Will Anybody Ever Love Neal Medlyn?
For Vulnerable Performer Neal Medlyn, Dork = Cool
"I know who I am and I am willing to declare myself to the world. I am a star."
-- From a song by German punk goddess Nina Hagen / Neal Medlyn's mantra
The first time I met Neal Medlyn was in late October, when I went to a performance in Wooldridge Square called "It's Like We Are Infiltrators." It was the 28th public performance that Medlyn had staged since his debut on the Austin scene six months before (see p.45 for the complete list). Audience size at these self-produced shows varied considerably. At this particular show, for example, my roommate and I were the only ones in attendance. But that didn't stop Medlyn. In the Wooldridge gazebo, Frank Sinatra was on the boom box, COPS was on TV, some guy who I thought was in the show but who was actually just a local drunk nodded off onstage. Medlyn and his friends Michelle Dean, Farris Craddock, Trevor Bissell, and others took turns reading stories, singing songs, and doing little puppet shows. Dean's five-year-old son Jacob was performing that night, too (Jacob's sure-to-be hit is "Boogers on Butts"). The whole thing was a chaotic mess of sensory overload, seemingly random bits of conversation, and occasionally terrific jokes.
In the car on the way home, my roommate and I talked about how startlingly rough the show had been. Then we started pretending to be one of the puppets in the show, the one who shrieks "I love you!" We also tried to figure out what Medlyn's private life was like based on the snippets of dialogue, which were perverse and endearing and bespoke a profound obsession with trivialities. We decided he was deeply complicated. We also decided he was completely insane. Still, we were full of an odd, profound respect for Medlyn based on the fact that he would perform for just two people. Not including the drunk, the cast outnumbered the audience more than two to one.
Medlyn is aware that he comes across as something of a lunatic in these chaotic, poorly attended performances. His method is simple: He has an idea (something as simple as "chants are fun" or "I can't dance in a dance club, but I could dance in the park" or "fuck, this is a good song"), jots it down, and performs it in some form very shortly thereafter, usually days later but sometimes only within hours or even seconds of its conception. He believes in "people doing things because they want, need to do them ... and not waiting until they know how to do them properly." If he spent too much time between conception and execution, he adds, he would never get around to getting onstage. Besides, he says, "sloppiness is my palette."
Lack of foresight is just one key to the mystery that is his superhuman fearlessness -- that and the "(BEE) BRAVE" pin he wears sometimes on his lapel. But what is surprising is how the wackiness, sloppiness, and extremity of his shows pull back to reveal an undeniably weird but tantalizingly gentle persona verging on comic genius.
A fanzine for Bikini Kill, one of Medlyn's favorite bands, advises us to "recognize empathy and vulnerability as positive forms of strength." Though strikingly wiry in stature, Neal Medlyn is by Bikini Kill standards a man of steel. In shows like "Will Anybody Ever Love Neal Medlyn?" (Parts One and Two) and in his (in fact, deeply complicated) personal life, Medlyn makes himself both consciously and comically vulnerable, declaring himself to the world in a manner both shameless and profoundly appealing.
Born Jerry Neal Medlin (he changed the spelling of his last name when he moved to Austin because he wanted a pseudonym), Medlyn grew up in the Piney Woods of East Texas, where he was ostracized from an early age for things like decorating his pants with gold safety pins and wearing pink. He just kept forgetting, he says, that pink had connotations. He was really into fashion in a town where people dressed like "nothing." But despite the outward guise of subdued Americana, even the most upstanding citizens showed up on Sunday at the Pentecostal church in their JC Penney clothes and rolled around on the floor. Especially "Millie and the Welder," whom the Holy Spirit would make moan and repeat the sound "dot." The pastor at the Medlin family's church once delivered a sermon on why being closed-minded was a good thing.
When Medlyn first heard people talking about the metaphorical import of absurdist playwrights like Beckett, his reaction was "Metaphor?" Reading Waiting for Godot, Medlin says, took him right back to his surreal childhood.
In this environment, there was no other way to be than Republican and Christian, white and straight, and Medlyn didn't fit in. As a little kid, he played crucifixion and cast himself as Jesus. His friends would cover him with thorns and pretend to nail him to the treehouse. (When the friends' mothers found out, they banned their sons from playing with Medlyn.) Once he ran into a gate on his bike just to see what it was like. His reaction: "It wasn't at all like what I thought it would be. It was just so abrupt." He electrocuted himself with a Lite-Brite to make his friends laugh. At his school, which believed in corporal punishment, he "got licks" for cussing, messy handwriting, and goofing off as drummer for the high school band. Though Medlyn is most easily comparable to comic Andy Kaufman, he has at various times idolized Wonder Woman, the Incredible Hulk, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Diamanda Galas, Benicio Del Toro, Kathleen Hanna, and Mickey McGuire, a civil rights activist who shook up Nacogdoches in the early Seventies.
As might be expected, Medlyn was beaten up in school. He hung with all the other freaks. Girls would never talk to him. Eventually, he was cast as the lead in junior high and high school plays, which earned him some respect as an actor (to date he has performed in nearly 40 productions), but he was -- and remains -- the misunderstood hero in every Eighties teen movie. Medlyn was so sheltered that until he was in his early 20s he thought he'd invented both noise rock and oral sex. At one point, Medlyn considered starting the Theatre of Embarrassment, which he believed would be more exciting than the Theatre of Cruelty because "It's cool to hate, and it's cool to love, and it's cool to be angry, it's cool to be all these different things, but it's never cool to be uncomfortable."
Uncomfortable is one word that has often applied to Medlyn, as his inner life and outer life were for a long time so radically at odds. For example, Medlyn's parents (who are both nurses) still do not know that he is a performer. When he first started playing in a band, his mother was outraged. "You should be using your talent for the Lord," she told him.
Then, right after he graduated high school, Medlyn's girlfriend got pregnant. They married and settled into domesticity, only to have a relationship that a literally scarred Medlyn has compared to that of Sid and Nancy. The two divorced, and while Medlyn still talks to his now six-year-old son every week, he no longer sees him very often because his ex-wife recently moved to Connecticut.
Performing has carried Medlyn through much misunderstanding and trauma, as has seeking out and then finding things that resonated with his sense of the world. During his stay in the cultural wasteland that was East Texas, he made a point of finding the one book or album at any library or store that was actually "for real." In one library, it was a book on Dada and the Situationists. At one record store, it was a Bratmobile album.
Further salvation came at the hands of kindred spirits, friends, and co-performers Michelle Dean and Farris Craddock and, blessedly, a thoughtful and generous theatre professor named Raymond Caldwell, whose classes Medlyn took when he moved to Kilgore to attend the theatre program at Kilgore Junior College.
If Caldwell's name sounds familiar, it may be because his staging of Angels in America in1999 made national news. Caldwell's production for the Kilgore Junior College Theatre Department inspired violent reactions from the Bible Belt community of Kilgore, which did not appreciate having Tony Kushner's Obie Award-winning play about redemption and AIDS mounted in their little town. "Sewer-sucking sodomites are raping the virgin village of Kilgore!" read one of the many signs that adorned the virgin village in the weeks of Angels' run. Funding was withdrawn, the ACLU was on the case, and sensation rocked the festival.
Caldwell and his cast stood their ground through the death threats and the chaos. On opening night, they received standing ovations, along with a letter from Tony Kushner himself, a heartbreakingly inspiring letter that included lines like: "These people [the protesters] are bullies, and bullies must be defied. And that's what you're doing. So I'm grateful to you, not only as a playwright whose work you have protected, but as a fellow citizen."
Medlyn's unwavering respect for and pride in Caldwell is palpable. When I contacted him about Medlyn for this story, Caldwell's e-mail to me was as heartfelt and enthusiastic as Kushner's about the Kilgore Angels company. Caldwell praised Medlyn's comic thinness, impressive baritone, Monty Python-esque penchant for physical comedy, and work in shows such as Our Town and Tartuffe. But primarily Caldwell expressed awe and affection for Medlyn's uniqueness and bravery. "He could always enliven a class discussion with his seemingly off-the-wall comments," Caldwell wrote. "In this extremely conservative area, his thoughts sometimes seemed almost blasphemous to some of the other students. They were, to say the least, more liberal than those of most of his classmates. But Neal was never offensive. He has an uninhibited sense of humor and a facility with language that make virtually anything he says entertaining ... His observations of other people and of life in general were sometimes surprisingly blunt and satirical, but they were also insightful and pointed."
It was Caldwell who encouraged Medlyn to experiment with solo performance, so Medlyn began by doing shows in his living room at Kilgore. It also led him to reject opportunities to attend prominent theatre programs, including the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. Instead, Medlyn moved to Austin to, he says laughing, "sing songs in parks and motels."
When, some months after his arrival, Medlyn found out about open mike nights, he promptly entered the poetry scene. It didn't go very well. He kept getting low scores at slams and reportedly incurred the wrath of several prominent local poets who didn't care for Medlyn's mode of expression. One line Medlyn overheard about himself (and will not let go of) was: "He's just taking up space." In answer, a crushed Medlyn staged a little show called "Forgot" in which he did just take up space, sitting on a stage for a while listening to Dr. Dre (the song with the line "Fuck y'all, all y'all/ If you don't like me, blow me").
It wasn't the first time that Medlyn had made people angry. When Medlyn did a piece called "Tracts" in which he went to the Drag dressed up like a Mormon and handed out little Xeroxed pamphlets about himself, a woman yelled at him for some time.
Medlyn also incurred scorn when, in an effort to explore the complexity of sexuality, lifestyle, and political affiliation, he joined a local queer group. To his dismay, Medlyn found the scene far more mainstream than he had imagined possible. It is unclear as to whether the group's mistrust of him resulted from his radical politics or because he showed up to meetings wearing dresses. (Medlyn has always considered himself bisexual, but he prefers the term "queer.")
In other words, Medlyn doesn't fit anywhere. He dates girls but wears dresses. He doesn't eat meat but smokes a lot. He hails from one of the most conservative places on Earth but is profoundly liberal. Medlyn is too sensitive and too catty to handle the politics of any "scene," so by necessity he has become completely DIY.
Perhaps because he identifies, Medlyn likes things that don't quite belong. Of bizarre German punk goddess Nina Hagen, he says: "She's not pop enough to be pop, but then she's not weird enough to be experimental." Of his favorite poster, of uniformed cats smoking in a bathroom, he notes: "It's not made for boys because it's cats; it's not for girls because the cats are smoking sailors."
So how does all this come together in Medlyn's shows? It's awfully difficult to describe. In short, the shows are all about Medlyn and whatever he's been thinking about that week, strained into subtlety via music, little routines, and group activities, like having everyone sit in the dark and listen very closely to a song he likes. Medlyn is particularly fond of covering Lionel Richie songs, which he finds strange and beautiful. Pop culture affects him, so he feels it belongs in his shows, even if straightforward renditions of songs by the Carpenters are usually beyond the pale in the world of performance art and experimental music. Medlyn is vehemently anti-pretension. "Hipness has always," Medlyn says, "seemed to me completely not-real." And Medlyn is all about the real.
His friends have plenty to say about Medlyn's shows and their value. Dean wrote by e-mail: "His art is real and honest, and it is most definitely not about shock value. If people find it offensive, then perhaps they should explore the reasons why they find it so. Myself, I enjoy the presentation of something new and/or odd and/or hysterical. I have grown most weary of the traditional poetic, musical, and artistic 'scenes' -- they are too silly and too predictable, whereas Neal is a hoot."
Farris Craddock writes: "It's hard for me to say if Neal is brilliant or a lunatic ... His art is in your face and warm ... It allows you to be open and free amongst perfect strangers. It's devoid of all convention and pretense, but you can't help but think you've felt this way before somewhere at some point. And it's fucking funny. Who could ask for anything more?"
Medlyn's recent four-hour performance art workshop "Finding and Feeling the Neal Medlyn Way" was held at a room in a Motel 6. It was attended by a handful of people, including one enthusiastic guy I'd met and invited minutes before at a Kinko's.
Jacob insisted we take breaks every so often and occasionally came up with eerily brilliant observations. In the middle of one skit, Jacob called to Medlyn "You're in my club, Neal!" And then, "Did you know if you're having a show then you're having a club? Neal, this is your club."
Medlyn's shows are his clubs, and he stages his events at the odd places he does in part because he likes the connections to other people that such situations make possible, connections that have rarely been possible for him in regular settings. "I want my stuff to be compact interpretive abstracted representations of hanging out with me," he says.
It did feel remarkably club-like as we all sat around the room and picked skits we wanted to see off a poster board menu. And as predicted in the press release, we did eventually talk about our families.
Probably the funniest and most moving piece was an autobiographical trilogy about Medlyn. The first part was a video of Medlyn dancing in his room and changing clothes (recorded roughly 12 hours before the show), accompanied (loosely) by a hysterical rap about Mozart that Medlyn taped at the age of 15 as "O.M.D.S.: One Man Death Squad." Part two was a video of Medlyn sitting in his room sulking, surrounded by Kurt Cobain pictures, listening to "I'm Nothing," by Ethan Hawke from the film Reality Bites. Medlyn stood by the TV and read from old, self-deprecating journals filled with tallies like: "Experienced? No. Cool? No. Nice to family? No." For part three, Medlyn turned the lights off, leaving only TV static, and played a sappy country song called "I Believe in You," which he says communicates his (sappy) feelings about a current relationship.
During the workshop, Medlyn had us write down our thoughts while the Sinead O'Connor song "A Perfect Indian" played. This is the song Medlyn was listening to when he decided to become a performer. A sample line: "I'm sailing on this terrible ocean/ I've come for my self to retrieve ... And there's only one way to be free."
In his journal last month, Medlyn wrote: "Growing up in East Texas I was looking for bits and pieces of coolness in normal things or in anything. My experience here in Austin, in the queer scene, in East Texas, in church, with TV, all the arts, has been like that -- holding out for hope and not shutting down any openings or possibilities. Other people can fully embrace or identify with someone, something, but it's not that easy for me. But I want people to know it's still possible as long as you look." Self-knowledge, self-declaration, years of alienation and yearning have rendered Medlyn a star. It's about time people started to notice.