Among the "most terrifying moments" Philip Bither can recall in his more than 12 years as head of performing arts at Walker Art Center was the time in 2000 when actor Roger Guenveur Smith nearly turned "Out There" into "Fight Club."

The Obie-winning actor, who was portraying 1960s Black Panther activist Huey P. Newton, liked to get into his confrontational character before the show began, giving plenty of attitude from his perch onstage. On this particular evening, his Huey was not enjoying the Minnesota winter, and he was in an even fouler mood than usual.

"Some teens laughed, and he yelled back," Bither said. "He started baiting the audience, as Newton, provoking them. We really thought there was going to be a fight."

Such is the unpredictability and intensity of "Out There" at its best. The January performance series turns 25 this weekend. It began as a raw, risky forum for emerging artists on the fringes to let it all hang out -- often literally. Launched at the end of the Reagan presidency, when a conservative climate overtook the country, it thumbed its nose at those on the tsk-tsk side of the era's culture wars. Bither routinely booked performers who employed strident social criticism, nudity and behavior that wasn't doing its job if it failed to offend delicate sensibilities.

Although today's audiences are harder to shock, the "Out There" tradition continues, with work ranging from fearlessly transgressive -- like last year's "Untitled Feminist Show" by Young Jean Lee, a wordless, evening-length piece featuring eight naked women -- to what some see as inanely self-indulgent.

"If life as we know it is the box, it brings to this community a constant stream of what's beyond the box," said longtime Twin Cities performer Patrick Scully, founder of Patrick's Cabaret and an "Out There" participant in its early years.

"It's a safe place for unsafe ideas," Bither said.

Linking big and small groups

The series began in 1989 as a partnership between Walker and the Southern Theater, its original venue. The McKnight Foundation had announced a program to fund ideas that might close the gap between large and small arts groups. Neal Cuthbert of McKnight calls the series "by far the most successful" of the projects awarded grants from that program.

"Performance art was a relatively new genre then," said Cuthbert. "You can trace it back to the '20s, with the dadaists and surrealists, but it was reborn in the 1980s both as a reaction to the times and because artists wanted to cross disciplinary boundaries. Dancers wanted to talk, actors wanted to move, visual artists wanted in, too. That aesthetic made it a perfect time for 'Out There.'"

That first year, 1989, then-curator John Killacky and Jeff Bartlett of the Southern booked only two acts, plus the late-night showcase that evolved into "Balls," an anything-goes, variety-show after-party that lasted through 1999. One of those acts was Rachel Rosenthal. Killacky remembers her as a "shaved-headed, outlandish performer who became a gorilla as part of her show. She used a white rat in the piece, but the rat had died, so she froze it in her freezer and packed it in her luggage. I asked how she got it through airport security and she said, 'I just told them it was a prop.'"

A couple of nail-biters

Some performers have proved harder to wrangle than others, like Linda Carmella Sibio, a performer with schizophrenia who did an Out There show in 1994. The effects of her illness at times caused anxiety; howls could often be heard coming from the dressing room as well as the stage.

Killacky, now director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vt., recalled the experience. "It was one of those, like, 50-below nights, and I sat there with my coat on in the theater listening to her nonstop screaming and thinking, my God, when will it end?" he said. "But then I thought, this is what it is like to have schizophrenia. I was inside her head, and it was amazing."

Then there was Claude Wampler's "PERFORMANCE (career ender)" in 2008, featuring a rock band and several plants in the audience, some wildly enthusiastic, others walking out. The piece made an interesting point -- that celebrity can cross out actual artistry -- but did so too obliquely for many real audience members, who also wound up leaving.

"That's probably the most controversial one I ever presented," said Bither. "It was a career ender." (Actually, Wampler is still performing; he just hasn't been back to the Walker.)

Confident and free

Guenveur Smith, a two-time "Out There" performer, said the series gives artists two key qualities -- confidence and freedom.

"Rather than putting up parameters and limits, the first question from the Walker is always, how can we support your vision?" he said. "They approach everything with a certain confidence and encouragement that gets extended to the artists, and that's rare, coming from an institution."

Over the years, "Out There" has launched more than a few careers. New York artist and three-time "Out There" performer Cynthia Hopkins credits her success in no small part to Bither's bringing in her solo gig in 2005.

"There's such a chasm when you're starting out," she said. "To be booked someplace like the Walker, you have to have already performed at someplace like the Walker. 'Out There' closes that gap."

Part of what made the early years special was the mixing of local artists with national and international groups. Scully remembers staging the AIDS-themed "Unsafe, Unsuited" in 1995 with San Francisco artist Keith Hennessy and Ishmael Houston-Jones of New York.

"My goal was to work with my contemporaries from other cities, out gay men with a background in improvisation and pushing the envelope and being naked on stage," he said. The three eventually toured the piece around the country and to Italy.

Tearing apart form

As times changed, so did the series. When NEA fellowships ended after the culture wars, artists started doing less solo work and teaming up for more ensemble work, and the "Out There" line-up reflected that.

"At the same time, the early fury over AIDS decimating so many people was lessening, because not everyone was dying from it anymore," Killacky said. "Identity politics was the potent force in the late '80s early '90s. Now artists are trying to tear apart form and structure. It's different now, and it should be, because everyone would be bored if it wasn't."

In its early years, when experimental-theater options were much scarcer, "Out There" often startled even some of the Walker's relatively sophisticated patrons. In those days, the British drag troupe Bloolips dropped more than a few jaws, while now they'd barely merit a second glance on the sidewalk.

Now that art seems to have reached the end of its shock-value tether, can the series remain "out there"?

Cynthia Hopkins has a ready answer."It's an illusion that we have no more boundaries left to cross in art," she said. "That feeling has been pretty continuous throughout history, and it's always proven wrong."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046