "It said that if we continued to do this they'd lock our theater with the biggest locks they could find."

That might have ruined the struggling company, but as luck would have it another avant-garde director, JoAnne Akalaitis, was up in Boston setting Endgame in a subway and receiving equally threatening letters from Samuel Beckett. "Suddenly a lot of critical ink was spilled about us and the notion of artistic ownership," Stumm says. The Wooster Group was on the map.

In the 1980s the troupe blossomed into one of the most progressive and influential in New York's downtown theater scene. But as the group's fortunes rose, Stumm's declined. "This interest in drugs acquires some power over me when I start going out with this girl who's a junkie. And it turns out I have a real interest in narcotics. So I get addicted to heroin."

He continued to work, but by the end of the decade he was barely functional. "I'm living in an abandoned building on Avenue C, about to die any second, OK? I'm completely unemployable, and I've got a $200-a-day habit. I'm stealing everything that isn't nailed down. I'm going to jail every six months. I'm a criminal. I'm a liability to be around."

He became persona non grata in the performance scene. "People would literally cross the street to avoid talking to me," he says. He tried numerous rehab facilities around town, but the prospect of actually getting clean terrified him. "I had this notion that if I stopped taking heroin my personality would vanish, whatever creative spark I had would be extinguished."

In 1992 he fled to Waukegan, where his sister lived. He was dragged "kicking and screaming" into rehab, and eventually lived a year in a halfway house. Clean at last, he moved to Chicago, picked up occasional acting roles in legit plays, and eventually began teaching acting and performance history at the School of the Art Institute and at Columbia College. But he didn't start generating more of his theatrical collisions until 1998, when Dolores Wilber, whom he'd met when she was a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute, offered him a part in her new performance piece, JerkSnatch. Wilber had trained with Lin Hixson and Goat Island, and she welcomed all kinds of incongruity into her work.

"When she asked me if I wanted to be in the piece, I said, 'Well, not really, but I'll do it if I can just sing songs.' Because really, by then that's what things had boiled down to for me. So I go to rehearsals thinking I'm just going to sing, and the next thing you know you've got your clothes off and you're swinging from the chandeliers."

Stumm had found an artistic home at last. Since then he's starred in two more of Wilber's pieces, Getalong Little Doggie and GooseFlesh and BoneHead. In 2000 Stumm and Wilber married.

Now, with How to Act, Stumm tackles his most demanding project in years, in the process reuniting with playwright Jim Strahs, a longtime Wooster Group contributor. Strahs wrote the piece specifically for Stumm, who hopes more scripts will be forthcoming. "He's such a difficult and fascinating writer," Stumm says. "I only have an interest in the avant-garde, OK? I'm wired that way. And it's hard to find."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostani.

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