Mickle Maher remembers the day he became a full-time theater anarchist. It was 1984, and he was a sophomore at the University of Michigan, sitting in his Ann Arbor apartment, staring at two piles of paper on his kitchen table. One was a paper due for class the next morning. The other was an unfinished play called King Cow and His Helpers.
“I was looking at them both and thinking, ‘I don’t want to write this paper.'” So he tossed it aside and got back to work on the play instead. And for extra emphasis, he dropped out of college.
When he brought his play to Streetlight Theater, the experimental theater collective he’d recently helped start, he had more radical changes planned. He suggested they should rehearse the play–their first full-length piece–without a director. After all, these twentysomething student visionaries called themselves anarchists; how could they impose hierarchies on their own collective process? Moreover, he suggested everyone in the cast be given something he called “the actor’s prerogative”: anyone could rewrite any line that needed improvement.
“What resulted was total chaos,” he says. “We didn’t learn our lines. Well, we’d never learned our lines before, but those were short pieces, and this time it got even worse. We got to the final dress rehearsal, did a run-through, and it was horrible. Truly the actor’s nightmare.”
Everyone sat down, ostensibly to give notes to one another. Instead, a dreadful silence fell. “We all had this look of gloom,” he recalls. “Then [company member] David Isaacson spoke up. ‘OK, we’re going to take a deep breath, and we’re going to do the play again.'” They ran the show once more, then opened it the next night, performing in a cafeteria. “And people liked it. We realized then that we could do it. It could be sloppy, not be completely aligned with a vision, but out of the organic whole there was talent enough there that we could wing it.
“And that’s pretty much the way we’ve worked forever.”
When Streetlight relocated to Chicago in 1987, the company changed its name to Theater Oobleck and went on to become one of the most entertaining, politically charged, and inventive ensembles the city has ever seen.
Maher grew up in Kalamazoo, the son of an anthropologist. He was inspired when his older brother Kevin tried his hand at acting. “He was involved in some really interesting group which I don’t remember very well, but they seemed very avant-garde at the time.” Yet Maher didn’t get onstage until he entered college, where he fell in with a group of left-leaning performers: Isaacson, Jeff Dorchen, Danny Thompson, Terri Kapsalis, Barbara Thorne. “We had no career plans, so we were all friends.”
Maher’s linguistically hypercharged scripts–like The Pope Is Not a Eunuch and When Will the Rats Come to Chew Through Your Anus?–helped propel Oobleck to the top of the underground heap by the early 1990s. But that very popularity drove him away from the company. “I was hitting a really bad time in my life,” he explains. “Going through some depression, lack of vision, lack of desire. And Oobleck was just this huge thing at that point. Jeff [Dorchen] and I wanted to strip things down and do something smaller.” In 1992 the pair left to form Theater for the Age of Gold and immediately mounted a show of two-person plays, The Croaking Fascist and The Armband Variations, both written by Dorchen. But soon Maher’s depression turned into complete writer’s block. “After two years I realized that Theater for the Age of Gold wasn’t working for me. Nothing was working for me.”
He packed up his things and headed east to finish his undergraduate degree. He chose Bennington College in Vermont for its strong writing program, as well as its rural backdrop. “You know, back in the 19th century, if you got sick or melancholy you got the prescriptive to go to the countryside. It worked for me. You spend two years in the Green Mountains, you’re going to feel a lot better.
“I was in an academic environment in my early 30s, and for the first time I was a good student. I actually figured out that I could read all the books that were assigned. And I realized the teachers loved me, because I’m talking their language.”
After completing his degree, the man who banished directors from his own company went off to the University of Washington to pursue an MFA in directing. “It all comes full circle,” he says with a laugh. “But I wanted to make theater. I didn’t want a playwriting course, I didn’t want an acting base. Directing is as close as you get. Directors aren’t necessary, I still believe that, but if you really want to make theater, studying to become one is a good idea.”
But after a year, he dropped out once again. “I realized that I know brilliant people back in Chicago, they’re head and shoulders above these people here, and they’re waiting for me to come back. And if I wait much longer, they’ll all be married and moved away.”
To make matters worse, the Seattle theater scene wasn’t conducive to Maher’s seat-of-your-pants ethic. “There’s a law against putting posters up on telephone poles,” he groans. “And to get your poster up in coffeehouses–which you have to, because that’s where things are happening in Seattle–you have to pay this particular guy who has a contract with every single coffeehouse to keep their bulletin boards neat and up-to-date. And you have to pay him a dollar a poster. Oobleck could never have been born in Seattle.”
So he returned to the city he’d left as a depressed, burned-out wreck only four years before, and in short order he mounted two of the most compelling and literate pieces of his career. In the 1998 Rhinoceros Theater Festival he performed The Invasion of Desire and the Resistance to That Invasion, a giddy monologue about a neurotic man unable to fall out of love with the woman who extorts money from his small experimental theater company. Then in 1999 he premiered An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening, his Gogol-esque retooling of the Faust legend, which was subsequently presented by the Museum of Contem-porary Art.
Now Maher’s taken on a new role, as curator of “An Immense World of Delight at Times Most Unlovely and Bullocky,” Oobleck’s evening of collaborative duos between text-based and sound-based performers. The show opens tonight at 8 PM at Link’s Hall, 3435 N. Sheffield, and runs for two weekends.
“I wanted to put myself in a position where I would have to curate a series about something I didn’t know that much about,” Maher explains, “and align myself with composers or people who fiddle around with gadgets to make sound.”
He brought together Oobleck cofounders Jeff Dorchen and Terri Kapsalis, experimental composers John Corbett and Michael Zerang, and puppet-theater maker Blair Thomas and minimalist director Eric Ziegenhagen. After pairing them up, he turned them loose. Maher teamed with Curious Theatre Branch’s Colm O’Reilly for The Hunchback Variations, a panel discussion in which Beethoven and Quasimodo reminisce about their failed attempt to create a particularly impossible sound effect mentioned in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
These days, with his theatrical battery fully recharged, Maher has discovered a new outlook on his career. “It’s no longer, ‘I hope New York comes and pays me a million dollars.’ That was an important realization to come to, the letting go of ambition. Or having a different type of ambition. It’s about the long life of the artist now. And, well, just doing the work. That’s the ambition.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.