An Interview with Gina Hyams re: Happenings, Experimental & Poets Theater & Beyond

This is the first in an ongoing series of interviews with various writers, performers, and artists which will appear from time to time on X Poetics. This interview was conducted via email in August.

RTM: You grew up in Florida and then mostly in SF, right?

Gina: Yes, I was born and raised in Sarasota,
Florida until my parents divorced in 1975, when
I was ten, at which point my mother and I moved
across country to a commune in San Francisco’s
Haight-Ashbury district.

RTM: Tell me what it was like growing up in with
an artist mom in bohemian San Francisco in the
70s! And what about your dad?

Gina: Well, I had a great deal of freedom, riding
MUNI alone as a fifth grader. Parenting per se
wasn’t particularly on the agenda. My mother
points out that bookstores in those days were
not full tomes about child psychology – that
all her generation had was Dr. Spock. I’m not
sure that she ever actually read Dr. Spock,
but there’s no question that I was loved
and fed and encouraged. I felt largely
invisible, though, in the face of the adult
drama that dominated the era.

My father was also an artist, a New York Jewish
intellectual born in 1913. After the divorce
I hardly saw him, but he regularly wrote me
letters about synaesthesia, art, and animals.

RTM: How did you get involved with experimental
theater? What got you interested in it?

Gina: My parents directed annual “Happenings”
at the Ringling Museum’s Osolo Theater when
I was little. In San Francisco, my mother
and her friends were involved with Anna Halprin’s
Dancer’s Workshop and she taught Spanish at
San Francisco Mobile School, which was a junior
high founded by members of the experimental
Firehouse Theater who believed that travel was
the bedrock of education. The school was
located in the building that is now Urban High.

I got serious about acting at age 13,
inspired by a wonderful drama teacher
named Deborah Dunn at Everett Middle School
(then still called Junior High)who co-directed
with Abigail Van Alyn a teen drama group outside
of school that wrote its own plays. In retrospect
I realize that the things I most loved about
acting were 1. the attention, the power of
being visible -- I was shy everywhere except
on stage and 2. the sense of community, family,
and collective purpose that infuses theatrical
productions. As for why I was interested in
experimental work rather than traditional, I
think more than anything it was the times.
The notion of pushing boundaries and the
arts synthesizing was in the air and seemed
exciting. Also, because I was so young and so
serious, and there weren’t that many teenagers
around whose greatest aspiration was to be a
member of an experimental theater collective,
I was granted a lot of access and opportunity.

The summer of my 16th year, I visited my grandmother
in Omaha and participated in a workshop production of
a play by Kathleen Tolan at the Omaha Magic Theater,
which was co-founded by two members of the famous
60s Open Theater – playwright Megan Terry and actress
Joanne Schmidman. They asked me back the following year
to tour in an experimental feminist musical about teen
alcohol abuse called Kegger that Megan Terry wrote.
I tested out of Lowell High a year early to do that.
My mom said with pride that she felt like I was
running off to the circus. Singer Joan Osborne,
by the way, was my costar in that production.

In Omaha I became obsessed with learning about 60s
experimental theater history. I read everything I
could about the Open Theater, the Living Theater, and
Peter Brook. Then in my late teens and early 20s
I had the good fortune of assisting Joseph Chaikin
(founder of the Open Theater) at San Francisco’s
Magic Theater and of performing in an Anne Bogart
dance-theater production at PS122in New York.
I also worked with Nina Wise and Ronnie Davis
(founder of the San Francisco Mime Troupe).

RTM: And how did you get involved with working
with Carla Harryman?

Gina: I took four years off between high school
and college, eventually enrolling at San
Francisco State University as a creative
writing major,where I worked as the
student assistant at the Poetry Center.
Director Robert Gluck recommended me
to Carla.

RTM: What plays of hers did you act in?
What were those rehearsals like?
Who directed the play?

Gina: Only one, in 1989 at New Langton Arts:
“There is Nothing Better than a Theory”that
she wrote and directed in collaboration with
visual artist Mark Durant and saxophone
player/composer Dave Barrett, who I moved
in with three weeks into rehearsal. My
memory of those rehearsals is that they
were quite stressful,as Carla was hard
to please and pretty clueless as a
director about communicating exactly
what she wanted, but I loved my poppy
red linen dress costume and of course
it was thrilling to meet the man who
would become the father of my child.
The text was completely abstract.
Periodically one line comes back to me:
“The oceaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan.”

RTM: You also performed in Camille Roy's
Bye Bye Brunhilde? How was that
experience in comparison?

Gina: It was two or three years later, another excellent dress:
a blood red velvet spandex mini. I played Fear, a lesbian
sadist, and my lover was named Technique. Playwright
Camille Roy wrote the part with me in mind. Go figure!
The language was abstract, but sexy. We performed it
twice in San Francisco (at New Langton Arts and
Theater Rhino and in New York at the WOW Cafe.
I remember when we resurrected it for the New York
tour, that the director,Zack, wanted me to be more
vulnerable, which I thought was ridiculous at
the time, but think he was probably correct in
retrospect. I officially retired from the stage
after that production at age 23.

RTM: You went to San Francisco State University as
an undergraduate and that's where we met. Did you
get involved with language writing there?
Do you remember or did you experience the "poetry wars"?

Gina: Yes, I had a language poet boyfriend and I took a lot
of classes with Kathleen Fraser. The focus on formal
experimentation, of thinking of language as paint rather
than strictly as a vehicle for meaning,was appealing to me
in an emotionally repressed sort of way. It was all so
emotionally coy. I was desperate to reveal myself, but my
fellow experimental poets frowned upon confession and
upon anything that smacked of plot. For me it was more
of a phase than true identity. I was aware of the poetry
wars,but didn’t participate other than refusing to ever
take a class with Frances Mayes (this was pre-Under
the Tuscan Sun) because she wasn’t cool.

RTM: You worked at the poetry center there while Bob Gluck
was the director? What was that experience like?

Gina: Best job ever! Bob was the best boss ever! I put up
flyers around campus and sold tickets at the readings
and Bob treated us to staff lunches at Zuni.

RTM: You used to write poetry. Do you anymore?

Gina: Not really, but I fiddle and fiddle with my sentences
and pay keen attention to the music of the language no matter
the topic.

RTM: I know you've done lots of other kinds of writing and I
understand you are working on a novel that you once thought
might be a screenplay. Would you describe that work as experimental?

Gina: No, it’s not experimental, other than my core belief that
transitional clauses aren’t that important. I’m working now to
understand how traditional structure works, like the formula for
a romantic comedy. In a sense figuring out plot is like experimental
poets imposing formal restrictions, like Perec’s not using the vowel e,
to prompt creativity.

RTM: How have your interests and motivations around writing
changed for you over the years?

Gina: I want to be literally understood now, which is different
than when I thought of myself as a poet. Also, writing for me
has become a lot about research, which I love, love, love.
Nonfiction (books and magazine assignments)has become my
ticket to explore the world as much as document it.

RTM: What writing excites you these days?

Gina: In terms of the writing that I’m doing, I’m having
the most fun with my blog of curiosities. It’s more letter
than journal, and letter broadcast via the Internet feels
similar to performance –- the buzzy improvisatory risk
of committing moment to moment, the taking up public space,
the audience interaction. I guess I haven’t retired
from the stage after all.


Gina Hyams is an author and editor who specializes
in travel,tradition, and the arts. Her books include
the bestselling travel-design titles, In a Mexican Garden:
Courtyards, Pools
, and Open-Air Living Rooms and Mexicasa:
The Enchanting Inns and Haciendas of Mexico
, as well
as Pacific Spas: Luxury Getaways on the West Coast,
Day of the Dead Box,The Campfire Collection: Thrilling,
Chilling Tales of Alien Encounters
,and Incense: Rituals,
Mystery, Lore
– all published by Chronicle Books. She is
also co-editor of the anthology, Searching for Mary Poppins:
Women Write About the Relationship Between Mothers and Nannies
Hudson Street Press and Plume, divisions of Penguin U.S.A.).
Gina's essays and articles have appeared in Newsweek,
San Francisco, Berkshire Living, Organic Style,Ideal
, Healing Lifestyles & Spas,and Salon.com.
She has also contributed to Fodor's Travel Publications,
National Public Radio, and numerous anthologies.


Kevin Killian said...

That's a great interview, Robin! At first I was blanking out on who Gina Hyams was, and then as I read on the strength and vitality of her two great performances blazed back at me--each one different than the other like chalk and cheese, or maybe fire and ice would be the better comparison, for she excelled in both the Harryman and the Roy plays. Now I will have to get some of her books and see what they're like.

Though I think now that I have read the MARY POPPINS book when I wanted to find out more about mothers and nannies, I'll have to check my shelves, but never thinking that that Gina Hyams was the same Gina Hyams whose dramatic prowess I had so envied and admired on the stage so many years ago.

In any case please tell her that she has at least one fan willing and able to write her a role that would lure her back to the stage of the SF Poets Theater, if only she would.

Robin Tremblay-McGaw said...

Thanks for your post. I didn't see Gina in Carla's play, but yes, she was fab in Camille's!

I'm looking forward to Geyser! at SPT tonight.


Gina Hyams said...

Ha. Kevin, your comment made my day...I think it's best that I rest on my chalk and cheese laurels, but I'm honored by your offer. Thank you.