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Author Wed Aug 06 2014
Lyra Hill, creator of the anarchic and elaborate live comics series Brain Frame, has dark hair and round eyes. She often looks tired as she is, often, tired these days.
She speaks with her hands clasped, and looks at those who speak to her with expectation and attention. Standing atop the stage at the historic, newly restored Thalia Hall she is unmistakably a person in charge.
The interior is massive and neo-gothic. The theater chairs that make up its balcony once belonged to a middle school auditorium. The folding chairs above, rumor has it, were at one point courtside seats for the Lakers. Its stage recalls the Phantom of the Opera and Amadeus - in fact, the entire structure has the feel of Prague's neo-everything city center. No mistake, as it was modeled in 1892 after the Prague Opera House, a romantic, expensive-looking venue in the midst of a burgeoning, colorful neighborhood - in this case, Pilsen. Lawn chairs, plastic cones and colorful rope often impede parking on side streets.
Soon the theater will fill with people of all ilk and experience. Fans of Brain Frame are diverse: in the hour Lyra and company scout the space, most mention is made of whose parents are coming (5 of 8 performers present). However, Brain Frame's 3rd Anniversary/Grand Finale show (Brain Frame 19) will likely draw a crowd larger than the average middle school recital. This "homage to ancestral experimentation" is a sort of rite in Chicago. Commonly acknowledged as a "live comix reading", BF nevertheless doesn't shy from ambiguity.
At lunch months earlier, I offer Gertrude Stein as a comparison.
"It's like a salon," I propose. She shrugs.
Llama Man was the first image I had seen of Lyra Hill and of Brain Frame. In a video made for the Chicago Reader's website, I watched a seven-foot tall llama speak indistinctly into a microphone harried by its claws. It was horrific. I was taken back to childhood nightmares in suburban Kentucky, where things angry, specific and unusual lived. To see them in front of me was upsetting and unnerving. In the BF yearbook artist Grant Reynolds describes experiencing this same moment live.
"There he was," he writes, "tufted black and sinister, other-worldly, loping pendulously several feet over the audience." His skin crawled "like gooseflesh". It was the moment, for Grant, that Brain Frame "seized" him. It took him.
"It's like a salon, then?" a friend asked me. I shrugged. It's an experience.
"It's the kind of thing that has a yearbook," I said.
The yearbook, a hardbound, old-fashioned thing filled with full-color drawings and gorgeously rendered text, is packed with stories of collaboration. Collaboration that included compromise, but never compromise of execution. It's described as "something Chicago has been craving" and every BF is documented as increasingly successful. The struggle, however often Hill worries that no one will show up to each show, is keeping things intimate and dirty and unexpected. Brain Frame is in no danger of becoming irrelevant.
One anecdote, titled "The Shit I Saw On Friday Night" was about BF 14, a "my first Brain Frame" story. Chris McKay describes Eric Rivera's performance of his comic "Easy Money":
"When you first get into the building, they give you a sheet of paper that has a small rectangle and it instructs you to make a drawing in that space," he writes. Eric set up a table with some tools and a camera zoomed in on the table's surface, projected on a far wall. Rivera shows the drawing he chose from the crowd (it belonged to Krystal DiFronzo, whose comic about the experience is also in the yearbook). McKay can see the drawing stenciled on Rivera's arm from the camera zoomed in on the table. Rivera's friend begins projecting and reading from "Easy Money".
"And that's when he starts tattooing the girl's drawing on himself," McKay writes. "We all watched him do this, but we couldn't believe it was actually happening.
"It was some of the most punk rock shit I've ever seen in my life."
DiFronzo's comic is called "Good God What Have I Done".
The scope and strangeness of Brain Frame is intimidating. There were over fifty video clips in my Inbox after my first meeting with Lyra. Five short films and a 100-page yearbook proof followed.
Lyra is a gifted email-writer and a blessing to any interviewer. She writes of a pressure to ringlead and inspire; she has little time to be alone, and when she does that time is spent working. BF has occupied her last three years and art-making beyond it has been scarce. She operates with four threads of deadlines: working on her own performance, checking in on other performances, promoting the show and technically facilitating all other aspects of the show. Each message contains a surprised mention of how well everything is going.
"Things are still going remarkably smoothly," Hill wrote from work. "I keep thinking I am blessed or inordinately lucky (I may be a little of those things), but I also need to remember that this is working because I know so well what I'm doing, by now."
Lyra Hill met Tyson Torstensen on the internet. "Our first talking point was Brian Eno, a true shared love." They also talked a lot about classical piano music. "Our first date was at Melrose Diner in lakeview, for lunch," she writes. She felt very mischievous. "I noted how slowly and considerately he spoke." She gave him a flyer for BF3.
"She was ebullient and beautiful and funny," he writes in the BF yearbook. "But I did not have high expectations for Brain Frame." Torstensen's prior exposure to performance art left him "cold (at best)". But he kept an open mind.
According to Lyra, he hadn't really believed her persona. Torstensen's recollection of BF3, however, is of "spiritual unification and encouragement." It was "disarming", and he felt "a twinge of jealousy" at how open and fun the Chicago alternative comics scene was. In every BF since, Torstenson has been the show's dedicated accompanist.
In her work with the Teen Creative Agency at the MCA, she is trying to define the qualities of "community". Hill thinks about these things constantly in her emcee speeches, and this last show will be a marked challenge apart from prior settling-up-speeches. To "frame" Brain Frame and the end of the show, not just the end of a show, but THE show. The shared experience. Lyra has brought Brain Frame to New York and Detroit as well.While these events have not yet fomented the same chaos and love as Chicago Brain Frame, they were well-attended, colorful experiences. At the "end of the show," there will be two groups of artists in America, those who have attended a BF event and those who haven't.
At the MCA, Hill cannot muster a single quality of "community" beyond "pain and suffering." She is exhausted and anxious. "It's like wearing bifocal glasses," she writes, "glasses that fill up or empty out the glass as you tilt your chin slightly, day to day."
The good thing about Chicago, Lyra tells me, is that the city is affordable enough that one can make art consistently without too much fear or anxiety.
She writes from a place of self-aware mania. I'm reminded of the axiom: "parents worry so their children don't have to". Lyra worries so no one else has to. Peers may dismiss this worry as a part of her character. What they might not realize is that if Lyra doesn't worry, things may go wrong. It is precisely her ownership of detail that turns implied anarchy into such a show.
She describes hypothetical worst case scenarios, "pondering what, if anything, would stop the show moving forward." Sickness? No. Not even her own untimely death, she's told, would stop the show's momentum. "Everyone assures me (with consideration)," she writes, "that the show would move forward regardless, albeit with a more morbid tone." That same day she hears that her intern, Lillie West, is in jail. "I hope she doesn't get deported!" Lyra writes. "Just kidding. She has dual citizenship." West is, happily, no longer incarcerated.
Lillie describes Lyra in the yearbook as an "angel starfish sunshine flower from heaven."
"She has changed my life in every way for the better...and I would never, ever, ever be her intern again.
"I do not recommend this position," she concludes.
In BF's yearbook Hill is a specter of adventure and positivity. I could have read it cover to cover not knowing she was its founder or creator and I still would have gleaned her importance between the lines.
Much of the book, including essays and comics, is personal narrative and anecdote. Hill's leadership and despair and manic ability will live on in others' iterations.There are upwards of a dozen illustrations of Hill in the book, each equally endearingly strange and sweet.
Watching Hill at Thalia Hall explaining to puppeteers how much light can be eked out of the grand auditorium, or wondering aloud whether to mic sixteen non-actors dressed as dogs, she is all the quivering lines you'll read about and glance over in the yearbook and on stage.
The one benefit of having a mythology is that the story itself can take on some of that weight. It doesn't need to be created anew, each time. Emerging in its 19th iteration, Brain Frame is pregnant with mythos.
In the yearbook, Hill tells of Llama Man's Brain Frame debut. Lyra had built the Llama Man costume for a movie in 2008 while she was still in school. He would read Lyra's comic, Night City, for her. He would call himself the "Dream Lord". On the day of her alpacan transformation, she performed last. Backstage, rags cut into her calves and the binding of the Llama Man's stilt-ed legs was unstable. She was half-blind. Terrifying. Ross Meckfessel, assisting in the performance, remembers Llama Man's weight on his shoulder. "His hot breath on the back of my neck," he writes in the yearbook. "He bore down on me, almost toppling us both."
Lyra tried to signal the slide show through squeezes with her freakish hands as she hissed direction through the heavy mask.
"Did something run through his hand to my shoulder into my chest?" writes Ross, "or was that a cue for the next page?"
"It was incomprehensible," remembers Lyra,"but the results were clear."
Sometimes "a rubber hand is more than a prop," Ross writes, "a mask more than a face. Personifying a childhood nightmare in order to release it into the world."
With sickness, death and criminal activity insignificant in the narrative arc of the Brain Frame Finale, it seems only time itself could stand in the way of Lyra's success.
In the course of one day, Lyra interviewed teenage applicants for the program she leads at the MCA ("I love teenagers," Lyra announces seriously). After that she headed to Spudnik Press to celebrate former intern and dear friend Brad Rohloff's first set of lithograph prints; there she met current intern Lillie West with whom she returned home to stay up late completing the poster for the 19th and last Brain Frame. They touch base with me almost ten hours later.
The poster is inspired by the Ryder-Waite tarot deck's DEATH card.
At Thalia Hall weeks earlier, Lyra sat on the floor of the auditorium and looked up at the hip ghost of Prague's Opera House. She was cross-legged. Tyson, long-shanked and somber, roamed around the balconies. "It's beautiful," someone said.
"She looks just like herself," I remembered hearing at a funeral many years ago. The show's obituate poster would be pastel and electric, an appropriate fusion of morbidity and vitality. Hill asked everyone if they had everything they needed. Some nodded, some had already wandered off. It was early, but there was work to be done. I thought of Llama Man hibernating somewhere in the caverns of the stage and wondered at what nightmares and stories will emerge for the last, funereal Brain Frame.
Likely it will be, at the very least, some of the most punk rock shit you'll ever see in your life.
Brain Frame 19: Brain Frame 3rd Anniversary Finale will take place on Thalia Hall on August 9th at 6:00pm. For more information, check out the event's Facebook page here.