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John Fleck's Edgy Performance Art

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It's not every performance artist that gets to act with Elizabeth Taylor. But then again, John Fleck, whose film, TV and stage credits are as long and varied as his controversial one-man shows, is not every performance artist. The lanky, good-looking guy with a distinctive voice (his falsetto can rival any castrato's, his near five-octave range astonishing, beguiling and soothing simultaneously), has been a fixture on the L.A. art scene since he arrived from Cleveland in 1973.

And the City of Angels has seemingly never been the same. His CV, after all, includes recurring and guest starring roles on, among other TV shows, "Weeds," "True Blood," and "Carnivàle," alongside one-person extravaganzas with names like, "Psycho Opera," "Dirt" and "A Snowball's Chance in Hell."

The dude is nothing if not prolific, with Fleck's latest one-man spectacle, "Blacktop Highway," a Gothic horror screenplay, running at REDCAT, October 22-25. Teeming with signature Fleckisms, including him playing a variety of characters making use of wigs, puppets and video -- and that voice -- the work oozes with film noir and supernatural over and undertones.

At 64, the hard-working Fleck, who was brought up in a Roman Catholic home, is still riding a wave that propelled him into the national spotlight in 1990. That was when he and fellow performance artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller, were denied grants by the National Endowment for the Arts for the content of their work. Known as the NEA Four, the "cultural terrorism" battle culminated in a U.S. Supreme Court case involving freedom of speech and charges of obscenity, with the NEA eventually paying financial compensation to the quartet.

But Fleck immediately found himself under fire, with dozens of newspapers and magazines calling, as well as the erstwhile queen of daytime TV, herself, Oprah Winfrey.

Recalled Fleck, whose myriad accolades include four L.A. Critics Circle Awards, eight DramaLogue awards and six L.A. Weekly awards, all for outstanding performance: "I was deluding myself about Oprah. None of the other three wanted to go to Chicago and I didn't ask for details. I thought, 'Oh, maybe it'll get me a job in Hollywood.' There were 10 anti-abortion and media and morality types on stage and me. I was the representative of the decadent homosexual. That was the frame of it and I withdrew into a shell up there and flew home in a fetal position. I never did something like that again."

The upside, of course, was that Fleck, a graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, was actually able to make a living in Hollywood, which, in turn, could support his performance art career.

Roles in "Seinfeld," "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (Fleck is one of only three actors to have starred in all incarnations of the modern "Star Trek" TV series), and "L.A. Law" followed, with more than a hundred appearances since the early '90s giving him an impressive standing on IMDB, as well as the means to purchase a mid-century house in Los Feliz, which he shares with partner Randy LaBorde.

But it's the stage that Fleck relishes, his numerous legitimate theater credits including a 1995 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Grove Theatre Center (he played Bottom), a 1998 production of the two-person tour de force, "The Mystery of Irma Vep," at the since-demolished Tiffany Theater, and a 2008 production of "Tobacco Road" at La Jolla Playhouse, directed by David Schweizer.

The stage is also home to his notorious one-person shows. Whether doing his classic bit of reading from scribbled-on rolls of toilet paper attached to horns on his head -- most recently at a memorial service for the late grand dame of performance art, Rachel Rosenthal ("It has to be thick and not too soft or Magic Marker will tear through...") -- or serving cocktails to a pre-show audience in "Nothin' Beats Pussy," Fleck is a combination of controlled lunacy and libidinal lyricism.

He also has a profound connection to his own humanity and audiences, save for those unsuspecting souls who might flee in a state of panic, unaware that the hallmark of a Fleck work is his equal-opportunity offending.

"Because I don't have to depend on other people, I kind of got this format down. It's easier to rehearse with me than anybody else," said Fleck glibly before turning more serious. "I think a lot of my work developed as a way for me to express my inner demons. I need performance art to heal something inside of me [and] become more realized as a person.

"I don't even have a choice," continued Fleck, "I just have to do it, because if I don't express myself I think I would die."

One of his most outrageous works, "Blessed Are the Little Fishes," began in 1988 as a short piece at Olio, a long-gone punk club, before evolving into the work that sent the NEA quaking. Fleck, guesting with the shock-inducing troupe Theatre Carnivale, urinated into a toilet bowl, removed a goldfish from the toilet, dropped it into a smaller basin and then began stuffing large chunks of bread into that. One irate audience member yelled out an obscenity before storming the stage, trying to rescue the fish.

Recalled Fleck: "There were themed nights and this was fish night. I put an old toilet bowl on wheels and came out as a mermaid singing an aria. I also went with the Catholicism thing and screamed out to god, 'Why have you deserted me? I didn't desert you, you deserted me.' And god gives me an answer. I peed and stuff like that and people got offended, but it was also to show a love of god. It was a real cathartic piece."

That brief, but extraordinary performance, which in its later incarnation was directed by Schweizer, was also immortalized in Harvey Pekar's 1989 comic book, "American Splendor, No. 14." A front-page story, "The L.A. Performance Scene, As Described By George DiCaprio" (who, on that auspicious night, had contributed a light show using brine shrimp and worms and is the father of -- yes, Leonardo), has become a slice of L.A. history, more so, no doubt, since Pekar's death in 2010.

Fleck, as congenial offstage as he is outré on, added: "At the time I was not very punk or even post punk. I was somewhat confrontational, because I like playing with an audience and f**ing with an audience, but some people got offended. I don't do it as much anymore and that's not the intent. But," he added, "when people walked out, I took it as a badge of honor. I did not silence my voice because of them."

Pausing for a moment, Fleck pointed out that Philip Littell, an actor and librettist, once told him that "Fishes" was the best thing that ever happened to him. "They wheel out the NEA Four every so often, and I'm a footnote in art history books."

Schweizer, who directed last spring's "Hydrogen Jukebox" for Long Beach Opera and will, in January, helm LBO's "Candide," met Fleck in the early '80s. The bicoastal director wrote in an email: "John is a sublime, unpredictable original talent [that] I have relished over the years, creating his shows with him, hiring him as an actor, and at other times just savoring his special appearances like any other fan.

"I think what distinguishes him is that he is a hugely talented character actor with enormous technical skills but also an utterly radical performance artist ready to break down the boundaries of our expectations. Usually you get one or the other. John, miraculously, gives us both."

Indeed, in his 2011 solo show, "Mad Women," a towering Fleckfest of accelerated vocal patterns, mirror-muggings and a movement vocabulary that can best be described as Martha Graham being put through a Cuisinart, the actor ping pongs between his dysfunctional Cleveland childhood, replete with video footage of his Alzheimer's-suffering mother, and a bootleg audio recording of Judy Garland's last Los Angeles concert at the Coconut Grove, months before her death in 1967.

John Fleck, "Mad Women." | Photo: Courtesy of John Fleck.
John Fleck, "Mad Women." | Photo: Courtesy of John Fleck.

Here Fleck's thespian chops are deployed on a par with Laurence Olivier's, while his fiercely inventive imagination features him riffing on family, La Garland and his Hollywood career. After performing "Mad Women" at Los Feliz' Skylight Theatre, Fleck took the show to New York's Club at La MaMa, prompting the New York Times to write: "Mr. Fleck's irrepressible energy and engaging presence make yet another trip over the rainbow an agreeable expedition."

In fact, it was the Big Apple performance that earned Fleck a Bessie nomination (the New York Dance and Performance Awards, informally known as the Bessies, in honor of Bessie Schonberg), something that took the artist by surprise. "I didn't really dance, but -- hey -- it's good to be nominated."

Spoken like a true actor, one who is currently knee and body-deep into rehearsals of what might be his most complex one-person show to date, "Blacktop Highway." The idea began about 10 years ago when the performer thought about doing a web series and started writing three-minute episodes.

"I imagined this old woman -- she ran a kind of house of horrors -- opening the door, which was my hand, and all the props were my body. I soon forgot about this and then Randee Trabitz -- we hadn't worked together in almost 15 years -- asked what was cooking. I looked at my old archives and never imagined this as a live play, but she thought it was a great opportunity."

Inspired by classic horror cinema and Freud's Theory of Mind -- all played out on, well, Fleck's yoga-toned body, "Blacktop" has been dubbed a "horrifyingly hysterical tale of taxidermy, transformation and caged creatures." Developed over several years and work-shopped last year as part of REDCAT's New Original Works (NOW) Festival, the piece also features Fleck warbling Purcell's famous aria, "Dido's Lament," in a rendition that smacks of Yma Sumac-meets-a-pilled-out Maria Callas.

Trabitz, who has known Fleck for 30 years and was Schweizer's assistant before she directed Fleck in a dozen or so shows including, "Dirt," "me," and "Irma Vep," recently wrote her master's thesis on the performance artist, a 110-page treatise she titled, "The Historiography of John Fleck."

A part-time reader at Disney animation who also teaches at the College of the Canyons, Trabitz said she is thrilled to be working with Fleck again, as both dramaturge and director.

"Because we're neighbors and John calls me to help him prep auditions, he asked if I would come over and look at what he was putting together for a 10-minute piece at the Bootleg in 2013. I said, 'You're fine. The audience loves you.'"

"As I was leaving, he asked to show me the first section of "Blacktop," and I just lit up. I was getting my master's and had been doing a lot of film and TV and this is a show that's really about cinema -- and the evolution -- sort of, about performance theory. Because of his stature as a performance artist, I told him it's like nothing you've done before."

Trabitz explained that she wanted to use video to support Fleck's live performance and not to overshadow it. "The technical challenge started to blossom into conceptual ideas along with the use of cinema and point of view [since] he's playing multiple characters. We were painstaking to the point of doing at least 20 rewrites."

Trabitz also noted that Fleck is "delicious to direct. He's one of my favorite actors not just because of his skills and talents, but he's restless. He doesn't like to waste time, which comes from him spending so much time on sets. He's prepared and you get more out of John in an hour than most actors [give] in three, which is why he's been so successful."

Added Fleck: "I've got to be on cue because there are all these videos and it's interactive. It's also a mind-boggling experience for me, and I hope I remember everything."

Needless to say, Fleck has a host of memories (one hopes that the artist's archives will be picked up by a major cultural institution), including working briefly with Liz Taylor in a 1989 TV production of "Sweet Bird of Youth."

"We were shooting at an estate in Upland, and I was the man in the tree. She pulled up in a big stretch white limo with an entourage, and she was getting heavy at the time. She's like waddling to where she was going to rehearse and I got to heckle her. She looked at me and I'm thinking, 'Oh, my god, Liz Taylor is looking at me -- in the flesh.'"

As to his most memorable role, John Fleck exclaimed, "Every time I work it's the most memorable experience. If I get a job, I just chew on it and I'm so happy about it."

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