Thursday, December 4, 2014

3Arts Fellow Meredith Miller Takes Stock

A performance artist whose work is firmly grounded in cabaret and vaudeville from the 1920s and ‘30s, Meredith Miller is currently in residence at VCCA through a 3Arts Fellowship. Based in Chicago, 3Arts supports local women artists, artists of color and artists with disabilities in dance, music, teaching arts, theater and visual arts. Among other things, 3Arts provides support for month-long residencies including a $2,000 stipend and airfare in a national network of accessible artist communities including VCCA, through a program managed by the Alliance of Artists Communities.

While at VCCA, Meredith will focus on a writing project about her experiences performing around the world. “I have always done lots of touring and so have had the chance to observe how different artists communities exist in different contexts around the world.”

While Meredith’s short-term goal is a stand-alone collection of essays, she also eventually hopes to integrate them into her performance. Marlene Dietrich’s iconic musical revue combining songs and reminiscences is her inspiration.

Before expects switching back and forth between performer and raconteur will prove challenging. Not only will she have to learn to shift performance gears in a seamless way, she will also have to get used to stepping from behind the character she assumes on stage to reveal herself. “I don’t know how it will come out in the end, but it’s definitely time I tried something. I feel I’ve hit a bit of a ceiling with what I’m doing.”

Meredith performs a mix of original songs composed by Tom Musick together with those drawn from the entire canon of American music of the ‘20s and ‘30s in what she refers to as “object based work that has a burlesque edge in terms of its comedy.” She tries to match up songs with visual images in an effort to present a different narrative. “When I’m pairing a cabaret act with a song I’m looking to find a subtext — to give it a back story that you wouldn’t necessarily get from the lyrics alone.”

This past summer Meredith starred as a cabaret singer in a show set in 1920s Chicago at the Avignon Theater Festival in France. She was amused that because she hailed from Chicago, she was immediately assumed by the French to be an authority on all things gangster. The experience also provided fodder for her writing: “The day I got there, there was a massive demonstration by theater workers protesting a reduction in their benefits because of government reforms. The festival I had just arrived to perform at was threatened with a strike. Besides my dismay at that news, I was just so shocked that theater artists over there could come out in such numbers and have that kind of a voice and that their threat to not work would have any kind of power.”

Meredith began her career by studying visual art in a very open ended manner at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Initially interested in filmmaking, she quickly realized she had no desire to wrangle the kind of people and resources needed to direct live action films, so she moved towards animation. Following graduation, reality stepped in. This was the era before digitalization and to function one really needed a room full of equipment, a room Meredith no longer had access to since she was no longer a student. While at school she had fallen into “a community of puppeteers who were basically able to tell an entire story: write, direct, perform and present something kind of for free, or, not necessarily expensive. I learned there’s a way to create a really expansive world and do a tremendous amount of storytelling without needing all those things that are required to make a film.”

Meredith’s first performances were all about the puppets. But as time passed, she incorporated herself more as a performer and the puppets receded. She admits to a conflicted relationship with objects in performance. “They are literally so cumbersome. I feel so trapped sometimes and I have to take them everywhere. I don’t have the freedom I would like as performer.”

While Meredith still incorporates puppet aspects in her work, being a presence on stage has taken on a life of its own. Today, a lot of what she does is persona based.  She is booked regularly as a vocalist with a cabaret set put together in a highly curated way.  Though she has only being studying voice professionally for three years, Meredith displays a natural ability, her voice reminiscent of Dietrich’s throaty alto. 

Meredith is also in demand for her retro look. “I get called when they want a vintagey 1930s look.” Though it’s clear her allure goes deeper than appearances. She recently starred in the art film The Poisoner.

Next fall, she will star in a film based on a script written by James Agee for Charlie Chaplin directed by Meg Duguid. A post-apocalyptic, dystopian work, which Chaplin took a pass on, it had been languishing for many years at the Agee Foundation. Duguid secured the rights intending to produce a work that draws on an antiquated performance style akin to Chaplin’s, but using a contemporary sensibility. The piece will be a documentation of performance rather than a traditional film. To assume the role, Meredith will begin studying in the spring with one of the leads of the Michael Jackson Cirque de Soleil, whose forte is hat juggling.

Meredith admits to “taking a long and very interesting path” to get where she is today.  She’s jettisoned almost all the props and found “a way to literally contain everything within myself. It’s what I have always wanted. The thing I enjoyed doing the very most in my life was being the star of my older sister’s home movies. Everything I have done since is essentially an attempt to continue to do that — having the shell of an idea and in the moment figuring out how to flesh it out, seeing what happens and then coming together with something that’s bizarre and hilarious.” www.meredithjmiller.com/

Photo: Joe Mazza at Brave-Lux Photography





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