Deb Margolin is a writer, actor, and monologist who plays for keeps, comically, with language, with expectation, with the quotidian. Margolin makes a living riot out of the premise that anyone can get through the day in one piece. Her career in theater started with the irreverent Split Britches Co.
Lynne Tillman When you joined Split Britches, were you thinking of yourself as a writer or did you want writing to serve performance or… ?
Deb Margolin Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver were both in Spiderwoman Theater. Lois started working on a piece of her own called Split Britches and there was a writing crisis. Peggy and Lois were supposed to open in a week and didn’t have a script. They knew that I was a writer. They showed me some of the ideas they were working with and asked if I could write some connective material, some monologues and scenes. I went up to my friend Ginny’s house—she was the business manager for Spiderwoman—for a week, and I didn’t do anything, and Lois called, “Are you working on it?” and I said, “Oh yes.” That night a mosquito began to torment me at two o’clock in the morning. A persistent mosquito. I took a pad of paper, went into the bathroom, shut the door on the mosquito, and wrote a lot of material that actually ended up in the piece. I think my first performance in Split Britches was in 1981.
LT How did the Wow Café, where Split Britches performs, and many other women’s theater groups, develop?
DM Peggy and Lois organized and produced an international women’s festival about 1979, I think. When the festival ended, there was a need for some sort of lasting space to continue that energy and that’s how the first Wow Café got formed. It was a storefront on East 11th St. It was a tiny, tiny stage, five feet wide, a postage stamp sort of stage and the greatest shows began to go on there. Holly Hughes got started there, Reno got started there. Reno had a Friday night comedy show I used to go and see. Later Wow moved to East 4th Street, which is where it is now.
LT Basically your writing and performing developed together.
DM In terms of theater it was a simultaneous involvement. My love of language found a home in the theater and that was really a great moment for me. I had written things before but I really hadn’t entered the theater until I began writing for Split Britches and became integrated as a performer in the group. I had been working as a cleaning lady on bicycle, I worked for a greeting cards magazine…
LT You weren’t actually writing greeting cards?
DM No, I never got my hands on those Hallmark mechanicals.
LT In Split Britches’ Upwardly Mobile Home, each of you, Lois, Peggy, and you, had such distinctly different characters that while you were all in the same play, in a sense, you weren’t. It was as if you were sharing the space together: your characters were loosely connected. And yours was the most loosely connected. Suddenly, you appeared and did a monologue.
DM It was that freeze moment when I said, “I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking I can’t do my job. Well, I can do my job.”
LT Almost out of nowhere you launch into a maniacal, obsessed speech, which is, in a sense, your specialty.
DM We were playing a family—Peggy as the mother and Lois and I as the daughters, which is a preposterous notion. We look completely different. Lois is a little Southern belle with a turned-up nose and Peggy is a Bostonian of some stature and I’m a little Jewish girl from Westchester. I think there’s a political statement that comes with assuming that you are going to accept us as a family. Originally we didn’t see ourselves as a family. But somebody came up to us and said, “How interesting that you’re a family in this piece.” And I thought, it’s about redefining family and redefining relationships that way. I thought that we were asking the audience to move along with that assumption—it was very political and very liberating. That’s the kind of stuff to change the world, I think, weird as that is. That was part of the strength of the piece.
LT Most recently you’ve been doing solo pieces—your Hamlet, your show at PS 122, your Bonnie Josephs.
DM There’s an incredible beauty and freedom that comes with performing on your own. I can take an idea and push it as far as I wish to push it. When I work with Peggy and Lois, as far as my scripting work goes, I try to reach around ideas that aren’t just mine. We’ll have an image bank in the center of our work and it grows and grows and all those images go up in the air and I will catch them in the form of scenes, dialogue, monologue, whatever. They are bigger than I am and that’s a great pleasure because these ideas don’t just come from my heart but from a collective heart.
LT Why don’t you describe Bonnie Josephs or give its genesis for the reader who hasn’t seen it?
DM I called my answering machine one day and got this incredible message from a lawyer, this cold, nasal, dry, clipped, terse, bitter-sounding lawyer complaining about an insurance company check that had not been mailed when she, the lawyer, had in fact delivered by hand this insurance check to the lawyer who was supposed to have sent it. Maybe there were two people who are divorced, separated or something, and apparently the lawyer had received a note from one of them that the check had not been sent and how could that be and this kind of thing. Very indignant, very self-righteous, and she’s leaving this message on the wrong number! She clearly didn’t even listen to my machine. That kind of arrogance coupled with that kind of incompetence, it’s a sure bet for humor. Although I could see how somebody else would have just fast-forwarded the message.
LT But you took that material and worked with it. In performance, you said your friends thought you were crazy…
DM As a matter of fact, it was Reno. She said, “Come on, this just is not… what is it about this?” She said if you ever want to make it, you’re going to have to find ways of letting people into your material; this just doesn’t make any sense. She had a point. The point that she made did not make me question whether or not this was theatrically viable or whether it was interesting. I used her skepticism as a way into the material.
LT You lead the audience. You come out and announce that you’ve been obsessed by this message that’s been left on your telephone answering machine and the audience, and as a member I can say this, is dubious. What you proceed to do, like a kind of anthropologist of daily life, is take that message and break it down, going into both the sound of the message, the intonation and what that intonation might mean, the stress on the different syllables, as well as what the social implications of the message may be. You gather the audience to you. You allow it to understand why this obsesses you, and the final coup de grace is asking everyone to read the message out loud. To read the message along with you from placards that you’ve made. I was laughing so hard, there was no way I could have read it aloud.
DM I’ve seen people of such incredible stature, who have just ended up at the show for some reason, saying, “This is Bonnie Josephs…” It’s incredible for me personally, very moving to have people come into the world where I live as a mental and emotional human being. One of the reasons they’re laughing is my obsession with this material; the material itself is on one level and my obsession with the material is on another level. Then they find themselves becoming involved in the material and that culminates in their saying the material out loud with all the history of what it meant to me underneath that rendition. Suddenly they become involved in what they thought was ridiculous.
LT The piece allows you to reflect on how one lets things go in daily life, things that are really quite exceptional and weird. One simply absorbs stuff and moves on, in order to function. But functioning is always an issue in your work. In the Chelsea Coffee routine that you did at PS 122, you’re playing a dysfunctional waitress, who’s answering the phone to take out-going orders.
DM It’s one of three pieces that I call the vacuum cleaner triptych. The origin of those three pieces, which came together in one show, was that I had an overwhelming desire to stand in silence, on a stage, next to a vacuum cleaner. I did not know what that meant. It struck me as wildly funny and I pursued it. The first piece is a party scene where there is a vacuum cleaner on a pedestal with a bow tie on its nozzle and a beer/cocktail next to it. And it is my ex-lover. I’m greeting guests, “Oh Joe your pink-eye looks much better…” But I keep looking at this vacuum cleaner. And many images come out of that.
LT Just the word vacuum.
DM The image of something in a vacuum and this vacuum is my ex-lover. The vacuum asks me to dance and I tell it I’ll just check with my husband. My husband gives me a hard time, but just the same, I put on some Tommy Dorsey swing music, lift the vacuum and begin a fox trot with it. An absurd process, but the nozzle keeps going down my shirt and up my ass and finally I just have to call a halt.
LT Using the vacuum cleaner, the nozzle.
DM There is a definite phallic implication. The second piece in the triptych is me trying to sell the vacuum. It’s a stalwart presentation, but every time I begin to talk about household problems, I just disintegrate. You see someone who’s really not doing well. Just the same I go back into the sales, but every time another household problem is mentioned, another painful association comes up about it. Chelsea Coffee was the last piece in the triptych. In the original version I used a vacuum cleaner and not a broom, so the vacuum was the central image, a sort of metaphor through these pieces.
LT In Chelsea Coffee people are calling up to order a sandwich, a tuna sandwich, and get a waitress who really doesn’t want to give them their food.
DM Nobody gets an order out of this. She gets six phone calls, I think, and not one order goes out. Either she doesn’t approve the order because it has no fiber or she feels that the person is unworthy of getting the special because they have the wrong political ideas, or they’re not in the correct zone and she has to explain certain mathematical principles about a circle and a radius…
LT Who is this person?
DM I don’t know. That piece began when I was working at a type shop and this guy went down and got the special of the day from a restaurant on the corner. I said, “Gee, it looks great.” Pastrami on rye, it looked beautiful and he said it was like a buck-eighty. I said, “Can I take a bite?” He said, “Sure.” It was lean, delicious, a dollar-eighty. This wasn’t that long ago. I thought, great. So as soon as I got a minute, I punched out, ran down, waited in line, and asked for the special of the day. He says, “I’m very sorry, we don’t have that any more; we’re out of it. We’ll make you a sandwich you won’t forget. You’ll really like it.” I took it upstairs. It was disgusting, some BHUCHHKO that I could not eat. So I threw it in the garbage. And two minutes later, another one of my co-workers punches out, goes down, and comes back with a pastrami sandwich. I said, “Where’d you get that?” He says, “It was the special of the day across the street.” Can you imagine that? So it got me going. I mean, I don’t know, maybe they suddenly rushed more pastrami into the store between one o’clock and one o’five.
LT In the piece, you’re not the victim but the victimizer.
DM Yes, exactly. One of the ways that Split Britches has always worked, and that I work, is to attempt to go into the minds of sometimes very untoward characters. And find a way to love them and reclaim whatever it is about them that is hurtful. And I love this woman. I mean, here’s this short-order, menial worker with a huge intellect who is sometimes very cantankerous and arbitrary, but just the same, very bright and very loving. She does care if you know what a radius is, and she does care if your sandwich has vegetables and fiber, if you’re going to get a heart attack.
LT You take those interests and carry them to an extreme. They’re absolutely inappropriate. They’re also not good for business—no orders go out—giving Chelsea Coffee a sort of anti-capitalist thrust.
DM Actually, that’s true. I love how people see things that you don’t see.