March 1997

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Up close and personal

A new monologue from one of the 'NEA Four'

[Holly Hughes] Remember Holly Huges? In 1990, along with three other artists, Hughes became something of a political martyr when she was denied funding by the National Endowment for the Arts. After recommending Hughes, whose work explores lesbian sexuality, for a grant, the NEA caved to political pressure and reversed its decision on the grounds that Hughes's work was too "controversial." Supporting the radical artistic underground is hardly a common practice of the federal government, but the high ludicrousness of the situation was demonstrated by former NEA chairman John Frohnmeyer's infamous quote: "Holly Hughes is a lesbian. Her work is heavily of that genre."

Seven years and one successful out-of-court settlement later, the NEA has been sadly reduced to, as Hughes puts it, "two temps and a fax machine," and Hughes's work remains "heavily of that genre." Quite simply, Hughes is a storyteller. She uses the stage as a confessional, confiding her secrets to the audience in poignant, beautifully crafted monologues. In her first piece produced since the fiasco, Hughes has transformed her tumultuous experience of being a cause célèbre into the intensely personal and aptly titled Clit Notes -- which also delves into her father's recent death from cancer, her grueling years as a waitress, and her passion for her lover. Perishable Theatre will present Clit Notes at the Rhode Island School of Design auditorium April 3 and 5. One in Ten recently spoke with Hughes.

Q: I realize it's been a long time since the NEA entanglement, but how has that experience affected your life and your work since 1990?

A: Well, the immediate experience was difficult on a number of levels, one being that it was totally distracting my energy from being an artist. But it was also terrifying because I received death threats, hate mail. And it's been very disturbing in that it's what I'm most known for. It frames the way people see my work, and it's become hard for people to see my work apart from that. It's frustrating on a personal level.

Q: Do you feel like the publicity spawned by the event has been misleading -- that people come to your shows expecting to see something shocking?

A: I think that the people who were coming to see a freak show generally don't come to see my work anymore. That was an immediate effect, but, yes, I do think it's difficult for people to see the work apart from the way it's been publicized.

Q: Many of your pieces are very personal and involve your relationship with your family and their inability to accept your lesbianism. Do you feel like you've reached some sort of resolution with them through your work?

A: To a certain extent, yes. Both of my parents are dead, but I think one of the things I'm very aware of is how those early relationships shape the way you live the rest of your life and how difficult it is to break patterns that you establish early on. You're sitting there talking to your girlfriend, and suddenly you realize you've become your mother, or you look at your girlfriend and she's become your mother. I'm very aware of the larger issues of family and who your family is. Is it determined just biologically? If not, how is it determined?

Q: Have you created a family of your own, apart from your biological one?

A: Yes, to some extent I have. And I think living in a large urban environment, as an artist and a gay person, there's a whole chosen family that you have. At the same time things are shifting in that world as more and more people are having . . . I hate to say conventional families, but they are having children. Your friends have children, and that completely changes your relationship with them. That seems obvious. But it wasn't something I dealt with when I first moved to New York. Very few people I knew had children. How this network of chosen families is going to be impacted by these new kind of families remains to be seen.

Q: Do you feel that the gay community in general is beginning to adopt more traditional values?

A: No. And I don't want to come off like I'm against [having children]. I think it's a very individual decision, like the whole issue of gay people getting married. It's another step out of the closet and out of the margins. It's saying "We want to be able to participate in these rituals and experiences other people take for granted." I think that there are a lot of gay people who really want to have kids, who want that experience. I'm not one of them.

-- Jessica Hundley

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