Curtains at Villanova for gay performance artist

In this undated theater publicity image released by Richard Kornberg & Associates, Tim Miller is shown in a scene from "Lay of the Land," in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Kornberg & Associates)
In this undated theater publicity image released by Richard Kornberg & Associates, Tim Miller is shown in a scene from "Lay of the Land," in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Kornberg & Associates)
Posted: February 20, 2012

Villanova University abruptly canceled a weeklong workshop by a gay performance artist whose stage shows are often laced with nudity and simulated sex but who has taught and lectured at numerous colleges, including the nation's largest Catholic university, DePaul, in Chicago.

Tim Miller, who the Los Angeles Times once called the "patron saint of the gay performance world" and who was one of four envelope-pushing artists to have funding yanked by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990, said he was told Sunday night by the professor who booked the workshop that Villanova President, Rev. Peter M. Donahue, had canceled the event. No reason was given.

Miller said he wasn't totally surprised since Catholic blogs had picked up on his appearance and were spreading "this bizarre lie that I'm anti-Catholic ... People tell these lies and it gets people who read these blogs worked up."

While the cancellation was not "unimaginable", he noted that Villanova once staged Angels in America, the groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the AIDS epidemic.

"Times have changed," he said. "We're in a much more coercive, censorious time."

Heidi Rose, the assistant professor of communications who booked the residency months ago and is a member of the university's Gay Straight Coalition, said Monday morning that she had been told by university officials not to talk about the event and to refer inquiries to the communications office. Miller said it was Rose who told him the workshop was canceled.

Rose was quoted by CatholicCulture.org as saying the April 16 to 21 workshop would "take you through an intimate process of self-discovery and exploration, focusing on identity and culture, questions of diversity and difference, knowledge of self and others, etc."

By Monday afternoon, the university put out a statement that read:

"Villanova University embraces intellectual freedom and academic discourse. Indeed, it is at the very heart of our University and our Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition. With regard to the forthcoming residency and performance workshops by Tim Miller, we had concerns that his performances were not in keeping with our Catholic and Augustinian values and mission.

"Therefore, Villanova has decided not to host Mr. Miller on our campus. Villanova University is an open and inclusive community and in no way does this singular decision change that."

Spokesman Jonathan Gust said neither Rose nor Rev. Donahue were available for questions. Father Donahue is a theater scholar, teacher and director who was chair of the university's theater department from 1992 to 2006 when he became president.

Calls and e-mails to several faculty members of the university's Gay Straight Coalition were not returned.

With Roman Catholic bishops leading the charge in America's culture wars over gay marriage and homosexuality, Miller may have seemed like a daring choice to bring to the conservative Main Line school.

The 53-year-old performer and author is politically radical and sexually provocative. He's been arrested several times while demonstrating for funding for AIDS research and to promote civil rights. His shows, he has said, are based on his personal life as a gay man and activist.

But Miller has a second career holding workshops and lectures at universities nationwide, including Penn State and Kutztown Universities and Muhlenberg College, a Lutheran-based school, where he will be on April 12.

He's also had residencies at Claremont School of Theology, which trains Methodist ministers, and at many Baptist universities, he said.

His workshop at DePaul in 2008, "was terrific," recalled Doug Long, an adjunct professor of communications who helped organize the event. Miller led about 12 students in exercises involving self-exploration that they turned into performance pieces.

The program was arranged by the college of communications without any interference from DePaul administrators, he said. It was paid for by the school.

While he said Villanova may be reacting to the some of the theme's in Miller's own shows, the workshop was all about the students. One or two students focused on their sexuality, he said.

Miller, who will perform at InterAct Theater in Philadelphia April 9 to 15, said his shows focus more on political, rather than religious themes, and he has "never taken on the Catholic Church in my performances. Quite the contrary, I have a rich history of ecumenical dialogue."

He said he has collaborated with Episcopal priests, including the first openly gay priest and writer Malcolm Boyd, on sermons and performances.

The title page quote from Miller's last book, 1001 BEDS: Performances, Essays and Travels, is taken from St. Augustine's fourth century autobiographical book, "The Confessions."

"In the immense court of my memory ... I come to meet myself."

"There's no solo performer who has done more work with communities of faith than I have," said Miller.

"Villanova tries to present itself as being this really tolerant place but clearly they're really succumbing to homophobia."

Contact staff writer Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or kboccella@phillynews.com

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