Performance artist, guru, shaman and activist Frank Moore opens the door to life’s possibilities.
By Cathleen Loud
You approach the entrance of the Burnt Ramen, an old warehouse-turned-performance- venue near the railroad tracks at 111 Espee Avenue in Richmond, Calif. There is a nervous, excited energy rumbling in your stomach. This is your first Frank Moore performance. You’re intimidated. You’ve heard about this guy and his performances with the Cherotic All-Star Band and you’ve seen the fliers posted around San Francisco, flapping in the wind. You’ve heard about the nudity, the exploration, the lack of political correctness, the delight, the tackiness but you’re still not quite sure what to expect once you cross the threshold into the unknown world. Challenged by curiosity, you grab the handle of the door, about ready to charge in when you notice the following sign is posted: “Warning! Enter at your own risk! This piece may be threatening to your everyday reality. This piece may cause questioning of the common reality. These symptoms may appear days after the piece, without warning… Even during the piece, you may feel as if nothing is happening…or you may even enjoy it. But, the above symptoms may still appear, leading to restlessness and even radical change.”
You take a deep breath, lower your head and walk in. The door slams closed behind you as you enter Moore’s Web of All Possibilities.
Born with cerebral palsy and unable to walk or talk, Moore believes he was born a lucky guy. Until the age of 17, he lived shut out from the rest of the world because he couldn’t communicate and because his negative attitudes and low self-image alienated him. So, at age 17, he invented a head pointer and a board with words and phrases on it. He learned to speak by pointing to the words and phrases on the board. (He still communicates this way today.) It took patience on his part and the part of the listener to have a conversation but, at last, he could communicate!
His next battle was to overcome his low self-image. He was allowing the society’s expectation of what a “crippled” person should be, to shape his reality. Society’s expectation was winning. But not for long.
Around age 28, Moore’s life turned. Something happened that made him look at the way he viewed himself. He couldn’t get laid! Women viewed him as “the nice guy,” the guy who would listen and give advice, but never the guy who they wanted to have sex with. He accepted this because he thought it wasn’t right to burden a girl with his ugly body. Eventually, after one more failed relationship, Moore had had enough. He had identified himself for too long with a reality that thought of him as ugly, unfortunate or “crippled.” He wasn’t happy. He decided he could either accept the “reality” of his ugly body and an asexual role he played or he could change the way he thought about himself. He wanted to be happy and beautiful, and not feel like a burden to anyone. So, he started to believe he was a beautiful human being. He didn’t think of his “crippled” body as a burden; he viewed it as a tool. He viewed it as the mark of a shaman. Historically, the gods marked shamans by their deformities or abnormalities, to set them apart from the rest of the tribe. They would bring back messages for the greater good or to heal those in need.
Physically, Moore could do things with his body that most people can’t. He could bend, move, twist and contort himself. Socially, he could break the norm. The possibilities before him were endless as he was without the fear of living up to any expectations. “I was never under any pressure to be good at anything, to make money, to make it in ‘the real world’, [or] to be polished. I could focus on having fun, on going into taboo areas where magical change can be evoked,” Moore says on his web site, the Web of All Possibilities (www.eroplay.com).
To subvert reality, Moore began creating art in 1965. His first experience was playing with oil paints. Since he was in the business of breaking taboos and pushing limits, nothing was too extreme for him. He’d meet strangers on the street and ask them if he could paint nude pictures of them. Many people agreed and he saw how art allows people to do things that are generally forbidden. There is willingness, he says, to push beyond comfort and safety in art and this openness brings about change.
As he performed the magic of art, more possibilities opened up for him. He began experimenting with different types of theater, performance, and workshops and with shamanism. Shamanistic art includes public and private rituals, audience participation and apprenticeship. It allows people’s dreams to become realities because there are no limits with regards to time or space, no moral guidelines and no rules. With the ideas of normalcy suspended, anything, even magic, can happen. “Frank’s art inspired me and showed me how far it was possible to go in the direction of art as an engulfing experience, and of doing genuine, no-bullshit magic in the modern world,” says Fred Hatt, a visual and performance artist and photographer who has attended many of Moore’s performances and who is also a featured artist on Moore’s web site.
In the mid-1970s, after an unsuccessful all-nude play at California State University, relocating to Santa Fe and New York, and then finally settling in Berkeley, Moore met Linda Mac. Frank rolled into Don Travel, the agency in Calif. where Mac worked. He came right up to her. “The moment I had eye contact with Frank, I ‘saw’ him,” she recalls. He invited her to come to his house because he was casting a play. He wanted her to audition (later, she found out there really was no play). She went to the house, read some of Moore’s writings and she was hooked. “I knew immediately that this is what I had been waiting for,” Mac says. The two have been together, working and playing, for over 25 years.
Moore’s performance experimentation eventually led to the creation of a joyful community based on freedom and closeness. The community was an alternative to the way society isolates people. With an entourage of 30 people- friends, performers and students, Moore and Mac began doing workshops and private performances “just for fun.” These experiences created intimate relationships and altered states among everyone involved. Silliness, hidden fantasy, child’s playfulness and creativity became a part of their normal lives. Public performance pieces evolved from the workshops and private performances. One of the first public performances was a costume parade through the streets of Berkeley. The performers were dressed in elaborate costumes of brightly colored skin paintings and risqué outfits made from net and lace.
In the late ’70s, Moore and his gang, which had now been together for four years, started doing longer ritualistic performances. He created a rock-and-roll cabaret-style show, called the Outrageous Beauty Revue, which ran every Saturday night for 3 years at the Mabuhay Garden Nightclub and various colleges and clubs in San Francisco. Moore describes the O.B.R. as “an unpolished show that flaunted nudity, eroticism and gore in a silly, child-like playfulness — an ever-changing show with pregnant sex symbols, nude girls, crippled rock stars, men as women and women as men without any sexual meaning.” It was outrageous, shocking, and different. On the surface, the performances appeared to be entertainment laced with a kind of shock value. But Moore describes the shows as having a much deeper meaning than just shocking entertainment. They were, in fact, another way in which Moore fought against the societal “norms” of the time.
The community that performed with Moore eventually broke up. He realized, after they tried to incorporate sex into their lives that it was not the answer to the physical connectedness they were searching for. Moore continued to focus on the energy that resulted from the intense, playful, physical involvement he had with them and from this, an important physical aspect to Moore’s work began to evolve. He coined this element “eroplay”. Moore describes eroplay as “intense physical touch and play among adults that is not sexual but has no limits.”
Today, Moore incorporates eroplay in many of his performances. In creating this alternative reality, Moore tries to expand and break down the way sex is viewed in our culture. Says Mac: “Eroplay is a way of having a depth of interaction with someone that is fun. The whole social structure is set up to keep people feeling like they are not free. With eroplay, one has a direct visceral experience of that not being true.” She says eroplay is not about sex, but about people connecting with one another on a very deep level and that it gives people hope. “It feels wonderful to be a part of!” says Teresa Cochran, a performer in the Cherotic All-Star Band and a student of The University of Possibilities, Moore’s shamanistic performance school.
Cochran, who first met Moore at a block party five years ago, remembers the magic she felt the first time that she met him. She told Moore and Mac that she wanted to play music. Of course, they invited her to a jam session! The jam was very improvisational and free form and, while playing, Cochran realized the dynamics between the audience and the performers. There was no distinction between the two. Playing with them and feeling the freedom of expression liberated her. “My stage fright totally disappeared when I saw Frank doing exactly what he wanted to do,” she says. “If he can do whatever he wants to do, I can do whatever I want to do.”
“I saw Frank right away and said ‘This guy knows how to live’,” says Michael Labash who met Moore in 1988. At the time they met, Labash says he was a yuppie, well-dressed, freshly combed hair and not one you’d expect to be open to Moore’s reality. He played in a band called Mr.Dog (which later became the Counting Crows). At one particular performance he met a woman named Leigh Gates who happened to be one of Moore’s apprentices. After talking with Gates for some time after the show, she invited him to read some of Moore’s writings. He said when he read them “the floor fell out from under my world.” A few weeks later, Labash attended a small gig of Moore’s at Rather Ripped Records in Berkeley. “I sat there with my mouth open the whole time. I had never seen anything like it. Nude bodies, Frank singing, saran wrap. It was wild,” he says. Not much later after the record store gig he attended a 12-hour performance and also got to meet with Moore. After a few meetings, Labash decided to quit Mr.Dog. He realized that it wasn’t fulfilling to him. Soon after, Moore asked him to be an apprentice at the University of Possibilities. Now, 13 years later, Moore, Mac and LaBash live together as partners in San Francisco.
Moore averages about two public performances (rituals, music gigs, poetry readings, etc.) a month. The shows are mostly free form and when the Cherotic All-Stars have a performance, they don’t even rehearse. They just show up and play! When Moore performs, anything goes. Sometimes there are nude men and women, sometimes they sing and dance, sometimes rock and touch, sometimes all of it happens and sometimes none of it happens.
The performances allow you to step outside of what is generally accepted in order to explore, question, test and evolve by pushing you to the limit, by making you uncomfortable and by showing you a reality that is usually very different from what you are used to. You as the audience and performers, who are one and the same once the door closes and the performance begins, are exposed to a show that can become whatever your dreams will allow. Audience members watch, some deliciously, hanging onto every movement, every noise, delighted and turned on. Others turn away, not wanting to watch, sickened to their stomachs, ready to leave. Some people feel vulnerable, some challenged; others are bored and even angered.
“People have very intense responses and reactions. A lot of times people cry”, says Alexi Malenky, another performer and apprentice of Moore’s. “I’ve never noticed anyone not be affected at all by it,” he adds. He explains that sometimes people get up and leave in the middle of a show. He says that it’s easy to think they are leaving because they don’t like what they see. But Moore says that when people leave a show early, it’s because they’ve gotten as much as they want from that performance or they’ve reached a personal threshold they don’t want to go past.
While Moore’s performances change some people’s lives and challenge them to seek authenticity, others are unmoved and disinterested. William Mandel, an activist and author of Saying No to Power (Creative Arts, Berkeley, 1999), has known Moore for about 2 years. “I haven’t attended Frank’s performances because his videos don’t turn me on to them. I don’t think the people are particularly talented. I’m not impressed by the music,” he says.
Since no two performances are ever the same, you never know what the night has in store. Sometimes the performers will take part in all night ritual performances and sacred ceremonies, sometimes music jams, or sometimes more traditional, “scripted” plays. In each instance, it is a different experience because Moore allows the shows to evolve in their own. The magic is different each time depending on who is there, who participates, how the audience feels and how the performers interact with each other.
In 1994, Moore directed and produced a scripted play called No Tongue Will Live To Speak, No Ears Will Yearn To Hear, written by Native American chief, Distant Eagle. Dorothy Jesse Beagle, a poet and artist who saw the show recalls what it felt like to see the piece. “Much of the play was played nude but was never erotic nor seemed anything but totally natural, spiritual with great lines and acting. No one would think, let alone say, ‘hey guys I’m watching nudes.’ It wasn’t about nudity but about a primitive tribe and we all felt we were part of the play.”
Moore’s ritualistic approach to his performances gives them a sort of secrecy. Mac explains a secret cave ritual that is sometimes performed. She leads you, blindfolded, to the door of a cave that has been constructed out of painted backdrops. There, she gives you a drink called somala. The drink looks and tastes like water but what it really is, is up to you to decide. Mac tells you that the drink is a drug of dreams and dying. It does not have any side effects and won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do. It does, however, make it easier for you to do whatever you do want to do. From there, Mac leads you into the cave. Mac won’t give details about what goes on in the cave and she says you have to come to a performance and find out for yourself.
Hatt attended a five-hour show of Moore’s called “Journey to Lila” in New York City in 1989. He agrees with Mac about the secrecy of the performances. “You need to experience one of these full ritual performances yourself, and the experience will be fuller if you don’t know what to expect,” he says.
Moore does not separate his art from his private life or his public life. It is all the same to him. This is why he spends so much time building relationships, adding dimensions, subverting reality and breaking the norms and taboos of society. Malenky says that in blending all parts of his life, Moore is “creating a life in which people live fully and joyfully in closeness with each other and the world around them.”
Corey Nicholl found this lack of separation hard to become used to when he first met Moore ten years ago. Nicholl who is an apprentice of Moore’s says it wasn’t easy to remain open to the reality that Moore presents. “If you want to keep such a control over things and have this part of reality over here and this part over there, you’re going to work really hard to do that. Everything is struggling against you,” he says. But, he explains, if you surrender and give up trying to control things, you’ll see how life bleeds and melts together, that there are no boxes. You form those boxes yourself.
Moore’s work doesn’t rub everyone the right way. In 1991, Senator Jesse Helms labeled Moore’s art, and a group of other artists’ art, as “obscene.” Because many of these artists had received funding from the National Endowment of Arts, the General Accounting Office investigated and several of them lost their NEA funding. Moore was not one of them that lost funding but he was more or less blacklisted by Helms. He was forbidden to perform at places that received money from the NEA. If he did perform, the venues were at risk of losing their funding.
In a letter that Moore sent to Helms, he asks, “Why are you closing channels of expression and of funding to me without due process of law?” He continues, “It is a political and cultural blacklist under the cover of obscenity. Extortion and blacklists are against the American ideals and spirit.” Moore says because of Helms’ threats, his work became even hotter. It got him more opportunities for gigs. And more gigs meant more magic.
Regardless of who does or doesn’t like his work, Moore continues. His newest call to freedom is a web-cast Internet radio station called Love Underground Vision Radio or LUVeR for short (www.luver.com). LUVeR brings almost all of his art, his philosophy of life and his reality together. Launched on Valentine’s Day of 1999, LUVeR has become a forum for all different types of art and various people. “LUVeR is probably the most eclectic of radio stations, Internet or otherwise,” says Beagle who has her own show on LUVeR called Jesse’s Full Pantry. Weekly, there are alternative news shows and current events shows on politics, oppression and survival. There is erotica, philosophy, lecture programming and satirical and political humor. Original music from experimental musicians, punk rock, folk, bluegrass, and classical musicians are broadcast. There are daily newscasts by a news team, weekly interviews that cover artists and other interesting people and video coverage of live events and news conferences. LUVeR is a playground of totally uncensored, nonprofit, noncommercial expression. Hatt says that Moore is “proudly underground” and has never made any concession to try to be commercial, to fit into any respectable art scene or to be acceptable to any institution.
Moore’s work may not be considered art by some. His performances might scare you and even want to make you run the other way. The bottom line is that his work is an inspiration to people. For those people that it touches, their lives are forever changed. They look at things a little differently and probably a little more clearly. Moore’s work changed me. Call me what you will- naïve, weird or strange. I now believe in the possibilities of life. I now have a fuller understanding of a life without limitations and expectations. I am filled with a deep sense of joy just by knowing Moore. I was looking for Moore and I found exactly what I had hoped.