"I performed in Baltimore this winter," says Holly Hughes. "After the reviews came out, we were getting these big audiences, but they often seemed uncomfortable with the work. I always have walk-outs, but in Baltimore people would go up to the box office manager and say, 'That woman is sick.' The box office manager would reply, 'You're the one that came to a show called Preaching to the Perverted. What did you expect? You're not getting your money back.'"
Holly Hughes has an amazing gift for storytelling. Her performances are often uproariously funny; they also tend to delve into dark and dangerous places that are unsettling, yet theatrically compelling. Hughes is, perhaps, best known as one of the infamous "NEA Four," who in 1990 were denied NEA grants despite unanimous approval by a peer review panel. All of the artists (Hughes, Tim Miller, Karen Finley, and John Fleck) created work that dealt explicitly with issues of sexuality. They sued the government, and won their grants back--but the story didn't end there. Shortly after taking office, President Clinton appealed the case, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court, resulting in the 1998 decision allowing the NEA to make funding decisions based upon "general standards of decency." Preaching to the Perverted addresses this part of Hughes' life. Prior to the show's April 27 opening at P.S. 122, the notorious performance artist chatted with TheaterMania.
TheaterMania: Why did you feel it was important for you to do this show?
Holly Hughes: I felt very frustrated during the ten years since this whole thing started. Here I was an artist who dealt a lot with autobiographical material, but I felt like I've never been able to represent this in my own voice. I do feel on a blunt psychological level that there's a cathartic element for me, but I also wanted to place my story in a larger historical and political context. I wanted to out the Supreme Court, and the ways this institution operates that are really problematic for the type of political system we supposedly have: a democracy. I also think I couldn't have done this show at another point.
TM: You couldn't have done it before the Supreme Court hearing, and then after that there was no way you could not do it?
HUGHES: Uh huh.
TM: The NEA debacle thrust you into the national spotlight, and made you a de facto spokesperson both for freedom of expression and gay and lesbian rights. How do you cope with that responsibility?
HUGHES: At first I felt, "This is going to be great. I'm really going to be able to do something useful." I didn't realize that it was really Jesse Helms' story, his narrative. When I'd go to the media, they'd say: "We're here with self-proclaimed lesbian performance artist Holly Hughes who has used your tax dollars to produce a play with twelve different girls of different races having sex with each other. Holly, why should we pay for your pornographic sketch?" And I'd say, "Well..." Then it's "Okay, thank you. And back to Jesse Helms." The way the questions were framed was along the lines of "How long have you been beating your wife?" It was also frustrating because I got criticism that I wasn't a good representative of the lesbian and gay community. Then some other people said, "You're merely lesbian and gay, but you're not queer."
TM: You felt like you got attacked from both sides.
HUGHES: Right. And I don't feel like I was able to do anything very useful.
TM: At the same time, you've become a role model for many, particularly your students.
HUGHES: I have? My God!
TM: You've done performance workshops at NYU, Brown, Barnard, Yale, and at your alma mater in Kalamazoo, to name just a few places. What motivates you to teach these classes?
HUGHES: Poverty. No, I really enjoy teaching. I find it inspiring. It's great to have a relationship with another generation. As someone who's never wanted to do that through parenting, I find that a lot of things that people get satisfied through having a family, I find through teaching. Our culture, including gay culture, tends to be very age-segregated. It would be very possible in New York City to live my life ghettoized among other middle-aged white queers. Teaching brings me in contact with a whole other generation, which is exciting.
TM: You've also toured across the nation at various college campuses and performance spaces. How do you find different audiences respond to your work, especially since many of them may come into the performance only knowing you by reputation?
HUGHES: At a lot of the college campuses where I go, in 1990 [when the NEA controversy started] the students were eight years old. So they may have some vague idea of who I am, or of this controversy, but I try to give them enough of a context so they can find their way into it. Generally, I find people very responsive. I did the show for a group of high school students in Milwaukee, and they were really enthusiastic. I thought, "Oh, I've found my audience. High school students in Milwaukee." You can build a career on that.
TM: Do you feel younger people respond more to the issues?
HUGHES: I'm not really sure. With the dwindling of public funding, I've been doing the show more in colleges than I have in art spaces, so maybe I've just been performing it more for students than the general public.
TM: Because universities often have more money to pay artists.
TM: I love the titles for your performance pieces. They're provocative and witty, even if they do get you into trouble. Can you talk about why you felt Preaching to the Perverted was the right title for this show?
HUGHES: I wanted to make reference to the whole phenomenon of "preaching to the converted," which is a way that people often dismiss theater that is generated by stigmatized communities, or isn't geared to the concerns and sensibilities of a mainstream audience. There's this certain dismissal of the kind of theater I do. Unless it sort of speaks to and converts Jesse Helms to a sort of Queer Nation point of view, the theater has somehow failed. I was really inspired by an article written by Tim Miller and David Román about recuperating this model of preaching and conversion, and thinking of political convictions as a kind of faith. Even if people have had a spiritual experience, it's not a one time stable condition; people have to continue to worship. They go back to the synagogue, church, temple, or wherever it is because they're always in the danger of losing the faith. I think that's an interesting model to think about political beliefs.
TM: The play was originally workshopped at Dixon Place. Has it changed much since?
HUGHES: Parts of the script are the same, but it's completely restructured. There's a new beginning and a new end--and also there's staging! There're props! So, it has changed quite a bit. I like to think there's less preaching and more perversion.