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Just Wait Until Sen. Jesse Helms Hears This One

Performance art: Highways has long rankled conservatives in Congress. But now Joan Hotchkis' work is raising an outcry from an unexpected source--the center's audience.


Highways, the Santa Monica performing arts center that is haven for avant-garde, gay and minority artists, has a long-standing tradition of really getting on the nerves of the conservative right. Witness last summer's flap over the brochure for the venue's Ecce Lesbo/Ecce Homo Summer Festival, which featured photos of partially unclothed performance artists as well as humorous, sexually explicit descriptions. Copies were mailed to members of Congress by conservative groups who were outraged that the National Endowment for the Arts has provided government funding to Highways.

It's par for the course for the venue, observes Tim Miller, Highways artistic director and longtime gay rights activist. Yet even Miller did not expect the reaction provoked by Highways' current offering: "Elements of Flesh (or Screwing Saved My Ass)," a solo performance starring Joan Hotchkis that opened last weekend. (Due to an injury to her hand, the artist will not perform this weekend, but will resume next week.)

Hotchkis' earlier, acclaimed one-woman show, "Tearsheets: Rude Tales From the Ranch," premiered at Highways in 1990. This time, the objectors are not conservative groups, but members of Highways' own supposedly hip-and-liberal constituency. The problem is not that Hotchkis uses frank language in her show's title, nor that the performance deals explicitly with sexuality, or even that the promotional postcard sent out to Highways' mailing list features Hotchkis draped in fabric, flirtatiously baring one buttock.

The problem is that Hotchkis is doing all those things at age 68.

"I've never had so many people ask to be taken off our mailing list," says Miller, who met Hotchkis when she joined one of his performance art classes, mostly peopled by actors in their 20s and 30s. "We send some pretty wild stuff in the mail, and this is the thing that has really engaged people to freak out.

"Many people are so afraid to imagine old people's bodies, their sexuality--I mean, we've had some really weird calls. We've had daughters calling for their mothers, saying, 'My mother is so upset about this'--I want to ask them, is it really your mother who is upset about this?

"There's enormous excitement about this show. . . . We've done a lot with lesbian and gay artists, and artists of color, but there are ways this is by far the most exciting and original programming we've ever had at Highways. This piece really engages people's censorship impulses--they don't want to imagine older people's sexuality."

That reaction has not been limited to Highways' mailing list, but also surfaced at two senior citizens' publications, Senior World Newsmagazine and Senior Life. Senior World asked to have the photo altered to cover the buttock, as well as to exclude the show's parenthetical title, and Highways complied. Senior Life ran the unaltered ad in April but pulled the ad in May due to both the photo and language, a spokeswoman confirmed. (The Times' advertising department also requested an edited title in an ad that ran on May 2.)

The object of all this furor is Hotchkis--an elegantly tall, slim blond woman whose gracious manner would fit in nicely at tea at Windsor Castle. Indeed, Hotchkis' "Tearsheets" deals with the dark side of Hotchkis' privileged but oppressively sexist and class-conscious background as a fourth-generation Californian from a cattle-ranching dynasty. Her brother, investment banker John Hotchkis, and his wife, also named Joan, are socially prominent philanthropists. While other family members may have been uncomfortable with "Tearsheets," John and Joan "are very loving to me, even though they probably don't share my opinions," Hotchkis muses. "They are sophisticated, they travel a lot, they collect art, so they are very open."

After a recent rehearsal--during which Hotchkis, clad in black, writhed provocatively to the sound of a bass clarinet while offering graphic and humorous descriptions of her sexual exploits--Hotchkis chats so casually about sexuality and aging it makes the uproar seem a little silly. She's been reading Betty Friedan's "Fountain of Age," and is bubbling with facts and statistics. "What makes you a vital older person is letting go of the standards of youth and embracing the strengths of old age . . . bucking the cultural bull," she says.

Hotchkis hopes audiences will be comfortable with an older performer on the cutting-edge, rather than a comfortably nostalgic one. "This is a very positive, feel-good show," she says. "The advertising, and the form of it may be shocking to some people, but certainly not to people who are familiar with avant-garde theater."

On this day, Hotchkis is favoring a knee she injured last October in a high-impact aerobics class. The resulting torn cartilage, she says, inspired her to start accepting her "coming of old age."

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