Talking with Deb Margolin
Deb Margolin is a playwright, performance artist, founding member of the Split Britches theater company, Obie Award winner, professor and mother. I had the opportunity to speak with her after a preview performance of her play Three Seconds in the Key, which is based on her experiences with Hodgkin’s disease.
I was doing some research online and found an article that discussed you feminism versus post-feminism in which you were featured prominently. Do you feel that there is time and room for post-feminism?
No, theres no time and room for post-feminism. Its an ongoing struggle. I think post-feminism is a word that has been used to move the whole struggle out of the way. And it cant be moved out of the way or well lose what we have. I teach young people – I teach at a university and its very interesting how conflicted some women are about describing themselves as feminists. Theres a stigma attached to it or whatever. Its very simple: if you are a woman who respects herself you are a feminist. Its very simple.
So why has it become a swear word?
Well, its out.
Meaning its no longer fashionable?
Its no longer fashionable. Its like Orthotics. Nobody wants them but you gotta wear them if you want to stand up straight.
Feminism is important now, especially now with this recidivist, right wing fundamentalist Christian movement that is working very hard and has a lot of money with which to take away basic rights, not just for women but for humanity- civil rights. So, I dont think there is room for post-feminism. Its an ongoing struggle and investigation for how to maintain human rights which is why I have no regard for post-feminists. Ive struggled with the word post- modern but Im sort of done with that now. Ive accepted post-modernism – that took me twenty years- so now were deconstructing things or something. I dont know.
I think we might actually be post-post-modern now.
Oh are we really? Stop it. Well, thank you Im so glad we had this little chat.
So let me ask you, politically speaking, how much danger do you think people like you and I are in? And when I say danger I dont mean are the subways going to be blown up
Well, I am absolutely horrified by the current administration. I am raising children and I have to face them. I remember the day after the World Trade Towers were attacked I tried to deal with that in a forthright manner. Neither of the kids seemed to want to talk about it. The next day driving them to school I broke down sobbing – just sobbing. I had no idea that was going to happen in front of the elementary school. And I turned around to these children and I heard myself say, “I am terribly sorry, I am so sorry to have brought you into a world like this.” And my son said, Mommy its the only world there is.
He was 8. He was very helpful. I m scared.
I am really scared – and this guy has got to go. George Bush has got to go. I am very clear, very focused. HE HAS TO GO. I remember Carol Moseley Braun during one of the debates saying, another four years with this man and this country will be unrecognizable.” I am absolutely convinced thats true. I feel greatly in danger. I feel the world is in danger, that he has destabilized the world. I think he thinks Jesus is speaking through him and that the Apocalypse is coming and that anything he does is justified by Jesus. I think he is a right wing religious fundamentalist, a Jihadist basically, which is what he claims hes fighting, and he is that and doesnt that make a painful kind of sense.
I dont know how you feel about this, but personally I feel like there should be some sort of WWF match between George Bush and pick your favorite Arab leader.
Thats right! And go at it. Id love to see that. Ive had that thought many times.
What is it about words being spoken on stage versus putting things down on paper and just letting them go.
Youre touching a real exciting subject for me. Of course, its the word made flesh. There is nothing so exciting as language and body. I love language and it is nice to write but when you step into these words with your body its just explosive. The theater is a communal art form so everyone can see you dressed in these words. Its not just that you describe them and send them off anonymously, but its a communal exhibition of your relationship with this very vital precious human gift of language. Im working on this novel called Index to Idioms in which the protagonist’s son has come home with a list of idioms from his English class. His teacher says “You cant be comfortable in a language unless you know its idioms,” and the mother sees this list of idioms like kick the bucket, bite the bullet, bite the dust – they just seem like birthmarks on the surface of the language. And shes laughing and she looks at it and she decides shes going to write the story of her life and each chapter is going to be headed up by one of these idioms. She feels kind of invisible and her role is only as a mother sp she decides shes going to use these idioms to tell the story of her life, to provide an exegesis of the moments of her life.
So I’m writing these idioms, I was writing happily, when Ellie Covan from Dixon Place called to ask me if I would perform something and I said, “Okay” and hung up. I didn’t know what to perform. Then I thought, “I’ll just take some of these idioms at least they’re written.” They were literary and they were this high-minded language, they weren’t written for performance and I hadn’t envisioned them that way. So, when I actually stood up and performed them, when my illiterate body met this literate text, it was just the sexiest hottest thing. It was just explosive. Of course I can perform this piece. Now it’s a perfomance novel.
How different is it for you when you write for yourself versus when you write for others? I know that you were originally in Three Seconds in the Key. (at PS122) Why did you choose to not be in it now?
Oh, well, I dont know. I think theres this sense that when you both write and perform that there is a performance art element. I think people wanted to dignify me by showing me that I was a playwright. Part of me already knows that, but there was a desire to “separate church and state” in the sense that these are my words and someone else can say them. There is the beauty of knowing that just because you wrote this and intended to do it yourself doesnt mean that it is not a work of literature; that it endures beyond your limited physical efforts. There is beauty in that, but it does sometimes feel really challenging not to be onstage. But it’s also nice to think of this as a book, to think of somebody else doing this.
I wrote a performance play called Critical Mass which was at PS 122 and these people just did it in Michigan or Nebraska or something, in this little town and they sent me pictures and it got a great review in the Nebraska Gazette or something and I was delighted. Im glad that my work goes on. Every playwright wants their work to endure beyond their own little corner. If I have said something that is enduring, that goes beyond me and my body, thats great. Its just hard because this particular play is about my body and it is hard to let go of it. But its beautiful also.
But when you wrote it you realized that there would be people who would relate to your strife?
Absolutely. I felt like I was talking about something that was painfully universal in terms of the degradation of the body . And I wanted to address that. Thats one of the reasons I admire Tony Kushner so much is the way he has eroticized the ailing body. One of the things this play is about is the desexualization of the sick person and the anguish of this woman to go back into her body and here this unbelievably sexy guy walks into her living room and how embarrassing to be seen in that state by this man. I love how in Angels in America these people who are dying of AIDS are just on fire. Theyre still sexy theyre still in love. I wanted to look at the anguish of that. The anguish of the ailing body, the living in exile from the body and the pain of that, and how that is universal. All of that is universal – the struggle against illness- the struggle for wholeness.
Dovetailing off of that, there are three themes I would like to bring up : theres motherhood, sexuality, and theres the race issue. When you sat down did you ever wonder if you were going to be able to tie those things together or did they just spill out?
I was sick and I promised my son I would make theater out of this time in our lives and everyday hed come home from school, Mom, did you write the play yet? Have you written the basketball play? One day I did. And Im in the middle of writing this play and this man comes on the TV and I would listen to how he talked and I wrote down what he said and then one day I realized, “I have set up a situation where theres a black person and a Jewish person” and I have always wanted to investigate what I feel to be the fake-o man-made gulf between blacks and Jews.
Blacks and Jews are like this [gestures] on some deep level. They have the same sense of humor, theyve marched for justice, they have been disenfranchised and they have been slaves. Blacks and Jews are painfully close and I think the whole gulf between them was created by those who like to divide and conquer. If you just get everybody disenfranchised to kill each other then we can take the money and run. And I really want to look at that because Ive been very hurt by that and so I thought, “Well, here Ive set this up, I have to deal with it. I have to take advantage of this dramatic situation.” And I tried to do that. I thought it was very humorous to have her try to teach him Yiddish, that really slays me. Then finally part of the healing is for them to have it out on every level and thats one of the levels they have it out on.
This is not often addressed, its so politically shaky. You dont hear Why dont you take care of your kids? Why do you walk out on your kids? Why do all the Jews control the movies? Why do I have to kiss a Jew’s ass every time I want to make a movie? Well I had to listen to Get Mo from the Ho on the subway.” ” If all women are Ho’s why don t you just stay home and masturbate?
I really wanted to say the scary things. In the first incarnation of the show he said all the dangerous things and she just said some funny things because I was afraid of the racism, but this time I went for it and it feels right. There have been people who said they wished that went on longer and it certainly could. Its just a long enough play as it is. But that was an investigation I truly wanted to look at.
So do you believe that the personal is political?
That is the very heart of the feminist movement. This was something that the men didnt get. I just taught a course in feminist theater, and that was part of the process of educating myself about feminist theater. Although I was a part of that movement, it doesnt mean I knew anything about it in a larger sense – and I certainly did not.
So when I taught the class I did a lot of reading, I brought a lot of brilliant guest artists in to talk to us about feminist theater. “The personal is political” is the original impulse for what feminist theater was and is. It is the fact that the personal is political and that is definitely a part of what this play is all about.
I always tell my female students we steal the stage. No one gives us the stage. We steal it like Prometheus stole fire.
It is a radical act for a woman to talk about her experiences as a mother on stage – to arrogate to herself the right to speak of these experiences as if they had resonance and artistic viability, that is a radical act.
I consider this a radical play and I consider every time a woman stands up and speaks of her experience in this intimate way a radical act. And nothing has changed. In fact my commitment to that has only deepened! And so thats what I teach, thats what I believe. Thats what I do.
When is solo performance effective and when is it self indulgent?
Self-indulgence… Im very careful about that word because I feel like thats a word we can use to shut ourselves down. Thats the word that the inner critic uses. Sentimental thats another one, see there is no art without sentiment. As soon as you can drop down and reveal something about your own humanity, the minute you reveal something truthful about your own humanity, you shed light on the entire spectrum of human experience. Thats why we go to the theater for the revelation, thats why I go. I go to stare at people!
You cant do it in the subway you cant do it on a bus. You go to the theater, you pay your money and you just stare at these people. Thats what you do and no one is going to arrest you. Its very exciting. The more specific you are with your character the more generally we see the whole human condition. And so I feel the only way to get at that could be labeled, in advance of finding the jewel of revelation, self indulgent.
I dont worry about self indulgence. I dont worry that my work is self indulgent. I feel the need to step up and take responsibility for how my work signifies politically and I feel the need to be responsible for a passionate and articulate desire to speak. Those are my responsibilities. I dont say anything that Im not dying to say onstage. I say the things that I cannot die without having spoken about. And you know, thats going to reveal something weird about my humanity and in so doing it will reveal something about the entire human condition. I trust that chain of events the way I trust Im wearing this jacket. I know that to be true I know very few things and thats one of them. So I live my artistic life by that principle. Im not afraid of self indulgence as long as I am passionate to speak. I know that I will be revealing something important about humanity through my own humanity. Once you find your passion for speech, and your prerogative to speak, you are unstoppable.
How much do you trust words?
Well, what an elegant question. Of course language fails and thats its grandeur. Language is like a jetty that leads out and then stops. Lacan said, “to speak is to suffer.” And what he meant by that is that it goes this far and you see it fail. You see it fail. Its as close as you get to silence. The most articulate way- the most elegant, balletic, articulate way to point this out is through language. And the thing about theater is the way language fails. And thats why I celebrate language, one of the reasons I celebrate it so passionately. Its not just about whats said, its about whats under the text, its subtextual, Its metatexual. Its beautiful because its not just about what you say, its about your passionate desire to say it and its about what you dont say as well and thats why the theater redeems. Poetry does that too. Poetry isnt just the language – its the silence and the texture of the silence that aggregates around the language.
Thats the beauty of poetry and theater – they have so much in common. Because they have silence around them and they sculpt meaning through silence. Language of course fails. Im completely in love with language. How else are you going to scream for help? Its the clearest way I know, and always was. It was always the weapon of the powerless, language, and humor. I love to find just the right word and so does my character.
Deb Margolin’s Three Seconds in the Key will be playing at Baruch College through May 8th. She will be performing from her performance novel Index to Idioms at Dixon place Wednesday May 19th, 26th, and June 2nd at 7:30 pm.