Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Valley of the action figures


Michael Phillis of Dolls with his personal collection. Photo: Meg Messina
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Boys don't play with dolls. They play with action figures. That was Michael Phillis' story, and he was sticking to it.

"I was extremely protective of the fact that they were action figures and not dolls," the young performer-playwright said of his prized collection. "There were a few times when my mom would slip up and say 'dolls,' and that was the worst possible thing to say to me."

Now Phillis, 26, is willing to own up to the d-word for an obsession that continued "to what some would say was an unhealthy age," he acknowledged. "There are pictures on my website with all these dolls amassed around me, and they are actually my dolls."

Phillis has created a new solo show titled Dolls that springs from this passion, and even though it's not the personal treatise as was his well-received one-man show D*Face, he has been seeing more connections as rehearsals have progressed toward the start of performances on Jan. 22 at New Conservatory Theatre Center.

 "If someone had asked me six months ago if this is an autobiographical story, I would have said absolutely not," he said. "But now I'm realizing there are a lot of personal elements in it. I guess it sort of happened organically."

While there are numerous characters in Dolls, only one is human, and he is rarely seen. In fact, he doesn't even have any dialogue. "Frank's story is told through his dolls," Phillis said. "One of the first dolls we meet says that thanks to Frank's slightly anti-social nature, they don't have to fret about other humans playing with them, especially the slobbering, pre-pubescent variety."

The main action takes place on the day after Christmas as newly arrived dolls are put through an orientation by the veterans whose status is defined by which tier they occupy on the toy shelf.   "The top shelf are the antique collectibles, and then the second shelf are the action figures, and then come the fashion dolls like Ken and Barbie and their generic knockoffs. The bottom shelf are the tchotchkes, the Happy Meal toys, the cereal-box prizes. And then there are the drawers, and what's in them is a secret revealed in the show."

While there are similarities to the Toy Story movies, Phillis noted an important distinction. "Besides being about an adult's rather than a kid's collection, these toys take on some of the characteristics of their owner. Frank is having problems in his life, and that translates into problems on the shelves. And because Frank is an older gay man, all of his dolls are or will become a little bit gay. Prejudice does enter into the doll collection, that's not where it comes from."

Phillis had wanted to work his action-figure fixation into D*Face, a personal story where gay prejudice definitely comes into play as he recounts the travails of being a gay kid in Woodland, a quiet suburb of Sacramento. "I envisioned an action-figure ballet, but it never quite fit in," he said. "But it stuck in my mind, and I approached [NCTC Artistic Director] Ed Decker about doing a show about dolls. He let me go for it as part of the Emerging Artists Program." Andrew Nance, director of D*Face, is also directing Dolls.

D*Face, seen at NCTC in 2006, emerged from a project he developed as a theater student at UC Santa Barbara. "Doing a solo performance that was about being gay and about being myself, and finding there was an audience for that, was freeing in a way that nothing else had been, and helped me find my voice."

Phillis moved to San Francisco in 2004 after graduating from UCSB, and became a fixture at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts, where he further developed D*Face when it was still known as Dick Face. During a first visit to the LGBT arts center for an MFA audition, he saw "this quintessentially beautiful line of dancers coming out of one of the other studios laughing and chatting and slightly sweaty, and they looked like they had just done some great art that I wanted to be a part of."

Phillis has definitely discovered what it is like to be a struggling young artist. He has found some work as a freelance web designer, but his primary income has come from doing coat check at Badlands. "I started as a bar back, then moved over to coat check, which was much more my style because at least you can talk to people. It was a good way to get in touch with the gay community. But I wouldn't say it's been all happy-go-lucky."

Theatrically, things have been looking up. Phillis had a leading role in Craig Lucas' The Dying Gaul at NCTC in 2007. He also wrote and co-starred in Wish We Were Here, a comedy about a hapless stoner who finds a genie in his hookah, at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2008. And he has three roles in the world premiere production of Aaron Loeb's Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party, finishing its run at SF Playhouse on Jan. 17.

"This is one of the living-the-dream kind of periods," he said. "I should have been more specific about the money in my dream, but I feel pretty blessed right now."

Also at NCTC

While Dolls is a special attraction outside New Conservatory's Pride series, the season continues on Jan. 22 with Tennessee in the Summer. Veteran SF playwright Joe Besecker's drama, previously seen at the Edinburgh Festival and in three Los Angeles productions, takes place in 1972 in New York as Tennessee Williams struggles with revisions to Out Cry.

In his fevered state, he revisits key moments from his past with help of a dark angel who appears in his hotel room. Dale Albright heads the cast as Williams in director Christopher Jenkins' production.

NCTC has also announced a change in one of the remaining plays in the 2008-09 Pride series. Harry Cronin's commissioned play Blind Faith, set to open March 27,   has been indefinitely postponed as its development continues. It has been replaced by Dave Johnson's dark comedy Baptized to the Bone. First staged in Dallas in 2004, it follows the dysfunctional relationship between a handsome young showman and the not-so-innocent preacher's wife he attempts to hustle for financial backing.

More info on all NCTC activities at 861-8972 or

Richard Dodds can be reached at

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