THE STORY OF An ARTIST WHO REFUSED TO SELL OUT, EVEN IF IT COST HIM EVERYTHING.
"Curtains" captures the rise and fall of Peter Fleming, avant-garde legend and one-time bad boy of Cleveland's experimental arts scene. The controversial co-founder and artistic director of Subcutaneous Theatre, Peter had been struggling with mounting legal and financial problems when he became the focus of an in-depth, yet-to-be-published Cleveland Plain Dealer story -- in Peter's words, hit piece -- on the once-hot artist's fall from grace.
Now, for the first time, the film shares journalist Mark Pruitt's unedited interview (captured on unseen cameras installed by an increasingly paranoid Peter) along with rare archival footage of the disturbing productions that led to Peter being shunned by the art world -- and his tiny theatre slated for demolition by the City of Cleveland.
Below are highlights of Peter's evolution as an artist, one whose work forever changed the Cleveland art scene.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF PETER FLEMING & SUBCUTANEOUS THEATRE.
THE EARLY YEARS.
The birth of a legend. Peter Augustin Fleming was born in 1977 in Gladstone, a rural community of 800 residents in Manitoba, Canada, to Robert Fleming, a poet, and wife Mae, a field geologist. An only child, Peter was a serious, temperamental boy who began talking at six months with a vocabulary that led area pediatricians to call him both "gifted" and "disturbed."
Peter's earliest memory, recounted in a public radio interview years ago, dates back to when his parents took him to the center of town to witness the long-awaited unveiling of Gladstone's "Happy Rock," a 3,000-lb. fiberglass monument built to attract tourism. Peter cried for days, as did others in the community, over the monstrosity. But the realization that Art could provoke such a visceral response and public protest made a lasting impression on young Peter.
Rebellious schoolboy. The seeds of what would become Cleveland's most notorious experimental theatre were planted back in 1987, when 10-year-old Peter was cast in his first acting role in a grade-school production of "Godspell." Deemed too mercurial for the lead of Jesus or Judas after calling the drama teacher a fascist, Peter was relegated to the lesser role of Lamar and shocked his cast mates on opening night when he performed his solo using only an air horn. Parents were outraged; others accused Peter of making a statement against organized religion. In reality, Peter just didn't like feel-good musicals.
After being suspended for the sixth time in his senior year at Gladstone High, where he made it a practice to give book reports on "Tropic of Cancer, "Story of O" and other texts not included on the approved reading list, 18-year-old Peter left high school — and his doting but exasperated parents — for bigger things.
He went to film school in Winnipeg.
2008-2009: THE first season.
The dystopian Western "Denim Underwear" wasn't Peter's idea, but Cole's. Years after their falling out, Peter derisively dubbed the S&M romp of a play Naked Ambition, saying the piece was nothing more than a way for narcissistic Cole to flaunt his six-pack abs.
But it was a hit. A big one.
It was hailed as "brave" and "groundbreaking" by Cleveland theatre critics, among them Peter's now-nemesis Teresa Horvack of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who found the play to be a timely and perceptive exploration of masculine identity in America, going where "Brokeback Mountain" was unwilling to go.
Playing to packed houses, Peter grudgingly went along with the show, but worked into it a fetishistic campfire scene that involved smoshing and a kiddie pool of baked beans — a vulgar spectacle that ultimately got the play closed down after nearly a four-month run.
The show was nominated for a Clevie, the local theatre scene's highest honor, but lost to Cleveland Play House for its lavish revival of "Mary Poppins." It's rumored that Sub-Q's show poster, with its tagline RAW HIDE, might've been a bit much for the judges.
After "Denim Underwear" Sub-Q enjoyed hit after hit, including "Mr. Egg" and "Don't Try This On Me." In an unusually upbeat talkback in 2010, Peter pointed to his collaboration with Cole as key to the troupe's success.
"Cole's more commercial instincts are being tempered by my artistic ones, so there's that spoonful of sugar to help make the theatrical medicine go down — and cure the dying patient that is today's Cleveland arts scene."
But in reality Peter wasn't happy. He strongly believed good box office sullied the integrity of Art. He and co-founder Cole Girard were no longer on speaking terms.
It wasn't long before the hits dried up and desperation set in.
EVOLUTION OF AN AVANT-GARDE ARTIST.
Flirtation with film. Peter was admitted to Manitoba School of the Art's film program in 1995 based on an essay he wrote about Winnipeg's neglected aboriginal population and the need to increase diversity in a Canadian film industry best known for "Scanners," "Meatballs" and the "Porky's" franchise.
He made low-budget experimental shorts, most of them solo efforts as fellow actors found the material offensive, but ultimately decided "film is dead" and used his work to gain admission into the school's graduate program in theatre.
MFA dropout. Peter lasted less than a year in the grad program, claiming it favored tired "chestnut" plays instead of bolder, more subversive works. He wrote in a letter to his parents that he believed every true artist drops out of an MFA program. So he did. He got his "real education" by hitching across North America, in 18-wheelers. He particularly liked riding in the cabs of Wonder Bread trucks, a setting in which his improvised monologues on white-bread culture took on particular relevance.
Thanks to CB radio, Peter was becoming quite well-known for "mobile theatre" when his driver made a late-night stop at a Cleveland gas station, presumably for beer. He sped off while Peter was in the restroom.
Disillusioned and broke, Peter wandered Cleveland's downtown until he collapsed in Willard Park. He awoke the next morning just feet from the park's iconic rubber stamp sculpture. He took this as a sign that perhaps Clevelanders needed someone to broaden their definition of Art, and that he'd be the one to do it.
The early 2000s. Peter met future Subcutaneous co-founder Cole Girard and trustafarian Katherine "Kath" Ramirez while panhandling near Playhouse Square. The three set up a squat in an abandoned warehouse near the Cuyahoga River, inviting other unemployed actors to form a modern-day commune. The residents earned a living staging uninvited performance art pieces outside corporate office buildings during lunch hour, often employing megaphones, cymbals and rotary tools, and were paid handsomely to go away.
Peter's concept of starting a theatre designed to push people out of their comfort zone was taking hold. He scrawled a passionate manifesto, which he and Cole signed in blood and hung on the squat's fridge.
"We are artists! Provocateurs! Not whores pandering to the base tastes of the middling classes! Subcutaneous Theatre exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to get under the skin of our audiences and fester there, like a boil, ultimately bursting forth with the putrid pus of truth!"
SUBCUTANEOUS THEATRE, AKA SUB-Q, IS BORN.
The troupe formalized and moved from the squat to a dilapidated storefront on Old River Road (photo, left) in Cleveland's Warehouse District thanks to a sizable loan from Kath. The theatre's only signage was a note taped to the door, frequently removed to avoid city inspections. Peter has lived there illegally to this day.
But Peter and Cole were already disagreeing on the theatre's direction, a rift that would continue to grow.
2011-2012: THE SEASON WITH HULA HOOP.
"Hula Hoop" was one of several failed efforts as Sub-Q tried anything to put butts in the seats. It marked a sharp turning point in Peter's relationship with Cole. A power struggle had become more than evident between the two and Peter, as sole artistic director, exploited his advantage over his co-founder in the next production.
Peter created "Hula Hoop," a no-budget solo piece, specifically for Cole, who was unhappy to learn he'd have no lines, no exits or entrances — essentially, no role to play. He was to stand silently at center stage and gyrate for six and a half hours wearing a morph suit. Peter claimed that the piece made a powerful existential statement — an alien, or Everyman, demonstrating the futility of life through endless, pointless, repetitive movement.
Cole saw it as Peter drawing a line in the sand.
During a matinee the second week of the show, in hour three of his "performance," Cole abruptly stopped hooping and walked off. Cole left the company that night, "taking his considerable talents to the Cleveland fucking Play House," as Peter said in his announcement to the troupe. Peter was now free to pursue his vision unfettered.
2013-2014 SEASON: PHASES OF THE MOON PLAYS.
The "Phases of the Moon" plays (see photos, right) were developed from an original idea Peter had about three emancipated women living on the moon.
In the director's note in the program for the plays, Peter described the work as: "Here we have three generations of women, trapped on the moon, and as the dysfunction and toxicity of their relationships heal, they sync up both emotionally and menstrually. It's a compelling portrait of sisterhood and femme-power."
Subcutaneous Theatre produced three of these plays, but the one that caused the biggest stir in the community was the third one — in which the audience was sprayed with pig's blood. Although Peter, representing himself in several lawsuits, defended his artistic choice to TV cameras outside the Cleveland Municipal Courthouse — "These women are on the moon! They're in a constant state of menstruosity!" — he was made to pay hundreds of dollars worth of dry cleaning bills and fund the therapy of traumatized elderly audience members.
Within months, most of Peter's donors left for good.
2012-2013: LONG DAY'S JOURNEY, THE MUSICAL.
Upon checking Kath's phone and seeing several calls from Cole, Peter wanted to create a serious piece to showcase Kath, thereby cementing her place at Sub-Q — and with Peter, as the two by this time were lovers.
The result was "Long Day's Journey into Night, The Musical." Kath, a game actress from pharmaceutical money, felt that the upper middle class drug addicts in her family tree gave her unique pathways into the role of Mary, even though she was 35 years too young.
For Peter, it was a chance to turn the concept of a crowd-pleasing musical on its head. "It was the first time anyone had thought to have a 25-year-old play Eugene O'Neill's 60-year-old opium addict," Peter explained to a theatre blogger later. "That brought the idea of addiction terrifyingly alive to Cleveland."
To Peter's dismay, some in Cleveland — critics primarily— mistook the show for high camp, praised it, and it became an unlikely late-night cult hit. Peter, devastated that the show was becoming go-to entertainment on the bachelorette party circuit — later re-mounted the work with the entire Tyrone family portrayed as meth dealers.
It wouldn't be the last time that Peter sabotaged his own work with the goal of keeping Sub-Q pure. In a recently discovered journal entry, Fleming wrote about his strong views on "entertainment" and his goal of avoiding that label at all costs: "If we go hungry, if we die, so be it. We're starving artists. That's what we do.
2014-2015 SEASON: CAPTIVE AUDIENCE SERIES.
Peter developed the "Captive Audience Series" as a response to rude theatre patrons who he felt were disruptive to the immersive Subcutaneous experience. Unwrapping snacks in the middle of a performance, checking phones, stepping out for bathroom breaks —these were all cardinal sins in Peter's opinion.
To curb this behavior, at curtain, in the darkened theatre, Peter handcuffed audience members to the arms of their seats during the first moments of the play. He believed this to be a perfectly reasonable solution — his theatre, his rules — although the courts ultimately ruled otherwise. The film recounts the night that Peter’s solution went sideways.
Bill Briar, a convict recently released from Cuyahoga County Jail after paying his debt to society, happened to be in the audience on Subcutaneous' half-price night simply to take advantage of air conditioning on a humid summer evening. Within minutes of being cuffed, Briar became tense and agitated.
It was learned later (and disclosed publicly in a major Cleveland Plain Dealer investigative piece on Briar's correctional records, thanks to an FOIA request) that the ex-con had spent considerable time in solitary confinement, handcuffed to his bunk. The night Briar attended Sub-Q he suffered a flashback and broke his wrist trying to free himself.
To this day, Peter insists that it was just "a severe sprain."
2015 TO PRESENT: THE KABUKI CLASSICS.
With his theatre patrons gone and his troupe dwindling in numbers, Peter Fleming conceived what he hoped would be his -- and Sub-Q's -- come-back series: experimental takes on classical works, all performed in the style of Kabuki theatre.
Peter spent $10,000 he didn't have on authentic silk kimonos, a hand-built hanamichi stage, and a hair and makeup artist flown in from Osaka.
After performing nearly a hundred shows in rotation of "Kabuki Macbeth" and "Kabuki Oedipus," Peter in 2017 premiered the controversial "Kabuki Wow," his vision of Euripides' bloody Medea. The show was condemned by the Cleveland Japanese Society for "cultural appropriation" and other offenses. It would be Sub-Q's final show.
After the last of his troupe members fled Sub-Q to join ex-partner Cole Girard's profitable dinner-and-a-musical theatre across town, Peter pressed on with "Kabuki Wow" as a solo show. He was reportedly depressed and contemplating taking a job at Burrito Bayou when he was visited by reporter Mark Pruitt for a feature story casting Peter as a poster boy for the death of independent, storefront theatre in an era of oxygen-sucking hits.
That never-before-seen interview, and its shocking conclusion, is the subject of "Curtains."