The woman, an attractive young blonde who said she had just arrived from New Jersey, squeezed herself into the van's backseat without spilling her beer. And then there were four of us randomly wedged together, strangers in a strange, confined space. We weren't exactly traveling anywhere in the traditional sense, because the van seat wasn't attached to an automotive vehicle. But the situation seemed to be nudging us all toward a surreal realm that adults rarely visit. We were sitting in a makeshift tent, constructed of castoff fabric and plastic piping, that resembled something kids would build in a backyard. In this case, however, it had been set up inside the Galaxy nightclub on Washington Avenue. The interior of the cloth hut was also furnished with a beat-up coffee table, an old lamp and a television set. While we chatted and made small talk, the TV monitor provided a live feed to the nearby stage, where a pair of DJs were spinning grooves. Simultaneously, a video camera inside the tent broadcast our images on a large screen next to the stage.
Welcome to the weird world of the Third Lip Cabaret.
The troupe is the brainchild of performance artist Mike Marwit and electronic musician Eric Hall. Over the last two years, the pair has produced a series of mind-boggling variety shows that combine an eclectic mixture of performance pieces and avant-garde music.
"I just figured if we mixed it all up enough, it wouldn't be overwhelming. That way, people only get an half-hour of each thing," Marwit says.
On this particular evening, the performances ranged from Hall's experimental sounds to sitar music provided by Mark Deutsch, who accompanied poet Shirley LeFlore during her recital. Earlier in the evening, jazz saxophonist Dave Stone played a set of original compositions using wah-wah and effects pedals. The resulting distortion yielded a deafening industrial pulse that morphed into a stream of unworldly noises, prompting one supportive audience member to describe the wailing as a synthesis of Jimi Hendrix's and John Coltrane's music. Others reacted to the wailing by holding their hands over their ears.
Meanwhile, inside the tent, a revolving cast of characters was becoming increasingly active. One woman, clad in gold capri pants, decided to stand on her head. After her yoga demonstration, a guy in a cowboy hat began gnawing on the head of a Barbie doll. Somebody else flashed a sign reading "Don't Be Shy" in front of the camera. Eventually a group of people crowded into the hut and began beating each other with the stalks of dead wildflowers.
Marwit, who set the stage for all these random acts, is an accomplished painter who studied at the Chicago Art Institute. Performance art has little to do with theatrical direction, he says. Instead, it focuses on engaging the audience in creative expression. "It's (about) turning the room into a picture," Marwit says. "It's a moving piece of art. It's life. It's happening. It's there. It's an intangible process. You can't take it home with you. It is to be experienced. The idea of that experience is the art."
The Third Lip Cabaret evolved from a original group called Third Lip from the Sun, which first staged a show in a warehouse loft on Washington Avenue in 1997. The place was called Punk Paradise, and it served as an underground venue for punk bands touring the Midwest. The troupe's opening night included a food fight, a shotgun-toting performer and nudity. The landlord evicted them soon thereafter.
After they were rejected by other venues around town, Cicero's in the University City Loop allowed the Third Lip to stage a total of nine shows. The most popular performance was the troupe's sex show, which was co-sponsored by VIP (Very Intimate Playthings) and Planned Parenthood. Condoms were distributed to the audience, and a drag queen acted as master of ceremonies. In one of the performance pieces, a softcore Japanese S&M film was screened while a man in leisure suit sighed into a microphone and asked audience members to feign orgasms.
Last Halloween, Marwit decided to celebrate the holiday at Galaxy by chopping up a pig's head with an ax on stage, pouring blood all over himself and attacking the audience. His more tranquil performances have involved blowing up balloons and distributing them to the audience.
Finding sponsors and building an audience for Third Lip has been a constant struggle because of St. Louis' conservative nature. "It's a new art for St. Louis," Marwit says. "If you go to New York, there are people who are dropping animal bowels on the audience, and they take it."
The music Hall presents at these events also defies the status quo and fits well with Marwit's rogue behavior. Together they're pushing the envelope of the St. Louis arts scene.
Most people don't look for music that's interesting or challenging," Hall says. "They want something familiar. St. Louis is a great blues town. It's a great town for rock & roll. Those people know where their artistic niches are. But anything else really doesn't have much of an audience. So we're trying to create a shelter for all the lost puppies that don't have anyone to feed them."
-- C.D. Stelzer