Acouple years ago, the performance collective known as Lucky Pierre checked into a local motel and watched classic Hollywood westerns for 24 hours straight. No, it wasn’t a conceptual performance piece–they were doing research for their 1998 show, I Married Wyatt Earp, a baroque, gadget-heavy romp through the iconography of the American Technicolor west. By acting out such oater cliches as tossing someone down the length of a bar and smashing a bottle over his head, all while maintaining emotionally neutral expressions, the performers wrung lyricism from kitsch.

Since the group’s 1995 Chicago debut, No, No, I Was Sleeping You Know–which used scripts from cheesy TV cop shows to rhapsodize about the impermanence of human existence–its members have demonstrated a monkish dedication to their craft. They hole themselves up in a windowless studio on the west side to spend a year rehearsing a piece that will run for two or three weekends in front of an audience that wouldn’t fill a rich man’s living room.

Now they’ve begun a yearlong project that may as well be titled “Lucky Pierre With a Thyroid Condition.” The group is presenting a series of three 12-hour performance pieces, shows that put the “endurance” back in endurance art. In the first installment, The Soil and the Climate, performed in March, they showed the movie Easy Rider six times in a row. Each of the six Luckys had written a new screenplay to accompany it, and at each showing a guest performer recited one as it was read to him or her through headphones by its author. At the same time, someone in another room was reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s endless poem Evangeline into a walkie-talkie, transmitting it to a Lucky who transcribed it word for word on a monumental 10-by-24-foot blackboard. At the end of 12 hours, they’d made it halfway through the poem.

The Soil and the Climate may sound like an exercise in pretension, but the pairing of Dennis Hopper’s 1969 epic film and Longfellow’s 1847 epic poem was rather ingenious. Both depict cross-country American journeys: Hopper and Peter Fonda’s mellow meandering from west to east in search of hippie freedom, and the virginal Evangeline’s desperate east-to-west search for her long-lost husband. Both present mythic, romanticized snapshots of American history that are easily mistaken for truth.

But The Soil and the Climate wasn’t just a performance; it was a community event. Some 45 artists showed up to participate, including members of Goat Island and Redmoon, as well as assorted painters, sculptors, monologuists, and experimental musicians. “And some dancing girls,” company cofounder Michael Thomas adds.

For their second marathon, Move Away From the Towers: 12 Hour Evangeline #2, they’re pairing Longfellow’s poem with another American classic, Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary film, Woodstock.

“The idea for doing these events came from having all these friends who do incredible work, but knowing we could never get all of them to go through a yearlong Lucky Pierre rehearsal process,” says Thomas.

“It’s also about trying to bring a community together,” adds Lucky member Mary Zerkel. “Our work has always tended to turn into a party by the end. This is a 12-hour party.”

“Well, a one-hour party after 12 grueling hours,” Thomas says.

Zerkel and Thomas are the only remaining members of the original quartet. Thomas got into performance art after failing as an actor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “They actually told me I was bad, and this was at a state school,” he says. “It’s not like I was at Yale or anything.”

He moved to Philadelphia with his boyfriend and started stage managing an experimental theater run by two Czech dissidents. “Somebody said, ‘Hey, we’re doing a show. Wanna make a performance?’ This was 1987.” He groans. “I did a version of Our Town.”

Zerkel was studying painting at Northern Illinois University and fell in with a bunch of experimental jazz musicians. She did her first performance piece with them, a version of Euripides’ The Bacchae.

The two met in 1989 at the School of the Art Institute, where both were pursuing graduate degrees. Chicago was then home to a robust performance scene. Places like Randolph Street Gallery and Lower Links drew crowds just about every weekend. “You’d see the same people in the audience at all the performances, even if you didn’t know who they were,” Zerkel recalls.

Within a few years those venues would close. “There’s no place for people to gather anymore,” Zerkel says. “That’s something we felt good about with our first 12-hour piece, all these people coming out of the woodwork, and different generations of folks.”

“It’s like the film Woodstock,” Thomas adds. “It was such an unslick event, such a community. And in some ways–this is going to sound really queer–it’s sort of a reflection of our wanting to bring all of these people together, all these people we really love.”

Move Away From the Towers: 12 Hour Evangeline #2 runs from noon to midnight on Saturday, July 15, at Lucky Pierre’s studio, 2003 W. Fulton. Audience members are free to come and go as they wish; a $3 donation is requested. Call 773-334-2398 for information.

–Justin Hayford

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mary Zerkel, Michael Thomas photo by Eugene Zakusilo.