Sister Grimm

Acting with maggots and channeling hermaphrodites, performer Heidi Arneson parades her inner monster

"It's like something I say about a particular family I know in my adult life. They look so normal during the day. They have normal jobs and work hard at being normal. But at night they put on animal masks and dance naked with their breasts hanging out."

During an unexceptional but not entirely pleasant childhood spent in what she remembers as the forbidding wasteland of conformity that is New Brighton, Arneson decided that she might like to become an artist. She got her first taste of the theater, she recalls, playing a dead boy in a high school production. "I vividly remember lying onstage and, through the slits of my eyes, sensing the audience out in the darkness." She was hooked on the feeling, and eventually landed a job acting in a Science Museum installation as an ancient (and, incidentally, very pregnant) Egyptian spirit. "Hail Osiris, God of the Underworld!" Arneson demonstrates, her eyes bulging and her hands sweeping over her head majestically.

A mummy is, appropriately, the main character in Arneson's latest script, Baby Blue Tissue, which she read in part a few days earlier at "Heidi House," one of the periodic cabaret performances she holds for a class she leads in storytelling. In this script, a New Brighton family adopts a withered corpse. "It's just writing itself," she says glowingly.

Arneson does not work very hard at being normal. Life, she likes to say, is short, and we never know how long we have our bodies to work with. Among her most surreal experiences, she counts her time with the Olympia Arts Ensemble, a now-defunct West Bank troupe that did "lots of dark, European stuff." "It was the late Seventies, so everyone was partying a lot. I'd stay in the space all night, then clean up beer bottles and ashtrays in the morning. I scrubbed toilets.

"We were doing this very dark play about a medieval carnival," she recalls. "I was playing a hermaphrodite who sodomized a priest, which we didn't portray literally. Anyway, there was this big scene about the battle between good and evil. I was on my knees near the stage and there was a maggot crawling across the floor. It was unreal."

When performance art inched into the theatrical mainstream in the early Nineties, Arneson struck out on her own. She debuted a ten-minute piece as a part of the Walker's Out There series in which she regaled the crowd with a fantasy about sitting in church and copulating with Satan. "In retrospect," she says, "it was a perfect introduction to opening up my psyche and letting the monsters out."

Exorcism, however, is an occasionally messy business. "I was doing this piece where I covered myself in white paint, then painted myself onstage. I just wanted to do something crazy. This other performer who was going onstage after me told me, 'Don't do your nude piece.' We got into a fistfight." She flails out at the air in front of her. "She was circling me and spitting stuff out of her mouth." Arneson stalks around the edge of the room, glowering.

Then she is gone, into the bedroom. "It was like, how far was I going to stand up for my freedom of speech?" she calls back. She is checking, she reports, to make sure that her underwear is not see-through. "We don't want to do that kind of show tonight!"

She returns in street clothes, carrying a blond wig with a nurse's hat tacked to it. She begins to tuck the evening's accouterments into a suitcase. There's a toothbrush sticking out of the corner of her mouth. She slips into the bathroom, from whence issue a minute's worth of gargling sounds. Then she is out the door, suitcase in tow.

Outside, in the gathering darkness of a frigid late afternoon, Arneson begins to pack her things into her car. She pauses for a moment to look across the street, where a flock of crows has taken up residence in the tallest branches of a tree. "You know," she says. "this piece is all about crows.

"I've had so many weird, serendipitous experiences with it. I was writing about a burn victim--a little girl with burns. Then, the next day, I saw a girl in a coffee shop with burns all over her body. I went over to introduce myself and shake her hand." She holds up a fist. "She didn't have any fingers. They were burned off."

A little boy screams somewhere nearby in the neighborhood, and the frightened birds scatter in a black cloud over the treetops.

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