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State of the Queer Union

Holly Hughes and Tim Miller return to New York City with new shows dealing with same-sex marriage. logo
Holly Hughes
(© 2009 John W. Sisson, Jr.)
Holly Hughes and Tim Miller are no strangers to controversy. In 1990, they were two of the artists dubbed the "NEA Four" (along with Karen Finley and John Fleck) after their peer-approved National Endowment for the Arts grants were revoked for violating newly passed legislation requiring the NEA consider "general standards of decency" in their administration of funds. The four artists sued the government, with the legal battle that followed placing them at the heart of the so-called "Culture Wars."

Twenty years later, Hughes and Miller are still pushing the boundaries. Hughes is co-authoring and performing in Let Them Eat Cake at Dixon Place, while Miller returns to PS 122 -- a space he co-founded 30 years ago -- with his latest solo piece, Lay of the Land. Both shows address the subject of same-sex marriage and are given an added timeliness by the fact that on December 6, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will be hearing arguments regarding the constitutionality of California's voter-approved ban on gay marriage, Proposition 8.

Hughes got the initial idea for her show at an anti-Prop 8 rally in Chicago. "I was struck by a lot of people describing themselves as queer activists who were not that enthusiastic about gay marriage," she says. "There was a tension between wanting your civil rights but also wanting to feel like you've held on to some sense of identity that was really forged from being on the margins. And I thought, this is really interesting, inherently dramatic, and like some kind of big wedding that's happening and everyone has complicated feelings about whether it should happen."

Working with collaborators Moe Angelos (of Five Lesbian Brothers fame) and Chicago-based director Megan Carney, Hughes crafted a script that gives voice to a range of perspectives that are often not reflected in the political discourse. However, the show is far from didactic. "I'm not big on earnest," says Hughes. "Why be gay if you can't be campy? That's kind of where I come from."

Let Them Eat Cake is in the tradition of such fare as Tony n' Tina's Wedding, with the audience as guests. But while there is an interactive component, Hughes assures, "nobody is forced to get out of their seat and do something they don't want to do." Additionally, Hughes says that she hopes to "tweak what happens in response to unfolding political narratives, and how it's playing out in each state. This is the New York premiere, but also the New York version, which may not be the same as the version that we're going to do in Iowa!"

Tim Miller in Lay of the Land
Miller's show is also inspired by anti-Prop 8 rallies, particularly the nationwide one held on November 15, 2008. "It jumps out of this memory of thousands of people all marching against Prop 8 on one day in every state," says Miller. But in addition to the political dimensions of the piece, Miller also states that Lay of the Land "has beautiful, complicated erotics, very kinky and surprising. And as always with my work, there's a conversation between my childhood and the present, the present and the future, and reality and fantasy."

It's this mix of personal autobiography, imagination, sexuality, and politics that has proven a winning formula for Miller, who has created dozens of solo works over the last 30 years. In conjunction with Lay of the Land, Miller is also sharing his process through a workshop intensive that leads up to a public performance by the participants on December 12. "I'm there as workshop facilitator and director and get to realize a whole bunch of other possibilities that help to balance out my own solo performing," he says.

Marriage equality has a very personal dimension for Miller, as his long-term partner Alistair McCartney hails from Australia, and they do not have the same kind of immigration advantages to keep him in the U.S. as heterosexual couples do. "Alistair's visa runs out in February, so we'll see what happens," says Miller. "We're luckier than most gay couples who have faced active deportation. But couples like us are still not offered any respect or help or hope from our government."

This doesn't make Miller pessimistic; it makes him angry. "As we remember from ACT-UP, we have to turn fear and despair into being pissed off," says Miller. "And the situation is full of the materials of theater: high stakes, dangerous times, absurdities. There's a powerful humor that can be found amid the chaos of what's going on right now, as well as tangible signs of progress, too, which is always important to acknowledge. Back in 1999, when I first started creating pieces on this subject, marriage equality didn't exist. And now it does in five states, the District of Columbia, and numerous countries more fair-minded than ours. To not see that would be a kind of blind spot. It doesn't help Alistair and me at all, or the people in the 45 hate states in the U.S. But that balancing act has always been in my conversation in how I make performance about being a queer American."

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