Interview: Terry Galloway
by Claire Ruud
Terry Galloway recently published Mean Little deaf Queer, a memoir of her life as, well, a mean little deaf queer. Galloway, the sometime Austin-based performance artist, is the founder of the Actual Lives Writing and Performance Workshop in Austin as well as The Mickee Faust Academy for the REALLY Dramatic Arts in Tallahassee. She is also a founding member of Esther’s Follies in Austin. Her solo performance Out All Night and Lost My Shoes is considered a foundational work in the history of disability performance. She now lives in Tallahassee with her partner Donna Marie Nudd and her cat Tweety, who was recently chased down by a rabid fox, but is now safe thanks to Galloway’s bravery and ingenuity. The morning after Merce Cunningham died, I had a chance to sit down and talk to Galloway over two cups of coffee and a distance of 1,000 miles (she was in Tallahassee, I in Austin).
…might be good: So I'm thinking about Merce Cunningham. It's weird to think of him gone. Pina Bausch, Michael Jackson—I think this is the first set of icons whom I’ve really looked up to who’ve died in my lifetime.
Terry Galloway: Well, I've had a couple. The first I remember were the usual ones—the Kennedys, Martin Luther King. But the one that struck me the most was Malcolm X.
…mbg: You must have been about 15.
TG: Yes, I read him when I was in a freshman in high school, and I thought he was like the Greek philosophers of old. I saw him change.
…mbg: You read him in High School in Killeen?!
TG: In Austin. My sister went to High School in Killeen. The family ranchetta is about 28 miles to the North East of Austin.
…mbg: I wanted to ask you about Austin in the 70s, in particular the arts scene in those days.
TG: Well, I don't think there was much original theater. I don’t remember seeing anything but UT productions and Zach Scott. But in some ways I was too self involved and wasn't paying attention.
…mbg: So then what was the impetus behind founding Esther's Follies?
TG: Boredom. We were all bored out of our skulls. Everyone was packing to leave, to go to where you go—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago too.
…mbg: It often feels like that’s still how Austin is. People are here for two to four years and then they're out.
TG: Exactly. The fiction of Austin still hasn’t quite settled.
…mbg: What do you mean?
TG: I think cities create a fiction about themselves, the romance or non-romance of the place. If you live in New York, London, or LA, you can say you’re an artist and everyone will take you at your word. That’s part of the fiction of those cities—and part of the reality of those cities as well. Just being in one of those cities gives you an instant kind of credibility, so you can be an artist for a long time and not have to create art. The credibility, of course, erodes over time, but the fiction gives you something to plug into, and it can buoy you, lifting you over the rough spots of trying to become an artist. You don’t have that cushion in cities that don’t have that fiction.
...mbg: That's a really powerful way to look at it—the idea that there's a "fiction" about every city, and that "being an artist" can "fit" or "not fit" into that fiction.
TG: I was afraid it simply sounded a bit nuts.
…mbg: But you stayed. Why?
TG: Well, I’m deaf. And that made me more cautious. What about you? You’re staying, too.
…mbg: Living and working in a city like Austin feels important to me. There are plenty of artists and writers in New York or L.A. But here in Austin, there is so little coverage of the arts. I think of …might be good as a place that can capture the conversations that go down over beers at the Longbranch. In public. For posterity.
TG: I like that, because that is what helps create the fiction of the city—those conversations, captured and kept.
…mbg: I am sometimes frustrated by how little record we have about what happened in Austin in the art scene even ten years ago. That’s why I want to know more about the early days of Esther’s Follies.
TG: Esther’s blew my top off. At that time, it was so in your face, so queer, so political, so social, so crude and sexual. A lot of people dismissed it: how could any of that really be art?
I remember that the East German Playwright Heiner Müller came to Austin, and he came to Esther’s, and he loved it! He gave it his stamp of approval. I loved him because he was a link to my life in Berlin and we just got each other. And for me, his approval reinforced my belief that what was happening at Esther’s was something more than just theater.
…mbg: More than just theater because it was queer and political?
TG: Yes, and because it pulled all these diverse people together downtown at midnight, and it was like this raucous mini-revolt going on, a revolt against the prevailing idea of Austin as an in-between city, the city you traveled through to get from Dallas to Houston.
…mbg: Who was coming? Who was in your audiences?
TG: Oh god, just about everyone. A lot of poets. A lot of pool players. Some politicos. (Ann Richards once auctioned off a date with me to benefit the Follies.) The whores next door at the massage parlor. The junkies. The drunks. The hippies.
…mbg: Wow, Ann Richards? So who was the highest bidder?
TG: I don't even remember who the highest bidder was. I do know that it was a she and that I was auctioned off in my Jake Ratchett, Short Detective persona. But the date never happened. Cold feet on her part I guess!
But it was wild. It was one long intellectual party. We used to stay up night after night talking about everything under the sun and trying to figure out how to translate it all for the stage.
…mbg: But eventually, you left Esther’s.
TG: Yep. And that was because—well, not to rehash all that passion, because it was a passionate and terrible break up. It started after we’d done an adaptation of a Bukowski short, and it was full of “fucks” of course. (At the time, fuck wasn’t used as cavalierly as it is now.) But a group of us loved the word, and loved how it was used.
We’d been asked to do a show out at Zilker and there was a huge debate about doing that Bukowski adaptation out there for the show, about censorship and so on and so on—you can imagine. A bunch of us, me included, simply didn’t want to be censored. Eventually, we agreed to put up disclaimers saying, “there is strong language, et cetera, in this production.”
The underlying debate was: do you stop? Or do you continue? Do you stop talking in a rush? Do you start being considered? Do you tailor your speech for your audience or do you take the risk of losing some of them because of the language you choose to use?
…mbg: Was it sustainable?
TG: Right. What was sustainable, and what was selling out. Do you know, we had turned down the possibility of an off Broadway production of the Follies?
TG: A young producer at Saturday Night Live flew down to Austin, saw one of our shows, and wanted to produce a show in New York, off Broadway. And we said no! And do you know why?
TG: Because she would only take some of us, not all of us. She would only take a handful of us, and we had maybe 25 people in the company at the time.
…mbg: Okay, so this story is making me think about failure. I have been talking to quite a few people about “choosing failure” lately. The artist Sheila Pepe was recently here in Austin doing a project at Fluent~Collaborative, and we had a long discussion about fully embracing failure versus just flirting with failure.
TG: I love this. I want examples.
…mbg: Sheila told a story about a [Lesbian] Separatist restaurant she worked in years ago. When a reporter called wanting to write a story on the restaurant, they hung up on him. That’s choosing failure wholeheartedly. Running a “separatist” restaurant and then welcoming the press, that would have been flirting with failure, according to this rubric. To me, it sounds like you guys chose failure with the off Broadway opportunity.
TG: Oh yes, and that's kind of a theme, I would say, in my own life. I just really love this concept. I would say in my case, I was successful for a little while, but now I could be regarded as a spectacular failure. I have no money and live in a very small southern town where I am unemployed and not really on the national radar.
I was a deaf kid who found theater through Winedale, then Winedale because amazingly popular. I hung on for years, until I did Mauser and then Esther's. Esther's . . . well, I got to be a little star of the city, and I made money (an actual, if skint living) at it. I went from that to busing tables, cleaning out toilets. I went to New York and did a solo show called Heart of a Dog. And it got filmed and won a Villager Award (an early, early off off Broadway award), and I got a great review in the Voice.
But I was looking for people, other people to be in it with me. I was lonely. I loved the communities of Esther's and Winedale. But no one but no one seemed to be making collective politically charged theater, at least no group that I knew of. Admittedly my resources were small, but the landscape felt empty, and I kept looking, maybe, for people who were not there.
Claire, this conversation is doing something to me that I can't quite describe. I am so taken by the notion of deliberately choosing failure. We’re talking about what I secretly believe to be the intention of my own art, such as it is. Thematically, it is almost all about choosing failure: both those solo pieces, Out All Night and Lost My Shoes and Lardo Weeping (or Why Five Bucks is Paradise) and also In the House of the Moles, which I've written and rewritten and written yet again.
…mbg: So why do you choose failure?
TG: Because there is dignity there. My favorite creation is Dinah LaFarge of Lardo Weeping. She is everything the world is supposed to despise—fat, intellectual, funny, crazed, a scold. I do it in a body suit that comes apart for a literal strip tease. She rips herself apart, and then puts the pieces back together again. She fails spectacularly and publically, and the humiliation is unbearable.
…mbg: For you?
TG: For her. And yeah, for me too. And for the audience, as well, or so I'm told. In that moment, failure becomes something else—a failure of recognition, a failure of the world to recognize values… ugh, I hate that word, can you give me a better?
…mbg: Maybe failure becomes self-possession.
TG: Oh yes, I love that: failure as a means of self-possession.
…mbg: She picks up the pieces, now they’re hers. No one else has any claim over or stake in her anymore.
TG: But she would still offer it, and that transforms her failure into something oddly celebratory.
…mbg: Terry, I've been wondering why you put the word "mean" in the title of your memoir. Does it have something to do with failure?
TG: Yes, happiness makes you sweet. Failure initially makes you mean.
…mbg: And then?
TG: Meanness can suggest a way out of itself; meanness can be a kind of action that can jolt you—if you are so primed—into self-awareness. You ever see that film Queen Margot?
…mbg: no, I haven't.
TG: In the film, the French Protestants and the Catholics hate each other, and in one scene the Protestants, or the Catholics, I can never remember which, go on a frenzy of killing, just going nuts with it. One of killers is covered in the blood of Catholics and screaming with the joy of letting go of it all. He and the guy he is out to kill are strangling each other, banging heads against the wall, biting, kicking; they want to kill. Then, I think, they are both knocked silly and something happens and the Catholic guy gets taken to safety.
Months pass, and then by some grace of something, they meet. The Protestant sees the Catholic he was so hell bent to kill and breaks down and weeps and weeps and weeps. Because it was this terrible thing in him, this savage terrible thing that he wanted beyond all reason, and then suddenly it was gone. He was left, and he wasn't that thing. To see that the object of his terror had lived, it was redemption, and what was left was sweet.
It sounds too simple when I tell it, but there was something in him that I recognized: the seething, furious other. So yeah, mean.
…mbg: I think I understand, but there's also some deep mutual forgiveness there. Otherwise, how can you get past the meanness?
TG: Yes, a kind of uneasy understanding, fear and forgiveness.
…mbg: Maybe it’s something about really knowing what’s inside you, knowing your whole self, and despite that, coping.
TG: Yes, and failure is part of that knowing—that is, if you can figure out what that word, failure, actually means.
Galloway will hold book reading and signings in Austin at BookPeople on Thursday, September 3 at 7pm and at BookWoman on Sunday, September 13 at 5pm.
Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good.