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Holly Hughes

The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony)

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Holly Hughes

The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony)

Presented by Iron Crow Theatre April 29-May 1 at the GLBT Community Center of Baltimore's Pride in the Arts Space

When performance artist visited Holly Hughes came to the Theatre Project in February 2000, the sting of the 1990s was still fresh. She—along with Karen Finley, John Fleck, and Tim Miller—had spent the better part of the '90s battling the Religious Right, Congressional Republicans, and even then National Endowment of the Arts Chairperson John Frohnmayer. After all, NEA funding of individual artists such as the NEA Four—and artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano—in the late 1980s and early 1990s created the imposition of a so-called "decency standard" in arts funding and a political climate that featured Pat Buchanan admonishing, "There is a religious was going on in this country, a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself" at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston.

The NEA Four fought back, eventually arguing their case before the Supreme Court, which she turned into Preaching to the Perverted: A Tour of the Dark Side of Democracy, another one of her autobiographical monologues qua seriocomic explorations of the country and culture at large. It's the sort of incorporating the personal into the creative process that she has been teaching her students at the University of Michigan for almost a decade.

"Holly made us write down our weird performance fantasies and then made us perform them," writes Erin Markey via e-mail. Markey is a performance artist/actress with her own inimitable presence who studied under Hughes.

"She would give us a fictional billion dollar budget," Markey continues. "Every single student in her classes would come up with the most brilliant stuff, because it was coming from a place of desire—from wanting to do something or be something ridiculous, impossible, and extravagant. Figuring out hilarious and moving ways to approximate hiring Cher and seven stunt elements and then executing these fantasies was completely transformative. We didn't need a billion dollars. The more she gave me opportunities to articulate my weird impulses, the more comfortable I became operating from that place instinctively and improvisationally onstage. That's the way she taught us to trust ourselves."

Performer/musician/actor/writer Joseph Keckler also studied with Hughes at Michigan. "I think Holly did influence me," he says by phone. "I was somewhat interested in performance art as a teenager—even though in some ways I already was a performance artist, just I was wearing absurd costumes and doing things in daily life, but I didn't think about it that way. I was interested in meeting performance artists with a capital 'PA' but more as an observer. But she kind of introduced me to performance art and performance art as a container for a variety of expressions and a catch-all for art that didn't fit neatly into other places. So, in a way, it's a kind of outsider's form—a form you can use and combine different elements."

"I remember in her book, I think, she says that she likes performance art for the same reasons her mother likes Tupperware," he continues. "Serious topics, political topics, and sophisticated intellectual topics—she is very steeped in art history and she kind of talks about it with the spontaneity and glee of a stand-up comic, even in class. Studying with her with her was sort of like—she was always onstage, I think."

City Paper caught up with Hughes by phone during a stop in New York on her current tour of The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony) to talk the work of dogs, the dog shows, and being a working artist today.

City Paper: I've sadly never seen you perform, though I've been reading your writing and reading about you and your pieces for a long time and feel familiar with your approach through people you've taught, such as Erin Markey and Joseph Keckler. So without being too pedestrian, could you tell me a little bit about the current performance?

Holly Hughes: It's a continuation of the work I'm best known for in that it's autobiographical. I like to think of it as new and improved autobiography. I don't know if you've ever seen Tim Miller, but he always says something like, "Everything I'm going to tell you is true, and some of it actually happened."

I don't know why you would tell your life story if you don't improve on it. I think that's just lazy. There's no art in that. So it's new and improved autobiography. And a lot of my stuff has been talking about being queer and being a lesbian, particularly a lot of stuff around sex. This is, I think it's still queer, because queer is where I'm calling from. It's the little hovercraft I'm in. But it's really talking about a new arena of queerness, which is dog love and my descent into becoming a crazy dog show person. In fact, before [the Baltimore shows] I am going to the National Poodle Club [of America] National Specialty, in Maryland—I am so excited—where I will be doing a different kind of performance. I will be enjoying some poodle community activities. It's another sort of oddly similar and then also dissimilar world.

And I'm sort of responding to this book a few years ago by Jon Katz called The New Work of Dogs. And he has this idea, which I think is kind of provocative and interesting, which is that dogs do as much work in contemporary urban society [as people], it's evident in human history. It's just that they do different work. Now they do the work of loving us—the alienated human being in a strange and fractured economy and all the anxieties that attend to this moment in time. So it's kind of my life seen from that perspective—because if you went to the dog shows that I go to, there's a few guys there but you might think that you had come into some kind of lesbian drumming circle without the drums. With dachshunds instead of drums.

CP: Is dog love a relatively new thing for you, or just the shows aspect of it a more recent development?

HH: I was always a dog person, but I traveled all the time and so I didn't feel like I could have a dog, and then 17 years ago I married into dogs. And I was the stepparent that would try to shamelessly buy their love by feeding them candy for breakfast and taking them to Coney Island every day.

But nine years ago I took a job teaching at the University of Michigan, and was trying to think of what could I have now—besides have health insurance—and I missed the East Coast a lot, and I always wanted to have a dog and now I can do that. But I kind of went overboard. So, to me, there's some interesting moments where being a lesbian and being a dog person completely overlap or certainly the ways that people treat you are similar. You love the wrong thing too much. And there's other ways in which it's very dissimilar—like it happens early in the morning.

CP: Well, I never considered the idea that the work of dogs could be loving us, but that makes a great deal of sense. I mean, if you grow up with dogs, they're pets and you might take them for granted because—well, because you're young and don't know any better and take everything for granted. But as adults we do develop relationships with our pets that are just as complex and codependent as we do with some people.

HH: Right. And the awareness of mortality is something that we're continually experiencing and thinking about when loving animals.

CP: Is this creative process of using life experiences as narrative material something that happens in retrospect or as its happening or a combination of both?

HH: It's a little bit of both. I was a plaintiff against the government in this lawsuit about 20 years ago, the NEA Four case, and when the case was read at the Supreme Court, I went and I thought this was a really wacky form of environmental theater, immersive theater. So I was immediately taking notes about it—although you can't bring any writing instruments into the court. I started doing autobiographical work in the late '80s and part of it was in response to my mother's death. I started writing as a way to get through the morning. And then I felt like she really hadn't had a proper eulogy. So that kind of started me.

Before that my work was not directly autobiographical. It was more campy, and I think that the campy humor is still there, it's just woven in with other things. And I'm very aware that I'm playing this character Holly Hughes onstage. Partially it's me and partially it's slightly different than—I was going to say, "than who I am in real life" but I try not to visit real life so I have no idea who that person is.

CP: [laughing] Exactly. Real life is a little too much.

HH: Right.

CP: What is it about the personal monologue as a format that you gravitated toward? Or what is it about it that you enjoy?

HH: I think it's just a format I didn't necessarily think, "Oh, I'm going to do a solo show." But I was writing and I thought, Oh, this is really a solo piece. And I have done group pieces since then, but I'm really interested in autobiography—in how we perform our life stories. And I'm interested in how—going back to the truth question—I am interested in what really happened, but I'm also interested in what we make of that. So I spend a lot of time listening to and seeing and reading autobiographies in various forms, from memoirs to performances.

CP: Last night I re-read your 1998 statement about the U.S. Supreme Court "decency" ruling, and, speaking personally, it's a little frightening how so much of what you said still applies today. I mean, outside the continued budgetary cuts to the NEA, during the recent Hide/Seek situation at the National Portrait Gallery, I went back to news reports and judicial speeches from the late 1980s and early 1990s, and its alarming how exactly similar the rhetoric was to the most recent discussions—20 years on, the same fear of sexuality persists. And, you know, we sometimes like to think the culture wars were part of a different era, but obviously they're not. As somebody who was forced to go through that at that time, in your opinion, what has and hasn't changed for artists working in America today, be that politically, financially, culturally, whatever?

HH: Well, I think things have gotten a lot worse for artists in the last 25 years in this country. I mean, the NEA was never as generous, per capita-wise as, say, the Arts Council of Canada. But it did really a lot to help build community-based arts groups, to support artists at all stages in their careers, but especially when they were just starting out pretty early on. And now there's very little funding for the NEA. And there's very little funding for individual artists. So that's a huge hole.

And I think without much discussion, box office drives performance and theater even more than it did 20 years ago or even 10 or 15 years ago. And I think it feels maybe people feel that have to be more commercially minded or maybe it's a generational thing. I think it's economically and politically driven, that it's about money and the box office. And I think that's really had a big effect on experimental work, work that serves lots of stigmatized groups, and lots of art making outside of big urban places in particular. So those are all really hard things.

I mean, I think in some ways it's easier. Obviously, saying that you're a lesbian doesn't have the same shock value as it did 20 years ago, but as you pointed out, they go after same targets. And there's a longer history of the religious right in this country in going after stuff around sex. We're just really uncomfortable about sex. And race makes us uncomfortable as well.

So I don't know. There's great people out there—Erin and Joseph are two incredible performers. There's lots of young whippersnappers. But I think it's harder and it's harder to—I don't people can even consider that world that I was part of, the not-for-profit art scene, I think is pretty much seen as not viable. I think people want to waste as little time there as possible.

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