“I think it would be a great time for men, basically, to go on vacation. There isn’t enough work for everybody. Certainly in the arts, in all genres, I think that men should step away. I think men should stop writing books. I think men should stop making movies or television. Say, for 50 to 100 years.” – Eileen Myles in an interview with the New York Times, Jan. 2016


Paraphrasing Myles’s declaration in an interview with The Michigan Daily, Theatre and Drama Prof. Holly Hughes echoed and elaborated on this sentiment, one inspired by her career as a gay and women’s rights performance artist at Women’s One World Cafe Theater. Published this past November, Hughes’s book “Memories of the Revolution: The First Ten Years of WOW Cafe Theater,” anthologized the monologues, performances and plays presented by WOW Cafe during her time there.

“One of the jokes we used to tell was that we were all feminists who were kicked out of other feminist groups for having the wrong haircut,” Hughes said.

A hidden gem of the feminist and gay rights movements in the ’80s, WOW Cafe, presented experimental theater written and performed by members at a small theater in the East Village of New York City. Consisting of a room, twenty seats and no backstage, the participants, passionate about their material, would dedicate days and nights to maintaining the theater and practicing performances. Trivial tasks like taking out the garbage and putting away props didn’t go unnoticed, for it was a cooperative and needed all the help it could get to survive.

From performances titled “Paradykes Lost” to “Fear of Laughing on the Lower East Side,” no subject was considered taboo and with twenty seats, it wasn’t hard to sell out a show. This “uncooperative cooperative,” as they called themselves, although edgy and ahead of its time, made little impact on the feminist and gay scene in New York City while it existed. 

“It was so freeing … a lot of the performers there were in the process of coming out even though there were always heterosexual women,” Hughes said. “You just had to be fine hanging around a bunch of dykes. You had an audience that was dealing with issues that existed nowhere else. It doesn’t mean that everything we did was loved, but not everything we did flopped. It’s different to perform in front of an audience that wants you to get better than with an audience that is completely clueless and doesn’t care.”

The freedom and liberty associated with incorporating unspeakable topics into performances is one of the principle aspects that attracted Hughes to WOW. Leaving behind her waitressing job in Kalamazoo after college graduation, Hughes headed out to New York City, an unfamiliar land, to pursue an education as a painter at the recently created New York Feminist Art Institute.

“I had an early onset fear of missing out thirty years before that term was invented,” she said. “Realizing all these exciting social changes are happening, art is happening, I needed to leave.”

Though this institute didn’t last long as an innovative form of art education, but it did expose Hughes to the stories she wished to tell as a woman and the experiences that shaped her. Coming across a flyer that proclaimed “XX Christmas Party for Woman,” Hughes found her entrance into WOW Cafe, a world of provocation and eccentricity that would consume her life for the next ten years.

From members such as poet Eileen Myles to recent Tony Award winner Lisa Krone, WOW sent off into the world confident women set on achieving their goals. Despite the mainstream success of some of its members, little attention is granted in general to the importance of this early onset experimental theater organization. Feminism, in a modern sense, is promoted by celebrities and comedians, people with major influence over the public opinion. It is publicized and brought to the forefront of the media’s attention.

Hughes described WOW Cafe as a “zeitgeist that made people like Shonda Rhimes and Tina Fey possible.” The movement that began in a small theater thirty five years ago has, without anyone noticing, catapulted forward the feminist movement.

But in the ’80s, despite their “cheekiness and give-no-fucks attitude” the material WOW presented was rooted in vulnerability. Pouring their hearts, souls and struggles into their performances, the women at WOW needed the “colossal indifference” garnered from the East Village. It allowed them to experiment, break taboos and move mountains all in the comfort of the East Village box that had become their home.

Hughes, on the other hand, achieved mainstream attention in a drastically different way from other members. Involved in a case against the National Endowment for the Arb, NEA vs. Finley, Hughes spent three years of her life fighting appeal after appeal until reaching the Supreme Court. The case centered around a NEA veto of grants for her, two other homosexual artists and a woman of color in abidance with a law passed in 1985 requiring the NEA to consider “general standards of decency and respect” along with artistic merit in awarding funds.

“The history of art is the history of provocation and they [Congress] didn’t embrace it,” Hughes said. “They either ran away, didn’t do anything or aided and abetted it.”

Had the work she presented for funding been reviewed or even looked at by those vetoing it? No, but because she identifies as a lesbian, her work was considered homoerotic and immediately dismissed, Hughes said. In the end, the four were granted their funding, but the law withholding funding remained along, Hughes said, with the label that “Holly Hughes is a lesbian and her art is highly of that genre.” A label that, if anything, represents the ignorance and intolerance of the ’90s.

Resulting from her time at WOW Cafe, Hughes has a unique perception on the world of women struggling with their identity. Having witnessed the obstacles faced by her peers, Hughes wishes to impart the same sense of empowerment she received at WOW Cafe onto her female students and provide a similar stimulating environment.

“It’s my privilege and honor to be a teacher here and help foster their art, but I still see in my class so many of my young female students don’t have the same belief and confidence in their work as my white, cisgender male students,” she said.

It is this difference in confidence that Hughes strives to change in her students. Though she has made valiant efforts, it must be realized that the fundamental treatment of men versus women, especially in the art world, is a societal problem. Confidence cannot be fixed by a single teacher alone, but if, say, men spent about 50 years separated from the art scene, we might stand a chance. 

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