Stars of the AVT #4: Jennifer Miller
This post is one of a series profiling the hundreds of performers I’ve presented through my American Vaudeville Theatre in celebration of its 15th anniversary. Don’t miss the American Vaudeville Theatre’s 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza in the New York International Fringe Festival this August!
Odd to note that the only times I have presented the hyper-radical “woman with a beard” Jennifer Miller, it has been in austere, solid pillar institutions such as the New-York Historical Society in 2002, and the Brooklyn Public Library in 2006.
Miller started out performing at Sideshows by the Seashore in the 80s, meanwhile forming her own outfit Circus Amok in 1989. The hirsute and hyper-talented Miller sings and clowns, juggles sharp swords and performs any number of other tricks while hosting this Brechtian circus, where traditional variety stunts are presented with a Marxist message and a klezmer soundtrack.
I think of her as a pivotal figure. More than almost anyone going today in the variety arts world, she has one foot firmly planted in what came before. I dont mean old time circus and vaudeville (while that’s also true). I mean what came JUST before — deconstructionist performance art. While completely entertaining in a traditional way, her work — her very existence — embodies thought-provoking ideas. If she didn’t exist, someone would have had to invent her. At the same time, she’s hysterically funny. She’s very big on Catskills, Borscht Belt type humor. The mix of her two sides, show biz plus radical politics reminds me of a lot of the performers who came along two decades before her, all those hippie new vaudevillians and street theatre people. She even talks like them.
I swear I’ve interviewed her at length about her work, and have been laboring in vain to find a finished or published piece, aside from my brief mention of her in No Applause. In the 90s I was working on a piece on radical street theatre for American Theatre that got aborted; and in 2004 I wrote a piece on protest theatre for the Village Voice. It may have been for one of those. At any rate, I did come across some fragments I jotted down for another aborted piece on Circus Amok I seem to have started a few years ago after seeing one of their performances. Apropos of nothing, here they are…
“…An anomaly beyond all anomalies in this age of the plucked eyebrow and the waxed chin…”
“…There’s anarchism and then there’s anarchy…”
“…much of the charm of the production has to do with its atmosphere of chaos…of freaks running to and fro, throwing up their hands, and generally flopping about like headless chickens. In other words, running amok.”
“”NYSCA’s here and two of my clowns fell off their stilts,” Miller mutters into the mike at the end of the charivari. Perhaps ten people in the audience can deduce that she is referring to the fact that, among hundreds of other people, this audience contains representatives of the New York State Council on the Arts, there for a site vist. (Bloopers during a NYSCA site vist are a bummer)….”
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Anyway, I’m still unpacking boxes from my recent move in with the Countess. If I turn up to my additional writings on the Woman with a Beard, I shall amend this entry posthaste.
To learn more about vaudeville past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.