"The room — you're in it. You're aliiiive!"
GOLDIES An air of perspiration-inducing mystery attends an appearance by Philip Huang. Something in the playfully relaxed mien of this queer performance artist just whispers loose cannon. A notable short story writer who reinvented himself a few years ago with help from artist friend Khalil Sullivan, Huang now crops up in a variety of contexts — including a steadily expanding parade of YouTube high jinks — but is inclined to épater le bourgeois whatever the occasion. And when fired up he's got an edge like a rotary saw.
Since college in the 1990s, Huang has lived in a rent-controlled apartment a few blocks south of the UC Berkeley campus, a modest residence also known as the Dana Street Theater. Shortly after christening his bedroom a neighborhood playhouse, Huang founded a DIY delicacy known as the Home Theater Festival. Accomplished with little more than a website and the willing participation of friends and strangers around the world, 2011's second annual HTF included 30 shows across the Bay Area, New York, Japan, the Czech Republic, and Australia.
Huang's own work, wildly ludicrous and rigorously un-PC, is that of a conceptual comedian. Context is often key (arriving at an anti-gay demonstration, for instance, with a rice cooker pot on his head, a homemade sign reading "No Fags on the Moon," and a bounding enthusiasm that flummoxes demonstrators, counter-demonstrators, and cops alike). He travels somewhat incongruously in contemporary dance and performance circles, including recent appearances at Too Much! and the National Queer Arts Festival. "There are a lot of shows that will be like, modern dance, modern dance, modern dance — me — modern dance, lesbian poetry," he allows.
Many times audiences don't know how to react to his performances. Huang says he likes that confusion.
"A lot of shows are like, this is a serious moment; this is a funny moment," explains the lanky, Taiwanese-born 30-something over tea at his Dana Street abode. "But it's very tricky, those moments when you pull the rug out. That's a precious moment for me. The room — you're in it. You're aliiiive!"
Hailed in his early 20s as the "next big thing" in Asian American fiction, early success drove Huang along a roller coaster track of highs and lows ending in career paralysis. Then the thought struck him he didn't need a publisher or much of anything else to put on a show in his bedroom. That ultimately necessitated founding a theater festival to showcase the work, and an ethic of self-sufficiency Huang now shares with other artists he sees in need of a similar epiphany.
"I just got sick of this mentality artists had," explains Huang. "They were always only receiving resources, and institutions were always only giving resources. The Home Theater Festival is about putting an idea into practice, but also it's to change people's mindset. No, we're self-generative. We create opportunities. We can do it ourselves. We can make a name for ourselves. We can do everything we want right now with nothing extra added."