Performance Space to Open Where Highways Meet

So, Orville, you think it’ll never fly--a nonprofit performance and dance center with a political bent? Then you underestimate Linda Frye Burnham and Tim Miller, the derring-doers who open the Highways performance and dance space in Santa Monica today.

Only one other such venue (San Francisco’s Life on the Water) has opened in the United States in the last six years.

Thirty-year-old performance artist Miller admits that he and Burnham are “two people who should know better.” He was a founder of New York’s alternative performance venue, PS 122; she founded High Performance magazine.


“The conventional wisdom is that it’s too late for a nonprofit alternative space to begin in the late years of Reaganism,” Miller said. “New York has half a dozen spaces devoted solely to performance and dance.”

“And most of the other major cities (do too),” added Burnham, “but not L.A.”

That’s changing.

Housed in the 18th Street Arts Complex in Santa Monica, the airy, white 3,000-square-foot Highways boasts a newly built sprung-plywood floor and seats up to 200.

It will showcase an unprecedented number of artists on a programming schedule that, when up to steam, promises activity nearly every night.

The first two months’ schedule features a gala four-day benefit, 14 new full-length performance pieces, a Cinco de Mayo celebration, a gay and lesbian performance festival, an Irish mini-festival and performances by local homeless people and unemployed shipbuilders.

Burnham and Miller say they are redressing nothing less than the near-annihilation of what was once a thriving presenting infrastructure in Los Angeles.

“In (the late ‘70s) the performance community began to burgeon and it became L.A.'s contribution to the national arts scene. (But) over the past couple of years, during the real estate crunch, performance spaces had to start letting go,” Burnham said.

“We’ve lost the Wallenboyd, the Lhasa Club in Hollywood, the Variety Arts Center, the Exploration series, the House, Lotto, L.A. Area Dance Alliance, L.A. Institute for Contemporary Art (LICA), and probably more,” Miller said.

“And that leaves only LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) to serve what I believe is a large population of artists,” Burnham added.

“Works by local choreographers and performers were done all over the country on tour before they were done here,” Miller said. “I had done ‘Some Golden States’ in five cities before I managed to find anywhere that I could do it in L.A.”

“The idea that we all loved so much in the ‘70s where you just rented a storefront, opened the door and started having performances became literally impossible--just from the bureaucratic red tape,” Burnham said.

Pipeline’s Scott Kelman (of the defunct Wallenboyd Theaters) is familiar with red tape and with other forces that presenters must battle.

“Producers of performance spaces provide a greater service for artists than the unions and shouldn’t be perceived as entrepreneurs,” he said, apropos of this past year’s Equity Waiver theater battles.

Like Kelman, Santa Monica Museum of Art director Tom Rhoads is enthusiastic about Highways but aware of the liabilities of being a presenter.

“Artists have a particular way they want to realize things, but the city has very stringent ordinances,” he said. “The institutions get caught between those two extremes and have to be responsible to both.”

LACE’s Joy Silverman points out that the difficulties of presenting performance entail more than just basic space and funding.

“Performers’ needs are greater than that,” she said. “They want--and deserve--equipment, fees and other things. It’s more difficult than ever to raise money and get money for political and radical work. It’s too difficult, too risky for corporations.

“It’s the nature of the work (that scares sponsors), but also the conservative climate in this country.”

And that climate is precisely what has pushed Burnham and Miller to a more politicized vision since they first decided to open a space.

“A year and a half ago it seemed just like we needed another space, but the idea’s become more focused on intercultural challenge, and not just another formalist performance space,” Miller said.

“We called it Highways because we’re at the intersection of the Pacific Coast Highway and Interstate 10 and we’re very interested in both of those axes,” Burnham explained. “Until now the major direction energy has been flowing has been east-west.

“Los Angeles has looked to New York and to Europe for its artistic standards and we’d like to add the north-south axis because we’re interested in what’s going on in Latin America.”

“We’re especially interested in new performance forms, in work that is formally challenging,” Miller said, “but work that also relates to community, cultural communication and social issues.”

“We’re fascinated with the mix that’s happening in Los Angeles right now and we’d rather be here than any place in the world,” Burnham said. “It’s become a cultural intersection, and that’s the place for us to find the answers to questions we have about the way the world is working.”