Holly Hughes–a self-proclaimed “escape artist” from her conservative hometown of Saginaw, Mich.–has never been one to escape notice. A blonde, pixie-ish W.A.S.P. from the “navy bean capital” itself, she’s also a New York-based lesbian performance artist who will mow you down with her acrobatic speaking style. After getting her start as a playwright and solo performer at the feminist WOW caf&233; in New York, she’s gone on to win an Obie and several other awards and grants for her staged work. In recent years, Hughes has published a collection of performance texts in Clit Notes: A Sapphic Sampler and has co-edited an anthology with David Roman called O Solo Homo: The New Queer Performance.
Also famous as one of the “NEA Four,” Hughes–along with artists Karen Finley, John Fleck and Tim Miller–were cast into the spotlight in 1990 when the National Endowment for the Arts revoked the artists’ grants on charges of “obscenity.” Obscenity, as it turned out, was a catch-all term that included gay content, and the four went on to challenge the decision in a series of appeals that spanned eight years.
Though the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the artists, Hughes saw the experience’s parallel to “bad theater”–as she deems it–and created a solo performance about it called Preaching to the Perverted. She’s back at Manbites Dog Theater from Feb. 28 to March 4 to present the work in final form–both a chronicle of her culture-war experiences and a response to more recent events. (“Yes, expect some commentary on the non-election,” she dutifully teases.)
In a phone interview that bordered on performance art itself, Hughes increasingly whipped out the comedic riffs and bits. With occasional interruptions to comment on the Westminister dog show on television in the background (“Oh, what a cute dog!” she gasped between jabs at the Supreme Court), she held forth with her characteristic hyper-inflection.
The Independent: When did you know your NEA struggles would become a work for the stage?
Holly Hughes: It took me awhile, because it was an evolving story and the lawsuit went through many stages. I wasn’t ready to write it until I went to the Supreme Court in ’98. I wanted to out the Supreme Court. That was a powerful motivation. Not to imply for a moment that they’re a bunch of queers–if only that were the case–but only to out the fact that it’s an institution that functions in an anti-democratic, elitist way. I wanted to make that visible.
You talk about the Supreme Court being this parental figure.
Well, visitors at the Supreme Court are treated like bad children. It’s like high school detention. I also talk about it as a piece of bad theater, a long-running hit. And about the fact that you need tickets to go, I mean, who knew? But then, the piece is also a springboard for me to talk about the culture wars, and I try to put my story in a larger context of what’s going on in terms of censorship. For three of the four of us who had our funding taken away, they never looked at our work. Not that I think Jesse Helms would’ve liked my work. In fact, if he did like my work, I’d have to kill myself. But the fact is, they talked about the fact that we were gay, and on that basis, tried to make an example of us at a moment when the country was really in the grip of panic around AIDS.
Does performing here on Jesse’s home turf make for a more interesting experience?
It does. I mean, if I could cause Jesse Helms to have some sort of nervous breakdown, or breakthrough, yes, let me rephrase that, if I could help Jesse Helms, that would be great. Certainly there’s been a lot of censorship in North Carolina, but there’s also been a lot of activism because of it. People in North Carolina aren’t like, ‘Oh, the culture war is over,’ because they see it all the time.
In 1999 you helped produce Life Versus the Paperback Romance, a play written by a Charlotte teen whose work was censored because of gay content. What happened and how did you get involved?
Samantha Gellar won a citywide student playwriting contest, but because her play had gay content, they said, “If you change it, we’ll produce it.” She was so great because she wouldn’t cave in. I read about it, and I thought, we can do a reading of this play in New York and raise consciousness about censorship issues. And that in fact happened. It was at the Public Theater, and lots of people–Tony Kushner and Paula Vogel and Mary Louise Parker–were so eager to help. It was as a big fuck you to Jesse Helms and the people in Charlotte who censored Samantha. I just admired her spirit so much, that she was like, “Hey, I won this thing, and I’m not going to just disappear like you want me to.”
Is avant garde theater as threatened as it seems?
The funding crisis has really affected performing spaces. There’s enormous commercial pressure to be more mainstream–to present the thing that could become the next HBO special, and a lot of the counter-cultural edge has really disappeared. I mean, David Mamet is the most produced playwright of the century and he’s horrifying. I don’t think he should be censored–I think the man needs help. And people are enabling him. I mean, he has talent, but he’s also clearly has Tourette’s syndrome. But I believe in the power of talk therapy. I’m like the president: I don’t want to leave any child behind!, even David Mamet. Even if he advocates beating the shit out of women! I think this is my next show: “David Mamet!”
So what was it like growing up gay in Saginaw?
Whattaya saying? I’m gay? I mean, it’s fine to be gay, but enough is enough!
OK, then at least talk about your self-described Jesus-freak phase, and your Andrea Dworkin-phase growing up.
Well, Jesus and Andrea Dworkin kind of blend in together. There’s not a lot of difference between being a Jesus freak and being an anti-porn feminist in the ’70s. I mean, you aren’t allowed to have sex of any kind, and in one you talked about brotherhood and didn’t really mean it, and in the other, you talked about sisterhood and didn’t really mean it. And sex is really bad, bad, bad, but of course that made it really hot, hot, hot. And you know, you got to wear some of the same clothes–like lumberjack shirts were really big in both communities, as I recall. I mean, what can I say? There was no cable television when I was growing up.
You left Saginaw when you came to New York as a painting student. How did you get from that into performance?
I got involved with the WOW caf&233;, well, it was a front, really. It called itself a theater, but it was really a home for wayward girls. And I aspired toward waywardness, I aspired toward girl-ness. But I had this sort of group crush on the whole group of women associated with it and would have done whatever they were doing. It turned out to be theater, but if it had been softball? Or whitewater rafting? They were outrageous and ‘in your face’ at a time when feminism and the lesbian community were really not, when it was an extremely beige moment.
So what’s with the Jewish accent?
Well, yeah. There’s a little guy in me with a shiny suit and a cigar that comes out once in awhile. And I relate it to what Lenny Bruce said–that living in New York makes you Jewish. I really respond to that tradition of humor and wiseass-ness.
You’re off to Nebraska tomorrow?
Yes, the Midwest is weird, but at least I’ll be hanging out with some great fags, so you know, I’ll see the best of Nebraska. That’s my next show: “The Best of Nebraska.” That, and “David Mamet Needs Help.”