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A Long Way to the Stage

Performance artist Michael K. Meyers charts his own course.

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Michael K. Meyers charts his own course.

By Justin Hayford

Michael K. Meyers displays the sort of aw-shucks midwestern boyishness that makes him seem a good two decades younger than his age. The 61-year-old painter and performance artist was one of the most successful and admired figures in the city's performance art scene during its heyday a decade and a half ago. He reached the top of his game in 1986, when his beguiling, childlike Reconstructing the Temple From Memory enjoyed an extended run at the barn-sized Organic Theater before touring the country. That piece, ostensibly about Meyers's attempt to bring an old man back to life, opened with the kind of ridiculous and sublime image that has long given his work its coy allure: a huge, dead mahimahi lay center stage; a hidden mechanism in its gut made its tail flop languidly. Meyers and his cast of awkward nonactors gathered around the creature and exclaimed, "Look at the miracle!"

"The trick," Meyers says, "is not getting scared of not knowing where I am." He's describing his method as a writer; an idea or an image will come from nowhere and he'll "inhabit it," refusing to say no to any curious thought that may cross his mind during his stay. But inspired digression has been a kind of credo for him for over 30 years. He's dedicated his adult life to not knowing where he was headed.

Three years ago he thought he'd retired from performance for good. But he is about to emerge from that imagined retirement with a new piece this weekend at the Rhinoceros Theater Festival, a piece that follows a fictional "M.K. Meyers" through a series of incongruous lives across history. The piece isn't strictly autobiographical--Meyers was never a Greek god, for example--but its peripatetic structure mirrors the author's mercurial life.

Four decades ago he could never have imagined he'd grow into one of Chicago's most valuable cultural exports. A product of Hyde Park, he'd just finished his undergraduate degree in economics from Iowa's Drake University with no desire to become an economist. Designated 1A for the Vietnam draft, he contemplated an escape to Canada but opted to join the reserves instead, where he served as a medic. Still, he needed a career, though the only thing he knew how to do was draw. So he enrolled in medical school--not to become a doctor but a medical illustrator.

He spent two years at the University of Illinois College of Medicine beside physicians in training. "The hardest stuff was dissection," he says. Every day he would report to his cadaver, turning the big metal crank that would raise it out of its metal box. Then he'd unwrap the section of the body he was assigned to study and get busy with his scalpel.

By the time he finished his degree in 1965, he had a job lined up as a staff illustrator at the University of Iowa General Hospitals. "Basically, I was drawing a lot of operations," he explains. "Photographs of operations don't tell you much; it's a mess. So they need an illustrator to clean it up. I know things about the body I don't want to know." He also made prosthetic noses and ears, painting them so they would exactly match patients' skin tones. "It was gruesome."

After two years in the field, he suddenly decided he wanted to paint more than ersatz cartilage; he was going to become a "real" painter. "I was 28, I had a wife and a kid, but I still felt young enough to say, 'I don't want to do this, I want do that. To just jump in." So he enrolled in the master's program at the University of Iowa and ended up on the faculty.

Canvas and paint ruled his life until one day in 1971, when a visit from a young theater director named Robert Wilson would change his life forever. Wilson brought one of his early image-based spectacles, Deaf Man's Glance, to the university, and Meyers was overwhelmed. "Crawling fish moved across the stage," he recalls, his voice resonating with excitement as though he saw the show yesterday. "Gorillas came up through trapdoors on the stage through smoke. There was a frog on a chair that just sat there for an hour and a half and then hopped all the way across the stage. It was this big, slow-moving painting onstage."

Meyers knew that his days as a painter were numbered. "This was a time when you had to justify being a painter," he explains. "This was Vietnam. Your art had to have a certain language which preceded it, or smart young critics had to be able to own it. I was affected by that, and painting wasn't enough."

Still, it would be another four years before Meyers would test the waters of performance art. In 1975 he was teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute, when a Scottish gallery owner named Richard Demarco invited him to join a select group of American and British artists he wanted to bring to Edinburgh. Demarco knew of a group of prisoners in an Edinburgh jail who were deemed particularly dangerous and were confined to a special cell block. The men had started art therapy, and Demarco was exhibiting their work. He wanted Meyers and his group to meet with the prisoners and create performance pieces based on the experience. Meyers premiered his work at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and the hapless novice had to follow two of the toughest acts imaginable: Joseph Beuys and Buckminster Fuller.

Beuys and Fuller were in town for an alternative energy conference, which wrapped up the day before the Fringe opened. "So there we all were in the Forest Hill Performance Space, sunk below street level," Meyers recalls. "The flooring is the original cobblestones of the city, and beyond the wall is the Gray Friars churchyard, so all the dead of Edinburgh were right over there. And Beuys and Fuller each gave hour-and-a-half talks. Who knew what they were talking about? But it was jaw dropping to be in their presence."

The next night, in the very same space, Meyers took the stage. "I did... well...a collage of tableaux," he says with a laugh. "At one point I had my back to the audience, but I was addressing a video camera, so the audience saw my front on a TV screen. And I also put all these rubber bands around my fingers and tried to pull them apart--you know, this was the time when you were supposed to do symbolic acts that were supposed to be meaningful." He spent about a half an hour on the stage, with another artist doing a different piece simultaneously on the other side of the stage. "We didn't know how to collaborate, so we just juxtaposed.

"I thought it was the best thing I'd ever done. But one of the guys in my group hated it so much he wanted to hit me. And I'd never done anything that anyone had that much feeling about."

So when he returned to Kansas City, the first thing he did was rent a storefront. He dubbed the theater Wattle and Daub--sticks and mud--mounting a huge chalkboard above the entrance as an erasable marquee. "I had no idea what theater was, so I just started making it up. I thought the smartest thing to do was work fast, so I made a new piece every week. I would cast friends, students, faculty, and since nobody could act I put bags over their heads." As a sound track, he used a voice counting. "The actors would carry scripts which said, 'When you hear "seven," do this, when you hear "eight," do that.' So we didn't have to rehearse much."

They also didn't use much of the theater, performing everything in the front windows or on the sidewalk. Meyers called their work "bus-stop theater," because the pieces were designed to run during the interval people would wait for a bus in front of his theater. "These were righteous times. Everything had to have meaning, and if you could connect it to 'the People,' you were even better."

After six weeks, the president of the local bank called. He'd just opened a fancy new building in downtown Kansas City, complete with a theater. He wanted Meyers to present the bank's inaugural performance. "This wasn't bus-stop theater, this was now lunchtime theater," he says. "So I thought I should use a story that audiences would know where they are, no matter when they come in. So, David and Goliath. 'On one, pick up the stone. Three, four. On four in slow motion throw the stone. Five, six, seven. On eight fall down.' We had 18 Davids and 18 Goliaths." The audience's response? "Speechlessness."

"I had to call the bank president to justify what I was doing. He actually let me do four pieces there." Soon the stage was cluttered with multiple JFKs and multiple Jackies.

Back at Wattle and Daub, winter was closing in. He had to move his amateur actors indoors. "Out on the sidewalk, there was this carnival atmosphere, a lot of things going on at once. So it didn't matter if you watched this or that, or if you looked away for a while, whatever. But indoors, I had the rude awakening that everybody watches all the time. This was theater now. The actors couldn't wear bags over their heads anymore."

Meyers began retooling his approach, and by the end of the decade his pieces were touring to some of the nation's most prestigious performance venues, like the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Washington Project for the Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. To his surprise, he also became a bona fide author; the summary description of one of his pieces, about facial features moving across a man's head like continents across a globe, ended up published in the New Yorker. "It shocked the hell out of me," he says.

In all his Wattle and Daub work, Meyers had been writer, producer, and director, but never performer. With the advent of the 1980s that began to change, as a new stream of small-scale solo work emerged. "I would do it all myself, you know, running the lights, the slides, the movies from the stage, because it's righteous to control everything yourself, to not conceal anything so it's not 'theatrical.'"

In 1984 he took a position on the faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He continued mounting and touring his big performance pieces until 1988, when he simply threw in the towel, a victim of the nation's declining interest in performance art. "You lose energy," he explains. "It isn't liked enough in order to create a demand for you to create more. You can't get enough money, so people start working for you for free, and you start making enemies."

Over the next decade he did occasional solo performances but found the writing more satisfying than the performing. By 1997, when he read his quirky love story "The Cat, the Canary, the Spoon and His Intoxicated Friend" at the Blue Rider, he was set to retire from the stage. "I thought that was it. I was writing a lot, and my agent was sending stuff out." He'd even completed a novel, "If I Don't Hear From You, Are You Dead?," which was receiving a healthy number of rejections from various publishing houses.

So as he approached his 60th birthday, he decided to become a full-time author--though he says with a laugh that his work is being published "nowhere." In truth, his short story "The Second Man on the Moon" was published in a 1998 volume of the journal Fiction, alongside Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, and Joyce Carol Oates. Even so, he brags, "I've been rejected by all the best people."

Last April he struck up a conversation with Rhinoceros Theater Festival organizer Beau O'Reilly, who also teaches at the School of the Art Institute. By the end of their talk Meyers had agreed to create a new performance for the festival. "Really what I needed was a writing deadline, and that was a good one," he explains. So he spent all summer writing chapters for a new novel, tentatively titled "Not Dead but Almost and Repeatedly," and distilled from them the piece he will premiere this weekend, Looking at Chagall: Scenes From My Fictitious Life.

Looking at Chagall tells the story of an orphan assigned the name M.K. Meyers by the administrators of the big, impersonal institution in which he is stranded. Hanging from the ceiling of each room in the orphanage is a "pendulous, internally lighted, and easy-to-read chronograph that started its 1-2-3ings" whenever anyone enters. "Each room in the orphanage was a place free of history, a clean slate," Meyers writes. After leaving the orphanage, M.K. lives various fictional and nonfictional lives; at one point his molecules "reconvene" in the form of Perseus busily hacking off the head of Medusa.

In another five years, no one would be surprised if Meyers decided he wants to become an anthropologist or a paramedic. But for now he seems to have settled into contentment. "A success these days is a terrific rejection from a great place. I'm not getting grumpy. I love my wife, I love my house, I love my dog--where's the angst there?"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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