In the early '70s, when performance artist Tim Miller was a high-school student in Whittier, he endured the humiliation of always being among the last chosen for touch football. The gym teacher only compounded a sensitive gay teen's misery by obliging Miller and the other "Skins" to remove their T-shirts.
"With the first huddle of the Skins, I felt the other boys' heat and smooth bodies against my sides," he writes in "Shirts & Skin" (Alyson Books, 1997, $12.95), the picaresque autobiography he published in the fall.
"At that moment I knew. . . . I was on the Skins team for life. I could cover up and slip into different shirts and disguises, but underneath it all I would always be there with the other boys who were stripped bare. We would always be recognizable as a different team."
At 39, Miller has established a national reputation for recycling pieces of his life into energetic solo narrative performances that meld humor, fantasy, ribaldry, pathos and exuberant nudity.
Eight years ago, after a decade of performing, he vaulted into the headlines as one of the NEA Four, a quartet of artists (including Karen Finley, Holly Hughes and John Fleck) who successfully sued the National Endowment for the Arts after it declared their works indecent and rescinded their grants.
In his new stage work, also called "Shirts & Skin"--which comes to the Huntington Beach Art Center tonight and Saturday--Miller begins by spinning a tall tale of his own beginnings.
He segues into memories of taco night in his WASP household, a tremulous encounter with Fraulein Rodriguez, a Chicana lesbian German teacher who tells him to be proud of himself ("Sei stolz!"), a blinding vision of an "adorable" pal's "winking belly button" at Mission San Juan Capistrano, a tortured adolescent romance and a surreal experience with followers of the Rev. Moon in San Francisco.
The final sections of the 70-minute piece evoke Miller's frantic New York experience during the countercultural maelstrom of the late '70s and '80s and the wild panic surrounding sex in the time of AIDS. His mother makes a memorable, if unwanted, guest appearance in his brain at an intimate moment, and clothespins suddenly become instruments of manic torture.
Pinned up one by one on a clothesline, shirts from public and private moments of his life (as an ACT-UP demonstrator; as the lover of a man nearly killed by a gay basher's ice pick) help to link the disparate elements of Miller's free-floating narrative.
Although the book enlarges on several themes in this and other Miller performance pieces (including "Fruit Cocktail"--performed at the Huntington Beach Art Center two years ago--"My Queer Body" and "Buddy Systems"), he is struck by the difference between making work for the stage and the page.
"Performance is frequently much like how we tell stories around a dinner table with friends," Miller said recently by phone from his Venice home.
"You're exaggerating. You're in a very cozy relationship with your listener. But the relationship between the text on a page and the reader is much quieter and more contemplative."
Exaggeration is the rocket fuel of Miller's narratives, the device that boosts them beyond the easy familiarity of a coming-of-age story.
"I like not being constrained by conventional notions of time and space," he said. "I think that's what people do all the time when they think of their lives--mythologize."
A videotape of Miller in one of the early performances of "Shirts & Skin" last fall at Highways in Santa Monica shows him obviously reveling in the near-adoration of a largely gay audience.
Isn't there a danger that such mutual love-fests dull the theatrical edge of his work, which has become much more talky and much less movement-oriented?
"With a certain kind of solo performance, there's a whole seduction going on with the audience, a call-and-response," Miller acknowledged. "That's partially what gives life to the form. You're creating a kind of bond."
But not everyone is familiar with the rougher aspects of his style--the bluntness (however good-humored), the nudity, the political edge. "Most audiences have a certain resistance to talking about AIDS stuff," Miller said. "They're fascinated by, but also a bit spooked about, the nuts and bolts of sexuality."
The challenge, he said, is to take these audiences "on a journey and let them feel that you're not going to abandon them anywhere."
Speaking of challenging audiences, Miller's mother comes to see him perform about once a year.
"She frequently takes issue with very subtle points in my representation," he said. "Her main comment about the book was that taco night was not a fixed night: 'That's simply not true, Tim!' "
And, well, yeah, she'd rather he didn't take his clothes off.
"It's a bit of a trial for her. She'd rather go see 'Ragtime,' " Miller deadpanned. "She'd probably prefer that I write less about sex and more about what a perfect family we were. But I think I represent most of the people in my life pretty lovingly.
"Part of why we like hearing each other's stories is that it conjures the possibility for human exchange," he said. "We all have Fraulein Rodriguez-type encounters in our lives that are funny and unlikely and full of hope."
* "Shirts & Skin," Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St. 8 p.m. today and Saturday. $12 general, $10 students and seniors. A reception and book-signing follow tonight's performance. (714) 374-1650.