In Fall 2012, just as the sun was walking off the job, sentencing those of us in the Upper Midwest to long months of ice and gloom, I got a most welcome invitation. The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS), at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, offered me a spot in their upcoming series “Performing Queeries.” Each evening would focus on the contributions of a different queer artist to performance and theatre. The shape of the evening was up to me; anything could happen, as long as I didn’t burn the place down.

All I had to say was what I wanted.


The lack of pre-set structure was deliciously queer and it was fitting that the question of desire took center stage for an evening of this kind. If I were to name a thread that connected my work over the past 30 years, it would be this: trying to ask and answer the question of what I want. I had asked the question in different registers, from the comic to the poetic. I had asked in my own voice, and I had dreamt up other characters who put their own spin on the question. It was a question I hadn’t fully answered; I’ve noticed so many of my pieces end in a question. Perhaps I meant to suggest that “want” and “conclusion” exist in opposition, or perhaps I took the old show-biz adage “Leave‘em wanting more” as literal dramaturgical guidance. But this event seemed to require more than a restating of the question. I felt I owed the institution that was honoring me a response, not still another iteration of the question. Somehow, in trying to answer the question of what I wanted, that one evening drew me back, set me gazing across the expanse of many evenings, trying to answer the questions I had posed on many other occasions.


For example, my first play, The Well of Horniness. I could remember clearly what I hoped the play would do on the most basic level. I hoped it would help me get in with the notorious thespian girl gang at the WOW Café. I was not certain I could act, but I was certain that I could make people laugh. And I wanted to get the attention of a certain dark-eyed butch-ling. I also wanted to take a poke at the anti-porn feminism I had once embraced. The play fulfilled all three desires, and performed particularly well with regard to the third. Long before I was denounced by the likes of Senator Jesse Helms, I was getting an earful about the title of this play. I enjoyed being read the riot act by people I mostly agreed with; it was familiar to me, this role, as I was already practiced in the art of being the bad child. Women, I was told, did not get “horny,” and didn’t I know that was a phallic reference? But when I asked what it is that women “got,” what is the word for our desires that doesn’t betray our commitment to feminism, I got no answer. A vast tundra of silence opened. The play is not really an answer either, but it makes a sound, it breaks the silence with laughter, it attempts to place a mark on the landscape of lesbian desire, a landscape that seemed to lack any other landmark, except for Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. I had not read Hall’s 1928 book when I wrote my play. My crude title, a title that keeps repeating throughout the play, is voiced by the entire cast, who are directed to always deliver the line in a full-throated scream. But I didn’t feel I needed to read the book. I felt like I was familiar with loneliness, with darkness.


The question I hoped to answer at CLAGS was about the longevity of the play. Thirty years after its first production in an East Village storefront, it has remained my most popular work. As far as I know, it has received multiple productions every year since. Few of the productions are licensed but who cares at this point? Sometimes the play is done to acclaim; it has also been censored. It has been produced by queer companies and by college students. This play is no longer doing what it did 30 years ago. It’s not possible. Anti-porn feminists are mostly in retreat, though they linger in the popular imagination as a caricature of feminism as a whole. Women’s sexual desire is no longer a point of debate; I have grown accustomed to hearing young women regale me with stories of receiving their first vibrator as a present from their parents. There are many incredible queer women writing for the theatre; while their scripts are infrequently produced, they are more frequently published. So why do people still want to do this play?


I told the kind people at CLAGS I wanted to restage The Well with a group of my students from the University of Michigan and to have a freewheeling conversation afterwards. Months later, on a brisk Tuesday night in May, I found myself backstage at CLAGS, watching as the crème de la crème of queer theatre snapped up all the seats in the house, wondering what the crowd would make of this restaging, and painfully aware that remounting the production had not answered any of my questions; it had only generated a new set. An example: For years, I had argued with producers who wanted to have men perform all the parts in the play. Even when the producers were feminists or lesbians, the idea of casting a man as a lesbian was unimaginable. I had nothing against drag; in fact, it was my inspiration for the campy tone, but there seemed to be a wealth of great material for men, including drag roles. From Charles Ludlam to William Shakespeare, it seemed as though one of the purposes of Western theatre was to give men permission to play women. Where were the opportunities for women to run around in bad wigs and phony accents? No men in The Well, I insisted.


Until now. The cast I brought to CLAGS was made up of every gender imaginable — male, female, and under construction. They all feigned sophistication; none of them looked old enough to drive. I flashed to my job interview at Michigan, which began with the chair of the art department get- ting in my face and asking — or was it accusing — that since I was a feminist, what would I do with men in the classroom? Now, I wanted to take a couple of pictures on my phone for him. “This is what I do to men in my classes. I get them out of Ann Arbor, stuff them in dresses, and make them perform lesbian sex in front of a bunch of frighteningly smart people.”


But what would I say to the assembled crowd? After this performance, there would be a talk- back with Jill Dolan and two of my former students, Joseph Keckler and Erin Markey, who had moved to the city and were getting noticed for their innovative work. The word “legacy” floated in the air. But my life still seemed to me, as I said in my recent solo show, The Dog and Pony Show, like a composition only in a very John Cage sense: determined entirely by chance and lacking anything resembling music. What about this: could I say to this crowd, I did stuff because I wanted to and mostly that worked for me, and then one thing lead to another thing, and here I am. Following what I desired mostly worked out okay for me. Might I add that this is harder than it looks, to let one thing lead to another, to live in a state of unknowing, no path ahead, the only light your own inchoate desire? For so many of us who are marginalized by race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability, desire must be kept on a short leash. Desire gets you in trouble. Either there’s no room for your desire or it threatens your survival. You sublimate; you’re taught un-wanting.


That changed when I stumbled into the WOW Café. In 1980, my friend, photographer Eva Weiss, saw signs that announced “Double X-Rated Xmas Party,” and we showed up at Club 57, a hotbed of avantgarde performance in the East Village, housed in the basement of a Catholic Church. I signed up for WOW that night; I felt as though I was enlisting. It was not a party, it was a world, and I wanted to go down that rabbit hole. Peggy Shaw ordered me to do a show. I had been a good student — I did what people told me to do — so this was familiar territory. And of course I didn’t feel like I could say no to a woman who looked so much like James Dean…who I suspected might be James Dean. While I’m sure that Elvis is good and dead, I think there’s a reasonable possibility that James Dean merely changed his name to Peggy Shaw.


I signed up for acting classes with Lois Weaver, even though I found it terrifying. But this began a long apprenticeship, my form of graduate school, and the latest chapter in my education. I marvel now at the dedication of Peggy and Lois, who could easily have plowed their energies into their own work, but made a choice to teach. Their choice was informed by their political commitments, and they developed a pedagogy that grew out of recognizing that desires of all sorts were inherently politically charged, that excavating desire was the first step in a feminist performance practice.


We began our work with who we were, not who we thought we should be. Few of us had much acting experience, which meant we were unaware of the theory of a “neutral” body. We were blissfully unencumbered by the idea that we needed to strip away the markers of class, race, sexuality, or ability and present ourselves as middle-class white heterosexuals before we were even allowed to begin. We assumed that we would create our own material — it was fine to act, people hoped to be cast in shows — but it was also assumed you would try, at least once, to create a show of your own. The starting place was what you wanted to see or who you wanted to be. Later, you’d grapple with the reality of seizing material from the trash. You should get as close to your dream as possible. Whining about lack of resources was not encouraged but was seen as evidence of a lack of imagination and work ethic.


If the first production of The Well of Horniness had been successful with two of my original goals — making a place for myself at WOW while simultaneously annoying other lesbians — it performed a little less well on the girlfriend front. I thought I was so clever to cast my love object and myself in it. Surely life would imitate art. But the play got away from me. My love object, Moe Angelos, played Rod, the loveable but clueless “male” lead, scion of a family of golfers and carpet salesman, and I was his fiancée. I was also a lesbian, and the entire dramatic action of the play is shaped by the tension between my desire for a normal life (and an accompanying fear of it), and the attraction I felt towards women but also towards a bohemian demi- monde where plot dissolved into wild adventures with sexy outlaws running amuck on the fringes of the known world. I spent a lot of time trying to get away from the character played by my real-life object of desire; in the end, we reconcile but it’s a defeat.


Before the production at CLAGS, I had not been involved with any productions of The Well for the past 20 or more years, productions that had occurred in a wide variety of places including Vermillion, South Dakota, and twice at the Orlando Fringe Festival. Well, okay, I had staged part of the play only a few years previous. At the Stamps School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan, professors coming up for promotion give a talk. And the talk happens in a big hall. When I say “big” I mean 1700 seats and when I say “hall” I mean a former vaudeville hall turned art house movie theatre. What possessed me to decide to stage one scene of the play, the most infamous scene, with the lesbian sex and wet T-shirt jokes, for one of the most important talks of my life? It’s not as if I felt my colleagues would be nonplussed or blasé; as the only out gay person in a department with 35 fulltime faculty, in the School of Art and Design no less, I’d had more than a taste of homophobic encounters.


What possessed me to pull a stunt like this? There were other less in-your-face pieces I could have presented. I had given up a life in New York City, where I felt part of several vital communities, a place where I had felt like I was in conversation with many voices, to return to a place where once again I was constantly out of order, too loud, too big, too something; I had done it for economic security. Now I was going to risk that to stage a very old play?


This is what I learned at that moment, and relearned with the production at CLAGS. The question of desire, of what I want, of being a body and presence that is visibly wanting, of voicing a wanting that might not be answered but that hoped to awaken a state of wanting in the audience it reached, is not only a theme; it’s inseparable from my creativity. Even in the midst of a campy presentation, there was, and remains, an assertion of something that feels like an authentic self, as trou- bling as that idea might remain. I am still the person who made this; I will be this person in this new and unfamiliar context of academia, where I don’t quite read the codes with any fluency. I wanted them to know who they were getting—my colleagues who would make the decision to hire me or not, and the students who might or might not sit in my classrooms.


I was afraid but I also had done my best work when I was afraid. I wanted to be that person. That person was not a person they’d frequently encountered in the academy, at least at a university in the Midwest, but a person that my students might see frequently if they struck out to be artists. I had to make myself incongruent if I was going to make legible my dissident self. I wanted the security of tenure; certainly, I hadn’t left a life I loved in New York for small change. But I also wanted to be the person who took risks, who pushed the promise of academic freedom as far as I could. I want to say to those 600 undergrads that art is about taking risks. (Postscript: The presentation was a hit. Some of my most conservative colleagues were enthused, and I was promoted, though baffled, and perhaps a wee bit disappointed.)


Now, from the safety of my perch as a full professor, remounting the play would allow me to try out a few things. Most immediately, I was tired of bemoaning the lack of a LGBT community. Here was a captive audience, also known as a class, of 18 people who had to do what I told them to do. Why not tell them to be lesbians for a semester? Perhaps I should relax my restrictions on gender as well? After all, when I wasn’t bellyaching about the lack of lesbians in Ann Arbor I was whining that “lesbian” was disappearing as an identity everywhere. Even as legal discriminations were falling away and Queer Studies was becoming institutionalized, the category of “lesbian” seemed to be going the way of the VHS. Could I afford to be so picky? Perhaps by casting students in this play, and getting them to embody lesbian desires con- fronted by campy renditions of actual discrimination, internalized shame, and the gravitational pull of heteronormativity, they’d learn more than if I droned on at them about this or that play.


I did not learn, exactly, how The Well works, from remounting it. I learned what I already knew: that the pleasures of hyperbolic comedy, the spectacles of camp, still held a certain novelty for women. My students were nonplussed by the sexual activity but they couldn’t wrap their minds around the protagonist’s conflict: If she wanted to be with women, not men, what was the big deal? Coming out was recognized as a challenge, but not a daunting one; it seemed to be on the scale of a bad hair day. That was good news, I suppose. The best news was what the play allowed some of the women to do onstage. A tall, feminine blonde latched on to the role of Rod and lapped it up. She’s the kind of per- former whose talent is checked by her shyness; she was big and loud and over the top as the blow-hard dude. Another talented student who’d discovered that Moth-style storytelling allowed her to perform without forcing her to conform to conventional standards of beauty dove into the biggest role in the show, that of the narrator, the male voice of authority who’d been performed by some great female voices, from Peggy Shaw to Deb Margolin to Jill Dolan. To see these women take up this kind of real estate, to explode male privilege with silly jokes, gave me the deepest pleasure.


Perhaps I had found a role for myself in the academy. I overheard a student describing what it was like to have me as a teacher and he — one of the most delightfully eccentric and adventurous students I’ve had — explained that I started classes by giving them a budget of $5 mil- lion and then asked them to come up with a proposal. He quickly added that they didn’t get the money, but they did get a green light. He said, “She really lets you do whatever you want to do.” A pause. “I didn’t know what it was I wanted to do, and I didn’t know why I was in art school. She was the first person who asked.” Part of what this man wanted to do was a photographic essay on transgender performers in Detroit, and he also shaved off part of his hair — a little oval that mimicked male-pattern baldness fringed by spikey blonde tufts. It was a stage, he said; he was working on a script he’d stage on the top of his head. “This is what I want to do.” And this is what I want to do, too, I decided, calling on my feminist mentors. I was very glad I seemed to have opened a door for this young artist, and I was very glad I had given him a chance to play a lesbian. I had started this journey hoping to get a few answers, but I had discovered that I was best at performing a set of questions. Onstage, in the classroom, or as a playwright echoing through a new production of an older play, I still hoped to leave them — whoever they might be — wanting.

Holly Hughes is Professor at University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art and Design, with appointments in Theatre and Drama and Women’s Studies. She is the outgoing Director of the BFA in Interarts Performance, which she co-created with Malcolm Tulip. She is a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow and a 2014–15 Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities. She has performed at numerous venues across North America, Great Britain, and Australia and has published three books, most recently Animal Acts: Performing Species Today, coedited with Una Chaudhuri (University of Michigan Press, 2014). She is coediting Memories of the Revolution: The First Ten Years of the WOW Café with Alina Troyano (Carmelita Tropicana) for the University of Michigan Press.