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."

Smith, 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 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 opens its 25th season 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, 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 offended delicate sensibilities.

Though today's audiences are harder to shock, the "Out There" tradition continues, with work ranging from fearlessly transgressive 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.

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

The series began in 1989 as a partnership between Walker and the Southern Theater, its original venue. That first year, then-curator John Killacky and Jeff Bartlett of the Southern booked only two acts, including 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.' "

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 recalled the experience. "I sat there 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."

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."

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"?

New York artist and three-time "Out There" performer 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."


What: Experimental performance series. When: 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat. through Feb. 2.  Where: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls. Tickets: $18-$20. 612-375-7600 or www.walker

8 p.m. Thu.-Sat.

The series opener brings thrills and spills as this Austin, Texas-based group of daredevils applies a fictitious and dangerous form of method acting called "The Approach." Thursday's performance will be preceded by a free Out There 25th-anniversary fête (6:30-7:45 p.m.).


Jan. 17-19

An all-woman collective performs its version of "King Lear" -- with the performers' real fathers in tow.

Jan. 24-26

A mash-up of modern dance and Voguing, a "frenetic free-for-all that bounces from soul music to sculptural acrobatics" and features a drag version of Prince's "Darling Nikki."

Jan. 31-Feb. 2

An elephant-headed god goes to Germany to reclaim the swastika, originally a Hindu symbol, from the Nazis. This indie production, acted by an ensemble that includes people with mental disabilities, has drawn raves in its native Australia and London.