Show Me Your Guts

Written by Adam Rathe on . Posted in Posts.


About 20 minutes into my
first conversation with Erin Markey, she explains how foreign the idea
of hailing a cab is to people outside of New York. A piece she performed
nearly 10 years ago centered on the idea that a random member of an
audience would be chosen to play a driver taking Markey to hell. The
piece was a hit at the University of Michigan, where she had
conceptualized it, but seemed to fall flat with New York audiences for
whom a taxicab was less glamorous. New Yorkers, says Markey, already
know that "you can have anything you want when you raise your hand."

For
the 29-year-old actress and playwright, it’s a lesson learned. After
seven years working offbeat festivals and small stages in the far
reaches of the outer boroughs, Markey’s racked up a series of
accomplishments—her dazzling, affecting one-woman show Puppy Love: A Stripper’s Tail at
P.S. 122 last year, any number of guest spots in shows and videos with
today’s performance scenesters and a PTSD-inducing production of
Tennessee Williams’ Green Eyes in an intimate room at the Hudson
Hotel—that, in addition to the backing of the city’s artsy gritterati,
have her poised to be New York’s next Downtown performance somebody.

Erin Markey knows what she wants, and her hand’s high up in the air.

Fearlessness
is something that other people often attribute to Markey. Whether it’s
the nervy mining of her own past or her up-to-11 ferocity in a show like
Green Eyes (a friend and I both walked out slackjawed, charmed
and a bit scared by her performance), her delivery can transcend a
character and convey to the audience that the actress herself isn’t
hesitant to go wherever she needs to. The New York Times has singled out her "magnetic diva aggression" and "wolfish grin."

She’s
no kamikaze, though. "It’s fearlessness with intelligence," says Travis
Chamberlain, a New York-based director who’s worked with her
extensively. "Erin’s seductive and sometimes that can be something that,
as a director, you have to be careful of. It could be easy to just play
seduction and we’ve worked on that a lot, trying to make it something
more complex."

That’s
what anyone who has watched Markey ends up with: a tangled mash-up of
humor, horror, brains and balls—not to mention blood and a few other
fluids.

Markey grew
up moving around. Her father worked in telecommunications, so the
family relocated regularly, bouncing between the South and Midwest, and
it was while she was in high school in Alpharetta, Ga., that she got her
first taste of rebellion. Markey didn’t go Goth, coat her hair with
Manic Panic or pierce her nose—she found God. "I was raised Catholic and
then I elected to be a Bible Belt Christian," she says in her slow,
Southern-tinged voice. "The difference between Catholicism and Bible
Belt

Christianity
is in the performance of the religion. Catholicism is really ritualistic
and slow and you’re just chanting things that you’ve already memorized.
And Bible Belt Christianity is supposed to be really spontaneous and
zealous and you’re going through a state of catharsis at every moment.
That was just something I had never felt at all, with anything."

Her
parents were puzzled but not unsupportive. Still, "they were confused
because, in some ways I was 20,000 times more religious" than they were,
she says. "It was a departure from why they were religious in the first
place, which was sort of a traditional family thing. At one point I
accused them, weeping at the kitchen table, of never praying in front of
us."

Markey’s
first taste of the spotlight came thanks to her high school debate team,
which she joined because the first of the three high schools she
attended had no theater department. When she finally did move to a
school that offered drama, she says, "The best part of being in the
theater department was that I was asked to dye my hair red for the part
of Frenchie in Grease," Markey says. "That was like a much more immersive way of becoming a character than anything else I had experienced."

After
graduating high school, a nolonger-devout Markey—who attributed losing
her religion to a high school friend’s coming out as well as reading The World According to Garp—enrolled at
St. Louis University, but bolted after a year to attend the University
of Michigan, where her relocated parents could loan her their car and
help with in-state tuition.

Arriving
too late in her college career to join the school’s theater department,
Markey proposed creating her own major in feminist theater; the dean
was not impressed. "I was so annoyed that I just became a Gender Studies
major," she says, noting with a grin that the dean was fired a few
months later. It was in that department that Markey would meet infamous
performance artist Holly Hughes, who taught a class called Gender and
Performance Art, which, according to Markey, "changed everything."

The
admiration went both ways. "The first time I saw Erin was when she was
maybe 19, at the first class of mine that she showed up for," recalls
Hughes. "At that time I was new to University of Michigan but had taught
at NYU and Harvard and a lot of places as a visiting artist. I’d had
lots of great students, but she knocked my socks off. She had presence,
she had confidence and she had this knife-like intelligence. She was
just right there."

Firmly
under the wing of Hughes— and taking classes like David Halperin’s
controversial "How To Be Gay" course— Markey began to develop something
of a hard-edged performance art style that dealt honestly and humorously
with gender, family, violence and sexuality.

"I
got really frustrated by the theater world because I felt like I had to
look and act in a very specific way in order to be successful. I don’t
know if that’s true or not, but that was my feeling. So I just hacked
off all my hair one day with kitchen shears and of course I was not
castable at that moment…" Markey explains, trailing off. Then came a day
in Hughes’ class when Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw, of the theater troupe
Split Britches, came to class. Hughes had assigned her students to
bring in a small object to work with, but Markey forgot and had to make
due with a highlighter she found in her backpack. "We had to build a
character based on our relationship to the object," Markey says, "and
because the highlighter is so phallic, I ended up using it in that way
to create a masculine character. It was the first performance art piece I
ever wrote. It was so weird and it was so confrontational and
ridiculous and it was completely transformational."

Hughes
remembers Markey’s work well. "She had the ability to extrapolate from
her experience and turn it into something that really felt like one of
the best camp or drag artists I had seen, in that the performance was
really big and hyperbolic but was filled in with emotion."

At
U of M, Markey lucked into a teeming performance art scene. With a
group of friends, she formed a theater company called The Men That Got
Away that performed in local shows, and made her first trip to New York
with Hughes in 2003 to perform in the student-created show After A Fashion at the Guggenheim.

About
a week after graduation, Markey began stripping. "I started," she says,
"because I was terribly fascinated by it and because I was broke. On my
21st birthday I was in San Francisco and I wanted to go to a strip
club. So my best friend took me out to The Hustler Club and I watched
them pole dance and I was like, these women are movement geniuses and I
cannot believe that people don’t think that this is exceptional
performance work," says Erin Markey.

Markey
worked at an Ann Arbor-area club called Deja Vu for six months, an
experience that she’s still sorting out. We discuss it for a while
before she tells me she doesn’t want to talk about it and then keeps
doing just that. She’s torn between the idea of being the educated white
girl sex worker, choosing to strip with a notion of empowerment and
control over your own body, and what she calls "the smalltown,
19-year-old girl who isn’t trying to reclaim anything, who’s just trying
to make it." She goes on, "I’m not her and I’m not her. I think about it a lot still, even though it’s been a while."

At the same time, Markey was working on Made of Honor, a
three-part show about her experience as part of her sister’s wedding.
"My mom told me that I had to shave my legs and grow out my hair, which I
was really offended by," says Markey, who now has long, leonine, sandy
brown hair as well as a toothy smile and big, light eyes, like
mischievous satellite dishes. "We ended up going to family therapy about
it, but in the end I decided that shaving my legs and armpits and
letting my hair grow out was the most amazing thing that had ever
happened to me, but it was fucked up that that was the way that I went
about it." That September, the show was part of the Single File Solo
Performance Festival in Chicago. The next stop was New York.

Markey
moved to Williamburg in October 2004 with Joseph Keckler, a U of M
student she was dating (and, full disclosure, someone I know socially),
choosing New York because, "I thought that it was this land where
performance art ruled the earth."

Markey
took a job approaching girls on the street about their haircuts for a
marketing company, but after what she now calls "an altercation," went
on to work as a server at L’Express, behind the bar at Spike Hill and
participating in scientific research studies. "I didn’t know what the
fuck I was doing when I moved here, I didn’t have any plans, I didn’t
have any dreams, I didn’t have any goals, and I think that’s totally
fine," Markey says. Keckler remembers a stark time: "I worked at the
Guggenheim for $8 an hour as an audio guide salesperson and I remember,
for the first six months, the two of us eating Wonder Bread and eggs,
like Edith Massey in Pink Flamingos."

Still, the duo found ways to keep working, in student-hosted performance nights and at clubs like Galapagos, where the show What Are You Into?—"a big,
sexually explicit, epic doo-wop medley," says Keckler—got the pair
invited by John Cameron Mitchell to perform it at his New Years Eve
party at Joe’s Pub.

After four years together, Markey and Keckler broke up. "It was heart-wrenching, because we thought we were, like, forever," she says, "but that’s the only thing that made me start doing stuff without him." The first project she started on was Puppy Love, a
"fictionalized, autobiographical" show about a bumbling stripper who
falls in love with her coworker. Markey performed the piece at the 2005
Single File Festival in Chicago. It was not a hit. "[Puppy Love] was
really dark and it didn’t really go over that well as a reading," says
Markey. "This reviewer who came to see it was experiencing it as a
finished piece and she hated it." Hurt by the review, Markey put Puppy Love down for two years.

Still,
she managed to stay busy. She formed and disbanded The Men That Got
Away, traveled to Michigan to assist Hughes with a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Ham, directed
a friend’s MFA show and worked for a high-end retailer, dragging pricey
items of clothing across town on the subway and pocketing the petty
cash she was given for cabs. But in 2007, when Liz Damon, who ran an a
capella group called The Lesbian Overtones, asked Markey to do a part of
Puppy Love at the group’s Christmas show, the play was revived.

That year, Markey submitted Puppy Love to
the Sex Workers’ Art Show, a traveling revue of visual and performance
art, and it was accepted. "I was on cloud fucking nine because [of]
these women who were such cool, smart, take-no-shit women who had been
sex workers," she says. "The group of people that I was with were the
smartest, the most outrageous, the most surprisingly brilliant people
that I have ever spent that much time with to date."

Trading on the good reception the show got that time around, Markey brought Puppy Love to
the terraNOVA Collective’s soloNOVA festival, an annual happening at
avant-garde arts compound Performance Space 122, funding her application
by throwing a party.

Travis Chamberlain, the director who would work with Markey on this iteration of Puppy Love as well as on Green Eyes, says
he met Markey when she and Keckler performed at Galapagos, which he was
booking at the time. "He played piano and she sang and my first
impression of her was just as a pretty, intense, fearless, amazing
singer and cabaret artist. I was definitely curious to learn more."

He got his wish. After Chamberlain saw her in Tina Satter’s play Family and then caught Markey’s own rendition of Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll, which ended in her reciting the Munchkin Ordinance from The Wizard of Oz, the
two have since worked together intensely. "I knew her to be among the
artists doing freak-show cabaret work as part of the whole queer scene
that I identify with and participate in, but I had never seen her
outside of that context," says Chamberlain. "In Family she was
performing as an actor, and it’s a really rare thing to find people who
are such dynamic performers but also such engaging and skilled actors."

In
Markey, Chamberlain has found something of a muse. "She seemed like the
perfect Williams leading lady to me, but a Williams leading lady for
2011," he says of casting her in Green Eyes, a forgotten
Tennessee Williams one-act about a just-married couple on a steamy,
violent honeymoon that never leaves a seedy New Orleans hotel room.
"Someone who would be willing to meet Williams at his darkest and most
erotic borders and then push him to go further, without losing his humor
or wit. I think that if Williams had known her, she would have inspired
him to write more for her."

Off the bat, their collaboration was a smashing success. The bad reviews that Puppy Love got
in Chicago were a thing of the past. "Polished and fantastically odd,"
said one theater publication. "[Markey's] got a trumpet-bright voice, a
predator’s smile, no discernible boundaries and an air of real danger,"
touted another.

It’s all true. After seeing Green Eyes, I dragged a friend to the Bushwick Starr, an underrated performance space off the Jefferson L stop, to watch In The Pony Palace/Football, a
Tina Satter show Markey had a role in. I told the friend I was
interested in writing about one of the actors and asked her to tell me
after the curtain call if she could guess which one. The lights were
barely up before my friend, disappointed with how easy her task was,
identified Markey. A few minutes later we were drinking Jameson from
paper cups with her, an experience that left us no less bewitched.

There
doesn’t seem to be much time when Markey isn’t on stage. Her show at
Dixon Place with Escola, a set of musical numbers born after a trip to
San Francisco, will take place twice this summer; she’ll appear at Our
Hit Parade three times; she’s developing a show about a character from Puppy Love—he’s loosely based on her father, she says, but not really—Green Eyes is
booked to run for 40 shows in Boston and, in what might be the most
surprising move for the avant-garde firecracker, she’s looking for
professional representation. Even Chamberlain admits that Markey will
one day move beyond the Downtown scene; "she has mainstream
aspirations," he says.

Whether
that means she’ll land on the Broadway stage, like her friend and
collaborator Kenny Mellman, or find a space on a mainstream stage for
her work (think Roseanne Barr, who friends cite as one of Markey’s
heroes), is unclear. What’s more than apparent, however, is that Erin
Markey is one to watch, and it’s only a matter of time before no hotel
room or small-time venue will be able to keep up.

"I’ve
had to really force myself to have really specific dreams," Markey
tells me. "I feel like I’m a really present person who likes to be
wherever she is, but I’ve also discovered that there’s an art to putting
yourself in places you want to be."

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