Deb Margolin loves language. She has a way of imbuing the ordinary details of life with a poetic sensibility. Best known for her groundbreaking work with the Split Britches Theater Company, she has also written a number of solo shows and plays. Her latest work, Three Seconds in the Key, which opens at P.S. 122 in February, draws from her own experiences while recovering from Hodgkins disease. “My son and I dealt with my illness, to varying degrees, by watching the Knicks play basketball,” she says. “That is how we got through it. Somehow, the confidence and energy of these men’s bodies affected the confidence and energy of our own. The TV opened up, and we dwelled in it.”
THEATERMANIA: You developed this piece partly while you were an artist in residence with New York University’s Undergraduate Drama Department. Can you describe how that worked?
DEB MARGOLIN: Residencies are really a great gift to me. Usually, my obligations are simply to educate, to share process, to teach in a formal sense. Here was a situation where I was invited very generously by the Chair of Undergrad Drama [Una Chaudhuri] to come and develop new work that’s mine. I’ve gone to universities and developed work with students that they then performed; this one was just for me.
TM: I understand that you played basketball with NYU’s women’s basketball team.
DM: Damn right. Is that hot, or what? I pitched this idea to the coach of the men’s and women’s basketball teams. I had to present myself to these people who make their home in a completely different culture. Theater and sports are both for public entertainment, but explaining the beauty and depth of this overlap as I yearn to express it was not the easiest thing. It was a bizarre presentation, but the girls’ basketball team and the coach agreed to work with me. We had this brilliant meeting. We talked about the show, what it was about, and where my passion for this material came from. They entered that world with me, and they generously invited me into their world. They showed me their basketball warm-ups and we got up and played! They told me to shoot the basketball; it was unbelievable. I am some nerdy Jewish girl. They just kept going, “Make the shot, make the shot. Easy does it. Soft hands. Up over the rim.” Finally, I’d make the shot and get high fives all the way down the line. It was fantastic. They were very generous people.
TM: How did this aid your process?
DM: I was interested in–among other things–language, and the language of basketball. I was able to ask them some questions about what is said on the field. I also went and sat in on a basketball game when the men were playing. I wrote down everything they said, like “Use me! Use me! Shoot ‘er up top!” Every business has its own language, and I’m thrilled by that.
TM: “Three seconds in the key”–that’s an actual basketball phrase, right?
DM: Yes, it refers to the fact that if your team has the ball, you can’t hang out in the main. The key is the main, that’s the same thing: the seated area under the basket. You have to dance in and out. If your team does not have the ball, you can live there. If you are on the offending team, you can only spend three seconds in the key. That’s a proper metaphor for that life, for this life, and for the whole show.
TM: You mentioned that the inspiration for the piece came from personal experience. What is the connection between autobiography and performance for you?
DM: Art is the redistribution of autobiography. I believe that this desire to speak instantly fictionalizes the things spoken of and, conversely, you think you’re being very imaginative but you’re in fact revealing yourself. You take your experience and redistribute it along a fictive landscape. That’s how novels get written, that’s how plays get written, that’s how life gets lived. A lot of people argue that this is not true, but what else do we have? We have nothing but ourselves. It’s hubris to think otherwise. For me, I feel the pleasure of redemption, of taking moments in life–that I’m in love with, that I’m destroyed by, that I’m not interested in–and redeeming them, and placing them in my world as theater.
TM: You write both solo performances and plays. Do you have a preference for either genre?
DM: No, I love them both. There’s nothing like an ensemble; it’s a community on stage. Then, when it comes to solo work, you don’t have to rent rehearsal space because you can practice in the bathroom. It’s very convenient. Also, your responsibilities are limited in terms of subject matter. I was raised in the Split Britches Theater Company; I was the writer. My job was to catch the company ideas and make scenes and theater out of them. When I went solo, my obligations were not to a communal aesthetic, but only to my own demented desire to speak.
TM: Since you’ve mentioned them, could you talk about your work with Split Britches?
DM: That was my formative group. They dragged me kicking and screaming from some fashion magazine, where I was writing copy and typesetting, and into the theater. They taught me a way of life. They taught me to be a cultural migrant worker–to show up with your big bag, do your work, and leave. They taught me that if you go from yourself, if you take your own experience and make theater out of it, you don’t have to be any more than you are–any better looking, any older, any younger, any thinner, anything. This lesson that I learned from them, I now teach. I’m trying to give back what I got from that company. It was not an easy ride. They were a couple, the other two women [Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver]. Its really hard being with a couple; I’d get outvoted. It was a hard dynamic, but that was where I was educated, and that education was about life as much as it was about theater.
TM: Would you ever do a reunion performance with them?
DM: We haven’t been together in a while. We were together for 15 years, which is an amazing thing for a theater company. We are finding ways to speak now. We almost got back together for a moment; recently, there was a W.O.W. Café 20th anniversary celebration, and I was invited to show up and perform one of my favorite things that I ever did with the group from Upwardly Mobile Home. We sang “I Like to Be in America” in Yiddish. It’s the funniest thing that I’ve ever done on stage, but I couldn’t get there. I just lost my very best friend to breast cancer: Lynda Hart, the editor of my book. She was a feminist scholar and theorist. She was dying, I had just been to see her, and I just couldn’t quite get myself to show up to that event. But it almost happened! And where there’s life, there’s hope. Those women are my mentors and I’ll always respect them. But we definitely had our difficulties.
TM: Yes, and I know that you were also displeased with Sue Ellen Case’s book Split Britches: Lesbian Practice/Feminist Performance.
DM: Oh, that thing’s a piece of shit. It should be in the garbage. I’m humiliated by that book. First of all, there’s typos everywhere you look. Plus, I felt there was a major effort at revisionist history. Split Britches was a three-person company, and I’m not even on the cover. You don’t even know I’m part of it. On the back, there’s a picture of me the size of a postage stamp, and I’m covering my face with a piece of plastic or something. And her commentary…See, this was a utopian situation where some straight, little, nerdy Jewish girl, some Southern belle from Roanoke, and some butch dyke from a working-class city outside of Boston came together. Isn’t that the world we’re working for? Isn’t that what we want, what we fight for, what we struggle for? I wrote [for Split Britches] the sexiest scenes they had; they were incendiary. But [Case] had to write me out of history. There was a real effort to minimize my contributions. I was never consulted about this book, never spoken to. It had a lesbian agenda that would have been much better served by the miracle of lesbian collaboration with someone else. In fact, the true scholarly effort would have been to include me as an active contributor to the company.
TM: I’m surprised that Case never interviewed you.
DM: No, she never spoke to me. I cried for a year, but I was redeemed when my now-deceased, beautiful colleague Lynda Hart made a collection of my work with her commentaries.
TM: You mentioned your own book of performance pieces and plays. What can you tell me about that?
DM: It’s called Of All the Nerve: Deb Margolin SOLO. There are seven pieces in there.
TM: All post-Split Britches?
DM: No. I was working in the company and also performing alone for part of that time. I had two lives. It was fantastic.
TM: Do you have any other projects scheduled after Three Seconds in the Key?
DM: Well, the play was commissioned by the Public Theater, and it would be a great honor if it would go on to run over there. This is my whole life right now.