Erin Markey discusses familial relationships, making "stuff for stage and video," and dating chaperones.
I sat down with Erin Markey at Van Leeuwen, a cafe-cum-ice cream shop in Greenpoint this winter. I had first seen her live show on the day of the Gay Pride Parade, an event about which I'd had my trepidations, after seeing banners hanging from lamp posts in lower Manhattan advertising its Pepsi-sponsorship. So I headed to Everybooty, an alternative event at DeKalb Market—a temporary space in downtown Brooklyn composed mostly of old shipping containers.
The June sun beat down and my Linda Rondstadt-esque floral prom dress stuck to my body. By the time Erin Markey came onstage, following a lamé-clad pair of Dolly Parton impersonators, enough beer had circulated the crowd for a feeling of jubilance to hang in the air. Markey wore green suspenders and lace-up boots, her long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. She flashed a wide smile at the crowd and started by singing a song about Skyping with her mother and father—”Let Me Go to Fullscreen.” As soon as she finished (to great applause) she went on to perform her second musical number, “Secret Puddles” in the drag persona of Timmy.
Timmy—Markey in a fire red wig and mud smeared face—introduced himself timidly as Markey's fundraiser, eliciting laughs from the audience. She sang shyly while holding a baby doll: “I have a doll named Secret. Secret is his name. Secret's just a baby. And a baby's not a game. I know because I was one, and a tiny one at that. My mom and dad they left me, in a shabby London flat.”
From the minute Timmy begins singing I am laughing. Absurd!, I am thinking. Absurd! I sense an incommensurability between the stage tune and melody of Markey's song and the dark content of the lyrics. The feelings that Timmy expresses do not line up with the circumstances he describes and the proximity of Timmy's tragic ballad to "Let me Go to Fullscreen" reveals a hilarious ambivalence about family. Even in this short performance, Markey has me thinking about family as fallible, wonderful, deeply political and entirely unresolved.
I have to talk to this person, I thought. My conversation with Markey, six months later, ambled from family politics to astrological signs (she's a Leo) and artist statements to Catholicism. I wanted to discuss Erin's particular breed of humor and, enjoyably, that humor seeped into every area of our discussion.
Katherine Cooper I feel like misquoting people is really yucky.
Erin Markey It is. Having been misquoted many times.
EM Some dude in Philadelphia from their gay paper just interviewed me and Dan Fishback and Max Steele for a reading we were doing and misquoted me like three times—about comedy actually.
EM He asked me to describe my work and you know it’s always a hard time for anyone—
EM I said that my comedy was absurdist and sometimes dark and he wrote that it was “obscure and sometimes dark,” as if I had said that—
EM It was really not doing me any favors but luckily it was just a small paper. And then he misspelled my name like four different ways, four different times.
KC Oh no.
EM It’s like he started to write my last name and then sat on the key board and then finished my last name.
KC Were there like twelve Es?
EM No. It was like, “Mark-a-diddly-diddly-dee.” (laughter)
KC Oh man.
EM But it was fine cause it’s hard to get hits on that article if the people that were featured in it don’t post it on their social networking sites . . .
KC Oh yeah . . . (laughter)
EM You live you learn.
KC It’s a brutal world sir. And you’re in it.
EM I know.
KC So what was the project that you were working on with them?
EM I read from a new piece that me and Kenny Mellman are in the process of working on that is loosely about psoriasis and Ellen DeGeneres. But not Ellen DeGeneres’ psoriasis cause I wouldn’t be able to confirm that she has it. My psoriasis and being accused of being Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche with my best friend in high school. Well that was a song—a sung-through-story. And then I just wrote another little tale about moving and trying to fit in and joining a church and doing laying of the hands and stuff like that.
KC What is laying of the hands?
EM Well, it’s actually really pervasive in all religions but the people that really go for it contemporarily are Bible Belt Christians. So everybody just puts their hands on you and starts chanting a bunch of shit and you’re in the middle of it. It feels amazing.
KC You’ve done it?
EM Oh yeah. I mean, it’s a reason to get saved over and over again. It definitely happens when you get saved. I have to remember to put that in the story.
KC So where did this start? What is your religious history with this?
EM I was raised Catholic and then when I was in high school I just randomly started becoming a Bible Belt Christian, A) because that’s where the first friends that I made were and B) because it felt like really impassioned, relatively speaking, to Catholicism. And then of course I gave that up in college pretty quickly.
KC Was there something about the emphasis on the body in that, which translated for you into your own work?
EM Oh yeah. Cause it was just such a different—I mean Catholic services are the same format every time you go. The only thing that’s different is the homily. I don’t know how familiar you are with Catholicism and mass—
KC My ex is a lapsed Catholic so—
EM —So you’ve been to Mass before?
KC I’ve been to Mass.
EM Ok. So it depends on how traditional the church is. I mean I actually love Catholicism in a lot of ways and don’t mind that much when I’m made to go on holidays—well just Christmas actually—with my family. But, when I went as a kid, it was just like us kneeling mumbling a bunch of shit in unison that I would have kind of half memorized. And then really just waiting to be let out and knowing that Communion meant there was only like ten minutes more. That was the math. But with the other church, the evangelical church, I barely even went to those services. I just went to youth group and I convinced my mother to pay for me to take a class called “dating by the book” meaning like—
KC And EM The Bible.
EM All about dating with chaperones and stuff like that. Really kinky.
KC Yeah. What are the rules of dating by the book?
EM Well all I remember is you don’t do any “heavy petting.” That was a word that was thrown around a lot, and that you always have a chaperone. I remember brainstorming about who I would take as my chaperone. I didn’t know who the boy would be but I was like, “My chaperone would be Cheryl.” (laughter)
KC Who’s Cheryl?
EM She was the youth group leader.
EM Who in retrospect . . . I feel like she totally could have been a lesbo. I feel like my mother was suspicious of that because Cheryl—I don’t even know if that was her name but it seems to fit the memory—she used to pick me up at my house and we would go and hang out and stuff like that.
KC Yeah, yeah.
EM It’s actually all fitting together, like, right now. (laughter)
KC Psychic breakthrough moment.
EM Yeah . . . cause I was her little, like, teacher’s pet—
KC Right, sure.
EM Even though I couldn't even visualize myself dating anybody . . . it was really just a love of rules. I really do like rules. I was very good at following them. Very good at working just inside the lines and pushing the edge a little bit, you know?
KC Yeah. I was looking at your website and you have that perfect attendance banner, right?
KC And it made me start wondering . . . It seems like that in the stuff I’ve encountered of yours, and in what you’re saying right now, there’s something about this good-girl archetype that you play with a lot for comic effect or for dramatic effect. So, what is in that that you find productive artistically?
EM Well it’s just what I was and am in a lot of ways, and it’s also that there’s no set of rules for what I’m doing now, career-wise. There’s no 4.0 way of doing it but I was very “straight A’s glasses-wearing.” I asked my mom when I was still feeling really Catholic, I was like, “I wanna go to Mass on Sundays and Saturday nights,” with my other friend’s family that went to the same church. And my mom was like, “But it’s the same Mass.” And I was like, “Doesn’t matter. We want to dress the same and we want to go to both Masses.” And both of our names were Erin.
EM My name still is Erin. So’s hers. But we don’t go to Mass together anymore. We both had the same Dockers—cause they made these pants and shirts outfits for girls and we both would have a couple sets of them, the same ones, cause we always wanted to coordinate and go to Mass together.
KC Awesome. Was that some of your first experience of performance?
EM I didn’t think of it that way, that’s for sure.
EM No. When I was a kid, my aunt was a nun (and still is) and she’s my godmother and we’re pretty tight.
KC What a rad situation.
EM She is awesome. the only tattoo I’ve ever wanted to get was one that just says “Aunt Jo” on it or “#auntjo” but that feels dated. (laughter)
She also was fucking awesome when I came out to her just recently, this summer.
EM The last person that I dated that she met was a man. I just date whoever’s a feminist, you know?
EM So I’m sure my family was just generally confused but, now I’m dating somebody’s who’s—not a woman or a man—but whatever. It’s technical. Not the conversation. But Aunt Jo met them and then I had to write Aunt Jo an email after saying, “Well that’s the person I’m dating.” And she was like, “Oh, well, as you probably may have guessed, a lot of the sisters are gay.” And I was like, “Shut up! You’re not supposed to say that!” (laughter)
KC Wow. So were they like, practicing lesbians? Or . .
EM I don’t think so. Cause I think for them it’s like, “Gay? Straight? Nobody fucks!”
KC Not on the table!
EM Yup. They’re like as long you’re not doing anything about it, you can call yourself whatever. Well I mean my aunt is like that, I don’t think everybody’s like that.
KC Yeah. I wonder what the Pope would say about that.
KC Hmmmm. It’s kind of an interesting thing to think about cause you know people are always talking about how much of your sexuality is internal vs. how much of it is your object choice—who you sleep with or what you sleep with or whatever—so it’s kind of an interesting niche to think about that where it’s like, Well, it’s just all going to be internal.
EM Well I just feel like anybody that wants to go into the clergy where it’s just so segregated by gender—without getting too complicated about what sex and gender is—like, that’s the gayest thing I’ve ever heard of. And I’m not even talking about having sex.
KC Yeah. So, it sounds like you have a pretty active relationship with your family to me. I mean your biological family—
EM Yeah. I mean not . . . I did. Growing up, we were really tight, and then after I came out to my parents there was a big lapse of time, which was actually really good in retrospect. I mean really painful but artistically—
KC —Was that on their part?
EM Nooo, I mean, yes . . . no, it wasn’t on their part. It was just me feeling really misunderstood and rejected and feeling like if they weren’t going to be 100% supportive, like they generally were about everything I chose growing up because I didn’t ever make choices that weren’t in line with whatever they would already be into. I mean when I sort of figured out that I was queer, I was just like, “Oh my god. Awesome. What a rad new world!” I didn’t expect that my parents were going to have the same feeling but I also wasn’t thinking about in terms of expectation. They don’t have the same feeling about queer stuff. I second guess my feelings when I’m around them. When it comes up or when I feel like a queerdo, I assume that they think there’s something wrong with me because of it or like I’m making mistakes, or that it’s like I’m being manipulated or something like that. But I actually am not fully sure how they feel about it. And so, after they found out, I didn't want to be around them and I was very dramatic and was going to disown them—I don’t know if anybody else knew that but in my head I thought about it. But now, you know, we’re pretty tight again—but having had the wonderful break of me being able to just develop artistically outside the bounds of me feeling as accountable to them. So now I’m doing this show and I’m realizing as I’m making it that there are fucking tons of stories about family stuff and I’m starting to feel weird about it. I’m like, “Is this something I would perform if they were in the audience?”
KC And what’s the answer? . . . Or what’s the anxiety about it, if you had to name it?
EM Well, I don’t think the show’s disrespectful. I think it’s just really honest. I think they would feel embarrassed . . . It’s not exactly dirty laundry, but just things that feel private are like, being made into a show (_laughter_) where tons of people are watching it. And if they came, people would probably be watching their reaction. My mom asked me when I booked this show before I started putting it together— she accidentally wrote me the email she meant to send to my father, and it said something like, “Erin just put this on Facebook,” and she quoted my status update which was like, (_funny voice_) “I have a show March 15th everybody come!” She was like, “Do you think that we should go or do you think we would feel embarrassed . . .”
EM Which was the saddest. Cause in my head I was like, “I don’t know . . .” I ended up telling her not to come cause I didn’t want to feel stressed out by them coming. But I did want them to come cause they’ve seen very little that I’ve done.
KC Really? Huh.
EM Yeah. They’ve seen a couple major things. But, I’m still in this period where family stories are the stuff I want to talk about . . . well not still but, I am, finally in this period. I’m sure I’ll move on to something else later but I'm in a parents moment for myself so I don’t know how to invite them into that necessarily.
KC Yeah. Family is such a complicated . . . it’s a pretty fraught word. For me at least . . . How would you define “family?”
EM Oh . . . It would just depend. I mean right now, I would probably have a different answer than I would like ten years ago.
KC I ask in part because of the Dardy family, you know, your work really seems to be in conversation with that idea.
EM Yeah, I feel like that is definitely my bent—most of the time. Having been majorly exposed to the the conversations that are happening for queer people all the time about chosen family and stuff—I do have a major relationship to that but not to the same extent that somebody whose family has rejected them would. You know? I am able to see that now as somebody who’s family is actually still really tight—my parents are married. We get along pretty well, generally. We spend, two or three times a year, we get together, like, as a family. And I know that . . . if something were to happen to a friendship or to a relationship where I wasn’t going to see that person anymore . . . I know that I have this source that I can always go back to actually. At this point everybody in my family has accepted the multitude of choices that I’ve made that have been contradictory to the values system that we were raised in. Something has transcended that where they still respect me and love me very much. But it’s been a long trial for me. I also have very familial relationships with the people I’m close with. There are a lot of people I’m close with. And every person I’ve ever been in a romantic relationship with is still one of my close friends. So I don’t know. I’m a Leo—I’m really loyal.
KC I hear you. I’m a Taurus. Double Taurus. Super loyal.
EM Shit! I’m a double Leo!
EM My brother’s a triple Taurus.
KC What?! Is he just a ball of earth rolling around?
EM Kind of, yeah. I feel like when I found that out about him, I was like, Oh . . . this is why. . . You’re not fiery. You’re not spacey. You’re not like cool water. You are just like this rock. This total rock.
KC Wow. What does he do?
EM He’s in Charleston, South Carolina. He does something business-y for a nonprofit fundraising software company. So he is often cold calling places that I perform in all the time in New York trying to sell them.
KC That’s funny. That’s really funny.
EM It is really funny.
KC It’s so funny in this digital era—That’s a connection that happens.
EM I know. I know.
KC It’s crazy. So, I wanted to ask you, cause you mentioned this in the panel at NYU and it seems like what you’re saying now gets into it. It seems like you have to do a lot of code-switching because you occupy a few different worlds, whether that’s an MTV audition, or family Christmas or making a YouTube video or performing in drag and I want to know how that feels and how you feel you are different in those situations.
EM Yeah, it’s funny. It’s funny to be making this show right now where I’m supposed to be Erin Markey the whole time because I feel like I work best when I’m in character. That’s when I’m most honest. So that’s not difficult for me to go back and forth between characters either, because you know different situations call for different folks. Not that that’s made so explicit in my life, in my practical life I mean. I do think we’re going through this time where identity is not as . . . people aren’t as interested in being one singular thing anymore. I just had trouble writing a bio recently because I was like, “I don’t want to be called a performance artist. I don’t wanna be called a comedian, I don’t want to be called an actor, or a singer or a cabaret artist,” because none of those things seem to really describe who I am. And I feel like if the wrong person sees the wrong word then it’s like a batch of ideas, especially with “performance artist,” that reads as just financially zero. I do feel like it’s money related. But it’s also like, now that everybody knows how to do everything, because everything’s so DIY, you don’t need people to specialize. On a basic level everybody can do things like film and video editing themselves. But even though I edit my own little movies, you know, I would never deign to call myself an editor. So, you just have to describe what you do really simply. And then it makes a whole new sort of thing—identities, I guess. I mean, Dan [Fishback] was really helpful to me when we were having this conversation. He kind of shaped my bio. The sentence we came up with with was, I can't remember exactly, something like, “Erin Markey makes stuff for stage and video that has music in it.” Which is the most truthful thing.
Katherine Cooper is a Brooklyn-based performer, writer, and director with an MA in Performance Studies from NYU. Recent work includes Healthcare (Farm Theater Company), Love in the Seventh Kingdom of Wrath (FRANK Theater), and W.H. Salome (Dixon Place).