Terry Baum has been doing quite well in lockdown. Or rather lockdowns, for this is San Francisco, and they have been coming and going in different ways from ours. From her house high on a hill she has been strenuously walking her two poodles all over the city, admiring the art which has been blossoming on the hoardings boarding up shops everywhere. She has discovered the joys of blogging for her 500 subscribers. And she is hard at work on a new play, Mikvah, of which more anon. Not bad for a veteran lesbian feminist of 74, who burst on the queer theatre scene forty years ago with the wild and wacky Dos Lesbos, which ran for two years in various venues. As she explains, it had quite an impact:
“In this country, lesbians don’t go to theatre much. That’s cultural. Gay men were always into high culture, in America theatre wouldn’t exist without gay men and Jews. Lesbians were always about popular culture, sports, popular music and all that. When Dos Lesbos opened in 1981, on the West Coast, no lesbians here had ever seen themselves reflected anywhere. Not Movies, TV, plays, nothing. So it was a huge thing for the audience. They were seeing themselves reflected for the first time.”
Terry had been a late developer. She didn’t come out till she was thirty, though committed to women’s theatre earlier. “In fact I had to start a feminist theatre company and run it for two years before lesbians entered and one of them seduced me. So I had to do a lot of work, a lot of preparation to get to Lesbian Heaven!”
“Lilith Theatre Company was what I started in 1975 in Berkeley, and ran it for five years, it was a collective, though. I had the position of Artistic Director but I still had to get everyone’s agreement to do anything. So I got very frustrated, especially because it was mainly heterosexual women. And they were very cautious about doing any lesbian material. There wasn’t the fear of lesbians there’d been in the early 70s, but people still didn’t want a lot of lesbian material. Feminist theatre really didn’t want a lot of lesbian material, so I had to leave to do Dos Lesbos.”
It hadn’t been an easy ride, though easier than some. She came from a nice liberal Jewish family background, went to the very radical college, Antioch in Ohio. She always knew she was destined for the theatre.
“I was always a theatre person. In my opinion we all start out in theatre. Because as children we’re always play-acting. Assuming roles. All children all over the world do this. But most children stop at a certain point. I never did. So I see my trajectory as a very, very straight line.
“My family weren’t particularly supportive. I was supposed to become a teacher and marry a doctor. But they were financially supportive as time went on. They weren’t supportive when I came out as a lesbian either. They were pissed off. I was embarrassing, they were ashamed. My parents were liberal Jews, but there were limits back then. The changes in society have made it so much easier, there is so much less suffering now.”
Her parents did however support her financially from the 80s, in the Poverty Row that is Fringe Theatre, at a time when so many thesps give up their dreams because they have to earn a buck. Terry never had to make that choice,
And then there was Immediate Family, a powerful one-woman play which is being Zoomed on Tuesday 4th by Homo Promos, and being seen in the UK for the first time in 35 years. Virginia is a classic a-political bull dyke who works for the Post Office. Her lover who has terminal cancer is in a coma. The play takes the form of a bedside monologue, and culminates in a terrible dilemma/decision.
“The thing that motivated it was my dog getting ill, and eventually me choosing to euthanise her, after a long and tedious agony. She was a genius dog. She talked. She expressed herself vocally. But when I made the choice to put her down, I realised, ‘Oh, but I can’t do this for my girlfriend.’ I realised I had no legal rights, about my girlfriend’s medical care or anything. This was really shocking, and I was very disturbed by that.
“There was also a big, big scandal in the newspapers about a nurse’s aide in a nursing home who was secretly giving some of the patients lethal doses of opiates, so they would die. It was all in the papers, there was a huge, huge scandal. She was called ‘Death’s Angel’, and that was the original title of the play. So I started writing the play about this nurse, but then I thought, I face this issue myself, so this should be about that. This is actually a legal issue about lesbians. So then I had this woman turning off the ventilator because she was a dyke. That’s the reason the woman is turning off the ventilator. Then I realised, I was channelling. I felt this story happened, and I thought this story happened, and this person lived, and they’re telling their story through me. And that’s the greatest experience you can have as a playwright, to feel that you are the channel for a story that’s ‘there’. I’ve done it all over the world, I’ve toured all over the world.”
It’s also a play which has been a political tool. It’s been performed in support of gay rights campaigns all over the States. Terry is nothing if not a political animal – she ran against Nancy Pelosi once – and her theatre is embedded in the lesbian feminist movement. I wondered, if, like some playwrights of her generation, she felt that the very victories we have won have left her washed up on some shore; whether the change from sexual to identity politics had in some way made her redundant.
“I’m not interested in gender identity, I’m interested in women and lesbians. And feminism. And that hasn’t changed. It’s obviously no longer the case that there is no longer no place to turn to see ourselves reflected. But so what? I’ve always thought I do theatre for everybody. There isn’t any play that I’ve written that I’ve written only for gay people. My audience is everybody. A lot of times only gay people come to it, but that is not my intention.
“Now I’m working on a play which is lesbian and feminist. It’s called Mikvah, and a mikvah is a ritual bath in an orthodox Jewish community. It’s the first institution that an orthodox Jewish community has to have, because a husband and wife cannot have sex after the wife’s period until she has been purified in the mikvah. So this always seemed like a very erotic environment for me. But it’s more than that. From the very beginning I wanted to write a play about the women’s rage against the patriarchy. And I discovered people had almost no appetite, even lesbian separatists, to see that. Anger was not an acceptable emotion for women, and now it is. Now there is general understanding that there is a patriarchy, which was something very few people felt.”
The lovers at the centre of Mikvah – a bath attendant and a young bride-to-be – end up killing two men. After nearly fifty years, Terry has lost none of her fire. Or her oncompromising politics.
Immediate Family is being performed on Zoom on Tuesday 4th May from 7.30pm in a double bill with Lerv, a vaudeville by Peter Scott-Presland.
To join this performance of Immediate Family [and others in the series] join this Zoom meeting:
Meeting ID: 889 0789 9633