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JOHN MCGIVERN // His art is also his life

Even as he speaks, John McGivern has agents shopping his sitcom pilot to the networks. Basic premise: McGivern's character returns home to run a former convent-turned-neighborhood center on the east side of Milwaukee.

Pilot ends with the retired colonel of a lager beer brewing family, the guy who donated the former convent, discovering McGivern's character is gay.

Lots of commotion. Seven characters, six are really nutty. "The only one who isn't is the gay guy," McGivern says, describing his self-penned plot.

Once again, McGivern has parlayed real life into art. That's how McGivern has makes his living, putting himself on the stage: a 40-year-old former seminary student, homosexual and recovering addict from a large Irish Catholic family in the Midwest.

Enjoying success touring nationally, McGivern is a favorite at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, where he has performed three times in less than two years.

This week, he'll be back to perform as a part of Gala Festival V, "the world's largest gay and lesbian music festival." On Wednesday, he'll perform in Come Out Laughing at the Tampa Theater with with comedian Robin Greenspan and the a cappella group the Flirtations. "I'm just an old storyteller from Wisconsin," McGivern says, turning the first "O" into an "A" _ "WisCAHN-SIN" _ like a true Midwesterner. A storyteller who's paid a "nice chunk of change," as he puts it, to be himself.

McGivern's show is a hilarious, poignant portrayal of his childhood, life as an adult and how it's all connected.

"I couldn't throw a ball," he says in Midwest Side Stories. "In an Irish-Catholic family, the boy who can't throw a ball is the boy who's going to be a priest."

He recalls his childhood fondness for all things Barbie ("I loved Malibu Barbie's blond, blunt bob"). And even his recent move from Chicago to Los Angeles makes it onstage (try outrunning a twister in a truck that won't go above 40 mph).

His work also includes serious pieces, about his grandmother dying, about unfinished business with his deceased father.

McGivern draws audience members in as if they are very dear friends. Onstage, he is gracious, friendly and animated, his voice rising to shrill excitement to emphasize particularly humorous points.

Those looking for simple comedy are blindsided by his heartfelt vignettes. His brother Tim, a mental health counselor in Dunedin, tells McGivern his shows have his clients "processing."

"They come to group (therapy) and say, "I want to talk about my grandmother because I just saw this show,' " recounts McGivern, who is touched and amused that Tim's clients don't realize they're brothers.

In an interview, in the lobby of Jaeb Theater, McGivern is much the same as he is onstage, gracious and friendly, but not quite so animated. But clearly he's someone to whom comedy comes naturally.

He talks about the "cross-over" audience he enjoys in Tampa. That's show biz talk roughly translated to mean that straight people enjoy McGivern's humor. It's his cross-over appeal that he hopes will land him a sitcom, or at least a supporting role in someone else's. It's the reason he moved to Los Angeles.

A former theater student at the University of South Florida, McGivern renewed his theatrical relationship with Tampa Bay in early 1995, when he was brought in to help save TBPAC's failing production of the audience participation murder mystery Shear Madness.

Playing the part of flamboyant hairdresser Tony Whitcomb in touring versions of the show for more than seven years, McGivern also was performing his one-man show, Midwest Side Story. Many nights after performing at TBPAC's Jaeb Theater, McGivern would wash off the makeup and head over to the Off Center theater to perform solo.

"I think this place has really brought out a sense of change to me," McGivern says of his experience at TBPAC. "The kind of reception I've had with my show and the way the community has embraced my work."

It's a different Tampa than the one he knew at 25. "I had some real self-hate going on then." McGivern had just left the seminary and found his life in flux.

"A lot of it had to do with my coming out and believing that there was no way of doing that in the seminary. It was a really difficult transition. I was groomed to believe that that's what I was going to do."

His brother Tim was studying at USF at the time and invited him to come down. McGivern studied theater at USF for a year, until he was hired by the Southern Theater Conference in Atlanta.

It was while working as a performer in Chicago 6{ years ago that his growing problems with alcohol and cocaine caused his family to demand he enter a rehabilitation program.

"I'm in 12 12-step programs," he says in his show. "I do 144 steps, and at the end of the day I'm too exhausted to do anything destructive to myself." Twelve is a bit of an exaggeration. "But I'm in a couple," he says.

These days, coffee and cigarettes are his unrepentant vices. "Don't make me quit! I won't!" Remnants of his seminary days include a sense of community and humility, a 12-foot pew cut in half and a full-sized statue of St. Francis.

It's all his life, all grist for the mill.

See him live

John McGivern, Robin Greenspan and the Flirtations will perform two shows at 7:15 and 10:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Tampa Theater, 711 Franklin Street Mall, Tampa. Tickets are $15. For information, call 229-7827.