Tim Miller stretches his students to their limits.
If he isn't having them shake themselves like rag dolls or stretch in odd contortions, he's having them instantly act out scenes by shouting: "Be a ballerina while singing Italian opera for 14 seconds," or "Grab someone's head and shake it gently while telling them what you had for breakfast for eight seconds."
Then, he has them concentrate their thoughts on the AIDS crisis and asks each student to pick a spot in a huge warehouse to rehearse and relate personal stories. The result is an emotional exercise that provokes laughter, tears, chills and warmth for both the storyteller and the audience.
That's just the first day of class. Miller, 32, an avant-garde performance artist who has recently been swept into a battle with the National Endowment for the Arts, is giving free performance workshops through the end of January at Highways Performance Space in the 18th Street Arts Complex in Santa Monica.
"These workshops are to focus on the AIDS and HIV crisis, and they are geared for a diverse group of people, who are caretakers, friends and people who are living with it," Miller said. "Our culture squelches people's stories, and I hope this will help people find material that comes from their lives to use in their performances."
The workshops are financed by a nine-month, $8,100 grant from the California Arts Council and $4,500 more from Highways. Miller was one of four performance artists who was recently denied funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. The artists filed a lawsuit, claiming discrimination against the homosexual content of their art. The state grant, however, is not connected to the NEA funding.
Linda Burnham, manager of the arts complex, said Miller's workshop is "an exciting new program for us."
Beginning this week, Miller plans a Tuesday evening class specifically for gay men to work on performance pieces about homophobia, acquired immune deficiency syndrome issues, activism, relationships and sex.
On Saturdays, two workshops are open to anyone. The Saturday workshops began in early November and continue through Jan. 26. A "Living/Moving" class in the mornings is for physical and vocal warm-ups and includes guide-visual imagery. Miller also encourages people he calls "differently abled" to join in because the exercises can be done while seated if someone is in a wheelchair.
An afternoon workshop called "Performing All Our Lives" is for people who want to create their own performance works on how AIDS relates to people's lives. Miller is also available on Thursdays by appointment for anyone wanting to polish a performance or brainstorm about ideas for shows.
Miller admitted that he was nervous about his first Saturday class becoming a bit depressing because of the AIDS focus, but he said it worked because the students were so different. The class had a good mix of men and women, various racial and ethnic groups, a young man on crutches and people ranging in age from their late teens to a man who admitted he "went to high school during the Eisenhower Administration."
Jordan Peimer, a journalist, said he joined the class "to contribute something to an issue that has hit us all in some way." On his first day, Peimer herded the class into a dark, cramped room in the back of the warehouse and told a gut-wrenching story about a law school friend who died of complications of AIDS.
Another student in a baseball cap sat on an old dusty couch and talked about how he explained to his young daughter that he was HIV-positive. "Sometimes I wish it would all go away, just disappear," he said. "It's been rough, I have to deal with this without drugs or alcohol."
Standing on top of a brick wall and holding onto a pipe, Merry O'Cleary, a film location representative and traffic school teacher, spoke softly about a recent talk with a police officer who found it difficult to pay a hospital visit to his brother, who has AIDS. "His co-workers were teasing him about it, but he went," O'Cleary said.
"And for the first time, I saw this hand of authority reaching out to the community," she said, making a salute with one hand and reaching her hand out with the other.
As a recovering alcoholic who has met many gay men and women in recovery who also have AIDS, O'Cleary said she is aware how the disease is devastating the community. "At this workshop, I can express what is in my heart in an absolutely supportive environment without judgment," said O'Cleary, who has spent many years performing. "I have never done an autobiographical piece before, and now I realize how hard it is."
O'Cleary said she is excited that her class will lead an all-night vigil Dec. 1 for the national "Day Without Art," commemorating art achievements and recognizing the losses of people who have died of AIDS. One student, Memo Sander, said the vigil and the workshops will help people begin to create a separate form of art and culture for gays and lesbians.
"There is so much pain and suppression that myself and my friends are living through, and Tim channels it and helps us express it, because even though we may have similar sentiments, we all are different and have different needs of expression," said Sander, a Turkish-born dancer who wears his hair in a bowl-shaped tight-cropped cut modeled from the 1919 German Bauhaus art era.
"The AIDS crisis is an issue that is very much ignored in the art world, and with a workshop like this, that will change," Sander said.
Tim Miller's four performance workshops meet at Highways Performance Space in the 18th Street Arts Complex, 1637 18th St., Santa Monica, from noon to 1:30 p.m. and 2 to 5 p.m. every Saturday, from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and by appointment Thursdays, through Jan. 26. The workshops are free. Call Highways at (213) 453-1755.