By day he’s a mild-mannered assistant director of learning and development at Omaha’s Hyatt hotels. By night and during weekends, though, Doug Hayko is one the city’s most well-known—and perhaps most infamous—performance artists, one who frequently makes people uncomfortable in the most thought-provoking ways.
The 44-year-old became interested in performance art while studying theater at Creighton University. “It was pretty basic,” he remembers, “but I had an affinity for unique performance pieces.” He continued his studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he again focused on theatre as well as the history of theatre and its more academic side. “I was interested in techniques that did something to engage the audience in different pieces,” he explains, “and I was really interested in doing and embracing and watching pieces that were fused with societal issues. Here were really profound, engaging issues.”
But Hayko found that performing in a university environment was doing so to a limited audience—one who already understood what performance art could deliver intellectually—rather than to the general public, with whom he could more profoundly engage. For that reason, he left graduate school and put performance art on hiatus and instead moved to southern California where he began working for Hyatt.
In 1998, though, Hayko returned to Omaha and in 2005 staged an ambitious adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at the Bemis Underground. It involved layers upon layers of text, with each audience member taking something different from the experience. That’s something Hayko strives for with every performance he gives. “Even though we can’t catch it all,” he emphasizes, “we all carry away something unique.”
Since then, Hayko has offered numerous such experiences, each exploring a situation designed to create provocative encounters, such as East of 72nd: Disrupting the Omaha Landscape in Six Acts (2007), Toxic Lawncare (2010), and Experts at the Museum of Alternative History (2013), each of which represents a small selection of his work. At times, Hayko’s performances have been controversial, such as Sickened at the Shelterbelt Theatre in 2008, which featured the artist curled in a fetal or a kneeling position smeared in fake blood while holding a doll.
Controversial or not, each piece has Hayko’s inimitable sense of intensity. The artist remarks: “Even if it’s a one-time performance, my hope is that it sticks with people and continues conversations long after the piece is over—not the next day, not the next month, but something they recall, and talk about. Isn’t that what any artist wants —for art to have legs and continue to be talked about?”