Artists steal the world’s energy. They become blood donors. Their lifeblood drips away until they’re bled dry. And the people who control the world make it as inaccessible as possible by driving the artists into corners. You see, it’s dangerous. Our only hope is to recreate ourselves as either artists or anarchists, if you like, and release the energy for all.
– Jubilee (1978), Derek Jarman
I was due to give birth the day this took hold, to a new show—a new premiere, that word that pops off our lips like static from a finger when we talk about the next big thing: her next big thing, his next big thing, their next big thing, my next big thing, because that’s what art is—it’s what you give, and what they take,
We’d built the lighting, set the plot, numbered the cues, and like a good team should, we shot the shit. This was appropriate, as the show was about Valerie Solanas, who loved to “shoot the shit”—including, of course, Warhol—and who never got to tell her story, and as it would turn out, I wouldn’t either; not then, nor now, at least.
The crew went to lunch and I was running my lines (I wasn’t ready for this show) when my friend at the college walked in. She fought for this work, this new premiere, and she was coming from a meeting (most art is meetings) and she had bad news. Something in the way she wore her scarf and frowned—
I knew exactly what she was going to say.
Within a week all the work went away.
Three days into lockdown I had the first of many Zoom calls (dear God, how could we let “Zoom” become a verb?), a board meeting where we tried to reason how to cope, how to help, what we could do. “We have to make art now!” I said. “Go digital, go virtual, bring theatre home.”
The theatre I work at closed. My Valerie show was postponed. Then the fifth anniversary of my ongoing series. Then the premiere of my first commissioned play. In those initial moments of terror I made it my mission to keep theatre alive. To persevere, to persist. To keep us entertained. To keep us occupied.
Now this new life has gone on for months and weeks and days and hours, hours in which it’s perpetually six at night before another month’s gone, and regret has turned to reckoning. We were too busy trying to keep it all alive that we didn’t ask if it was time to pull the plug. I was too conditioned to how it had been to consider what it could be.
I knew the game, I followed the rules, I’d worked this way all day and night for 10 years and I’d planned for 10 more. I told myself it would pay off. Sometimes it takes a breaking point to see the lies we’ve told ourselves, the punishments and penances and delusions we’ve created: We just have to stay the course, and things will get better.
Sometimes it takes a breaking point to see when you’ve been compliant with your own mistreatment. And this time, just now, everything broke.
Last year I was a finalist for an award, a big one, one you’d call a “major award” in proper conversation, like at a dinner table with colleagues and one or two presenters or a curator you don’t know.
Congratulations, the administrator said, you’re a finalist, one in five. There was one last hoop to jump, presented as a request: Could I come to the city during a six-hour window, on a Monday mere weeks in advance, to offer a 10- to 15-minute presentation on my life and work?
I made myself available. Monday came and I drove to the city—hours up, hours down, hours of anticipation, preparation, doubt and breathing exercises, internalized screaming to give it all up, hours until I arrived in a glass board room, stationed in front of staring strangers and armed only with PowerPoint and prints.
After 15 minutes of me, myself, and I, in which I zeroed in on everything in my work that I thought had put me under their nose—my work on ancestry, on race and sexuality, on gentrification, consumerism, gender and capitalism, drag and terrorism—I found the panelists only wanted to talk about a video I made as a favor, a gag, something silly with a filter and a quick punchline. This video took 10 minutes to make, from start to finish, not the hours before and after and up to this panel, all of it the day before I would start tech at a festival for my touring solo’s first homecoming in three years.
In the short film, I stood in front of a catalogue of makeup wipes that had transferred the prints of over 300 of my drag faces—300 Veronica’s Veils, but of my drag clown Carla—each riddled with dirt and debris and eyelashes and air pollution, each striving to capture a trace of the ephemeral, of the performed and commodified nature of self, and the panel glazed over. I’d underestimated the power of a Super 8 film featuring me and my cat.
“Have you considered more videos?” they asked.
They should have considered more videos, I think.
We could have done this on Zoom.
I was a finalist for another award, a big one, this one national, the last one regional. The kind that makes your name desirable even when they don’t like your work. From 3,500-something who applied, they whittled it down to near 100, and from what was left they’d choose 45.
I had a 50/50 chance, probably—story of my life: half Native, half white, half boy, half girl, half art, half humor, half good, half bad.
When it came down to it, I didn’t get it, and I don’t begrudge that. It’s a fact. It’s what happened. It’s how awards work, and awards are how artworks. I’d made peace with this; I accepted it as the standard. What I begrudged, then, was that this particular lottery took a year: a new application each season, meaning new work samples, new questions, new answers, new expectations, all riddles of the Sphinx but via submission.
After nearly a year in this process, I spent the final month—the month in which I knew award notifications were coming—in a sleep cycle marked by dreaming I had won the award, to waking up and finding there was no award, to going back to sleep, waking up again, checking my phone, seeing I had won the award, then realizing I was in a dream and waking up again, like a bad horror movie where the Final Girl wakes from one nightmare into another. My sleep cycle had merged with their grant cycle. I’d get up, go about my day, and return to bed and let it continue again. What’s another nightmare after a year of them?
One morning I woke from the same fake-out dream and saw, this time in reality, the email right there in my inbox. My heart skipped a beat. This was it. But even before clicking it, I saw a preview of the body just after the subject line:
Dear Anthony, thank you for applying…
I’d seen enough rejections to recognize one more. It was an honor just to be considered, I’d say whenever the memory came back. Every time the memory comes back.
I asked for some feedback on my application, having made it so far. The awarding organization had stated that feedback would be provided within a month, and all I had to do was request it via a broken email link. After several emails to several administrators, and more than a month later, I finally received just this sentence:
“It was noted that the project fits the format of a ’90s personal identity performance and works well within the genre, but it does not further the form in complex and nuanced ways.”
I forgot about all the performances I could look up to from other gay Indians growing up in the ’90s. I could count them on fingers, if only they happened. From them I could have learned complexity and nuance.
I started to apply again this year. I started to go back. Maybe this time it would be different.
Prolonged exposure to grant writing runs the risk of you becoming a soundbite. What was once an artist, a human being, is now an “elevator pitch.” (You practice elevator pitches, not artmaking, in artist seminars at booking conferences. When my friends ask what booking conferences are, I tell them, “They’re like boat shows, but for people.”) Your repertoire becomes a pastiche of words in a document to copy/paste. I started applying for residencies not to make work, but so I could write more grant applications.
We live in a grant economy. Artists live from project to project, according to calendars set by national and regional grant cycles. Now that we don’t have shows or venues or audiences anymore we can’t make work, but there are relief grants for us “independent contractors”—those ineligible for unemployment, we with inestimable income.
Relief grants have been good. Really, they’re great. Most of them are a simple form:
What is your name?
What is your art practice?
If you have letters confirming loss of income, upload them here.
One that really got me (I mean I laughed—I almost laughed) asked for two recent videos of full-length works. Not to evaluate need, but to evaluate product. Are you worth investing in? Can you demonstrate a return?
Do you think we’ll have to write “funded in part by _____” as a memo on our rent checks?
I think of that panel feedback categorizing my work as “ ’90s personal identity performance,” and how that is used to in/validate my work, depending on whichever whim best suits the presenter in question. I performed my solo Looking for Tiger Lily for three years. I became tired of reliving the death of my grandmother every night onstage. The death of my uncle. The memory of coming out to my parents. The horror of my family, including my father, a one-time American Indian Movement radical, voting for Trump. Asking myself onstage, in front of an audience, who I really am. If I have a right to call myself Native, or if it’s right to call myself white. After three years, was this show about me anymore? I felt like every time I sang “Half-Breed” I was creating a crucible for white catharsis.
White people have the weirdest reaction to the show. When I’ve performed it for Native audiences, like at Dartmouth, or in Vancouver, B.C. (where Native artists get funding even if they’re not exploring trauma), the audience participates. They’re loud and laugh a lot. They talk back and snap and affirm the stories they hear. It’s a funny show, and it’s funniest when it’s performed for Natives.
White people, like those who watched the show clutching their festival passes when I brought it back home last year to sold-out silence, sit back and observe. Maybe one or two men will whistle at Carla when she comes out in the beginning of the show, but they’re afraid to interact with me once the makeup comes off. They’re quiet. Anthropological. I want to say they’re trying to be respectful, but it feels more like I have to earn their respect. When I do good, and something really resonates with their understanding of the world, they make that sound—that guttural affirmation you hear at readings and in vulnerable moments of performance—that “mm” sound. “Mm,” they say, and continue to stare at me, deer in headlights, just like those panelists who couldn’t see my work for what it was but what they wanted it to be. Even still, white presenters keep booking it and expecting me to practice gratitude for making their organization look better, if not just satisfying an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion requirement. And I can’t shake the feeling that I get booked because I satisfy the “other” box while looking more like them.
(A white fundraiser once called and asked me—while I was in bed at 6 a.m. in Australia—if I could “call [my] family at the tribe” to see if that might push a grant request with my tribe’s community fund in their favor. “Are you asking me to call in a smoke signal?” I wanted to ask. Instead I told him it doesn’t work like that, and tried explaining the makeup of my family across multiple tribes, before going back to sleep.)
A few months before the pandemic took hold, an administrator at a college wrote me and asked what touring programs I could offer. I told them I was burnt out on Tiger Lily, but that I have a brand new multimedia show, a smart farce about existential dread in the face of today’s world, and a lecture on camp that I’d love to bring. Days later I receive another email saying that they understand how burnt out I am with my show, but it’d work best for them if I brought it. They could engage the local tribe on campus with it too. Can I do it within their budget?
(What’s the German word for when an arts organization puts your name and face on their donor materials but won’t answer your emails?)
If I’m not invited to perform Indigeneity, I’m invited to host galas, lead bingo nights, or do “fun” events for orgs in drag. I get to be the nonprofit birthday clown, the entertainment over cocktail hour before the real artists go onstage. I’ve received national awards and fellowships and toured internationally—but that’s culturally specific work about gay stuff and Indian stuff, and you’d have to find someone to do a land acknowledgement and that requires a whole different pool of funding, equity funding for anything that isn’t in the normal budget, so why not book me to host the after-party instead?
Beyond the current question of whether theatre will ever come back, and in what form—will I ever be able to make new work? Will I get to play Valerie Solanas? Will I get another play commission that isn’t about my (mixed) race? My farce—Clown Down, a puppet show where Carla gets crushed by a rogue IKEA cabinet—is good. It’s funny. It sold out its run and the audience went nuts for it. It was the breath of fresh air I needed after three years of performing for white guilt.
Tiger Lily was covered by every single publication in Portland. Throughout its life, I was constantly told how brave I am. I’ve always wondered if that was a double entendre.
Clown Down got one ecstatic review on a blog. Only one presenter has asked about it since.
I think of the other lies I’ve told myself to maintain the illusion that I was always precisely where I was supposed to be. That I wasn’t gay, that I just wanted to be like the men I couldn’t stop looking at. That my first boyfriend loved me, and that’s why he didn’t stop when I told him to. That it was only a joke when my next boyfriend would sometimes hit me. That that wasn’t something I was only now remembering; that’s how normal I wanted to be.
Years and years and years ago I was invited to host a big dance party, and by hosting I mean getting ready at 3 or 4, checking into the venue at 7, going on at midnight, doing two numbers then working the crowd until last call at 2 a.m. (then getting home at 3 a.m. and finally getting to pee), and of course this is all at a bar because when you do drag, that’s where you make work: in drag shows and variety shows and comedy shows and stand-up shows in gay bars and nightclubs and restaurants and sometimes even coffee shops if all the gay bars have been gentrified, because drag isn’t really art, right, and if it is, it’s art for gay people, and you’re only a few years in so you haven’t yet learned how to write a grant or speak funder—and the producer was friendly and positive and cool/queer/punk until we got to the hard part: money. I came from free shows (I just want a stage!) to good gigs ($50 to host? They must not know what the bars pay) to the usual ($20 and two drink tickets). Considering this was a big one, and I’d seen $100 bill after $100 bill stacked into the hands of national headliners, and the venue had a capacity of 800 people all paying seven dollars to get in, and my face and my name would make up 70 percent of their flyer, I pushed myself to ask for more.
The producer called me on speaker phone with his crew of dancers and DJs and door people and formally offered the show to me. How much would I need?
“For a show of this size, I’d ask for $150,” I said.
He let out a laugh and roared: “Damn, bitch is expensive!”
I heard the rest laugh as I shrunk smaller. I tried explaining flyer percentages and math into the phone while everyone else caught their breath.
At the same nightclub where this party was thrown, and sometimes at that very party itself, I saw promoters scream at performers until they cried after asking for pay. I saw them attacked and banned from the premises. I saw a friend drugged with a drink and thrown out by security. Talked down to, taken advantage of, exploited, groped. Every male producer, every promoter I worked with in those days did this to us. It’s why I left the club scene to self-produce my work, why I pursued theatre.
The aggressions there are usually smaller, harder to capture. They exercise more caution. There’s more money at stake.
Sometimes I feel like Nicole Kidman’s therapist in Big Little Lies, staring back at myself with sadness and doubt. Why do we want so badly to believe our abuser will change?
I was a drag queen before straight people caught onto my work. Then I became a drag performer. Then white people caught onto my work, and I became a performing artist. When I was somewhere between a drag queen and a drag performer, a bunch of us got invited to a gala for an arts organization in town, in preparation for their upcoming drag ball programming. We got to sit at tables like the real people, one or two of us scattered at each table to provide sassy banter and a living photo booth for rich patrons. The mayor served me apple cobbler. I resisted telling him that I knew the 17-year-old he had dated from my hometown, the one who started the rival Gay-Straight Alliance in my school district. That didn’t seem like the kind of thing you say at galas. I smiled instead.
Somebody gave me a flashy LED ring to wear, the kind you’d get for donating hundreds of dollars during the evening. We were supposed to feel special. Mostly, we were felt up. Nearly every man in a tux—each of them with the same designer eyewear—goosed me as they passed, goosed me as we talked, goosed me to punctuate their sentences. They’d whisper into my ear about clown pussy and blowjobs and what they wanted to do with their auction paddles, at least until their wives or their gal pals returned with new drinks.
Of course, this is not to say that I, be it as a drag queen or drag performer or performing artist, am a special case. This isn’t me playing a tiny violin; I’ve tried, and it doesn’t go with my hair.
Any body that doesn’t belong to a straight man or a rich gay man is public property.
One time a fan in a crowd ran up and bearhugged me, his shoulder pressing into my Adam’s apple and cutting off my windpipe and I couldn’t get the words out to ask him to let me go and he held on and on and on until I pushed him off me and came up for air.
I understand Madonna’s cone bra now. It’s not just fashion, it’s a line of defense. So now I wear my bra with hard, rolled-up socks inside. If you hug me, it’s going to hurt you too.
Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, reflecting on years of abuse:[to the camera] You’re all my attackers, too.
During a residency some time ago I offered a glimpse at Tiger Lily as part of our open studios presentation for the nearby community in snowy Central Oregon. My grandmother had just passed (I say “walked on” in the show, as is traditional for my family, which inspired many a “mm” from the audience) and I had to rework the section devoted to her to include this. I cried when I said goodbye to her from the stage, looking at one of the last pictures taken of the two of us together as it was projected behind me, and I made my exit to walk back to my cabin in the snow and collect myself. A woman from the audience followed me out.
“Yours was the best,” she said, referring to the lineup presented throughout the day.
“Thank you,” I said, “but we all make such different work, I don’t think that’s fair.”
“No, yours was the best,” she said again, turning her head a little as she looked at me, like she was analyzing me. The way the Terminator looks at people. The same way people look at me when they begin to recognize me outside of makeup, when my cover’s blown. “You don’t look Indian, though.”
I laughed instinctively. I didn’t tell her that sometimes I agree with this sentiment and it has haunted me my entire life. Instead I said, “No, I do. I look like my grandma.”
“No…” she said, dismissing it altogether, but still in thought. “Your show is very good. But I don’t think it’s appropriate for kids like you say, either. All the gay stuff.”
“Actually, I think we go out of our way to protect children from certain content because we’re the uncomfortable ones,” I say. “They just see people.”
“No, I don’t think so,” she said again. “You might want to think about that. Anyway, good job!”
She turned and made her way back to the main building, jumping into the same footprints her boots had already made in the snow. I’ve never understood this interaction or how to feel about it. It might have made more sense had she been white, but she was Korean, visiting from Texas.
I spent three months performing in a back brace. I say three but it felt like six. I say six but I don’t know how long it was.
I did it to myself. I didn’t know how to be a performing artist or a drag queen, not that I know now. And throwing yourself on the ground in high heels isn’t the best idea when you don’t stretch first. Nor is performing while wearing a back brace or taking the stage in a wheelchair—which was partially in bad taste, and also because I couldn’t walk. Beyoncé had just released “Pretty Hurts,” and I hurt too.
Six months of twice a week at the chiropractor later, I learned one of my legs is drastically short. Not like “one foot is bigger than the other” but “wear this in your shoe for the rest of your life and your pelvis might not dislocate” short. Another addition to the unfolding list of performer pains growing like my parents’ medicine cabinet.
My chiropractor, unlike any producer or promoter or director or teacher, taught me how to take care of my body. I did it for a while, on and off. It came and went with my moods, the ebb and flow between mania and gigs. I started running. I ran a lot. I ran up and down stairs, up and down and back and forth, over and over, and I sweat and breathed and churned and chugged and I ran and got hoarse and breathed and grieved.
I ran until I ran out of time again. Until I got noticed and became a real artist. That meant saying yes to everything I could if I wanted to continue to be noticed, to continue being an artist.
My trips to the chiropractor became more infrequent and eventually the doctor who healed me left the clinic. I got a new doctor, a jock specializing in sports medicine. He didn’t listen to me like she did. He said the problem was my shoes. He said this after looking at them, before he even looked at me.
I didn’t go back.
My foam roller is my boyfriend now, these days, since everything shut down—these days which each feel like individual years later. Until this I used my foam roller as a wighead. I bought it to treat myself and instead I kept a yellow-green wig on it.
I sit with myself now. I listen to myself. I stretch. I roll it out. I breathe. I try to heal. All while hundreds of thousands die and the nation burns.
It took cataclysmic capitalist collapse to get me to stop and take care of myself. Imagine that.
I’m done saying yes. I’m saying no. My God, there’s no money coming in and I don’t know when it will again, and I’m saying no. I’m practicing selfishness at my own expense—what I’ve been taught to call selfishness but I think is just looking out for my own well-being.
I’m done being a birthday clown. Done spending more time fitting the story of my life into a character count rather than living it. Done performing gratitude just for being let in the room, checking a quota, making someone else look good. I’ll offer gratitude when it’s earned.
I’m done breaking myself. Done playing a role in the story of my destruction for your benefit. Done taking time away from healing the damage you and I wrought on my body.
Sometimes I feel hopeless, like nothing will change. That it isn’t radical or selfless or vulnerable enough to hole up, heal, and endure. But enduring is what my people do. We’ve self-isolated for years to be safe from you.
Presenters are still trying to book Looking for Tiger Lily for this fall and next spring. Through the plague. A show about the effects of genocide and me singing songs from Pocahontas with a cardboard canoe. An audience of less than 50 plague blankets sitting six feet away from each other, going “mm” beneath masks. In a theatre, the place where people go to cough.
I’m not performing on a stage as long as it means risking my crew or my audience or my health. I’m not supporting any artist or institution that does. Christopher Nolan wrote about saving movie theatres when they all closed in March, but after a few months he went and endangered the lives of theatre staff for his last cinematic bloat.
Broadway is cancelled through May, as if anything will be different then. A comedy club in town is brought back its annual comedy contest over the summer, as if watching amateur comedians workshop bad jokes over glorified convenience store nachos weren’t enough of a threat to public health.
I see new livestream notifications every second. I keep getting asked to do live performances, live readings, live Drag Queen Story Times, live distractions and live desperation. We’re all cam girls now, except they know what they’re doing. I’m not getting all clowned up to perform for a green dot on my computer like none of this is happening. Like everything will go back to normal and nobody died. And if they did, they died for nothing.
I hope you remember this when art comes back. I hope we remember this instead of saying the show must go on like when someone was hitting us and saying they weren’t.
Anthony Hudson (Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, they/them) is a multidisciplinary artist, writer, performer, and filmmaker based in Portland, Ore. Anthony’s new show Up Her Ass, about the radical feminist satirist Valerie Solanas, was postponed at Reed College. Anthony’s Queer Horror performance and film series at the Hollywood Theatre, the only recurring LGBTQ+ horror film series in the country, has been postponed indefinitely. The world premiere of Anthony’s new play Looking for Tiger Lily, based on the solo show of the same name, was postponed at Artists Repertory Theatre. You can find out more at TheCarlaRossi.com.
This piece is being published in its entirety in the inaugural ART: Quarterly Magazine.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!