Margaret Holloway DRA ’80 spoke loudly and rapidly about her life as she sat on the stoop of a building near the Whitney Avenue. Willoughby’s coffee shop. She is on this corner often.
At nightfall, on the corner of Wall Street, sounds of Holloway’s Shakespeare performances frequently echo as she tried to make the $20 she needed to sleep indoors.
The life of this impoverished Yale graduate, known to many as “the Shakespeare Lady,” could take a turn for the better as a result of a documentary film, “God Didn’t Give Me A Week’s Notice,” Richard Dailey made about her life.
It is the story of a talented actress, suffering in poverty and mental illness on the campus of the school she once attended.
Margaret Holloway graduated from Bennington College in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in acting.
She was then accepted into Yale School of Drama as a member of the acting class. A month into her first semester, however, Holloway dropped out, she claimed, after she experienced racially biased casting for a student production.
Holloway said she later returned to Bennington to pursue a master’s degree in directing and dramatic literature. It was during her second time at Bennington that Dailey met her.
Since Dailey was three years behind Holloway and an English major, he said, their contact was casual.
“When I attended Bennington, it was impossible not to know Margaret Holloway,” Dailey wrote in an e-mail. “She was an imposing presence and creative influence on campus. The school devoted many resources to her.”
Showing her resilience and determination to overcome obstacles, Holloway said, she went back to the School of Drama as a student of the directing program.
For part of her requirement at the Drama School, Holloway said, she asked John Gardner, who was a teacher and mentor of Holloway’s at Bennington, if she could direct his piece, “God’s Smoke.” Holloway said Gardner agreed. Gardener, however, was killed in a motorcycle crash in 1982, and the script was not published, Holloway added.
“I had hoped to introduce him to the theater business,” Holloway said. “And he had hoped to introduce me to the literary business.”
During her second time at the Drama School, however, Holloway said, she experienced more racism as a result of an interracial relationship with a white man.
“I almost got killed when I was in the Yale School of Drama,” Holloway said. “White girls followed me around, went to my classes that they weren’t supposed to be in, and threatened to kill me if I did not stay away from him.”
A good friend of Holloway’s from the Drama School, however, remembers her as extremely gifted.
“Margaret was one of the brightest students in the entire Drama School,” the drama school friend said.
But she questioned the accuracy of Holloway’s stories of harassment by fellow students.
“Margaret was not harassed unless it was really on the sly,” the friend said. “She was one of us, and she was considered very talented.”
But Holloway tells a very different story.
“My time at the Drama School was probably even more hateful than when I grew up down South during Jim Crow laws,” Holloway said.
While at Yale, Holloway wrote her thesis on a “theater of hunger,” which she describes in her senior thesis as the “revelation of the human condition on stage through use of pure sound and movement.”
Holloway’s senior essay is still available in the Drama School library.
What Holloway did not know when she wrote her dissertation is that someday she would come eerily close to fulfilling her own theory.
Poverty and mental illness
Holloway’s narrative of how she became homeless is complicated and hard to verify.
She said she was gang raped twice, beaten over the head, and forced to sleep in dumpsters until she came down with “tactile demons,” an illness that she claimed brings about hallucinations in all five senses.
“I’m being raped 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Holloway said in the documentary.
She also said in the film that her mom and two aunts raped her in a Holiday Inn in 1983.
Steven Ecker, the documentary’s trustee and Dailey’s brother-in-law, said Holloway receives medication every day from the Connecticut Mental Health Center.
“My psyche has been permeated by filth and bad food and not knowing what’s happening to me,” Holloway said.
Although Holloway admits to smoking marijuana in the Drama School, she denies taking drugs now. Ecker said he has ascertained enough from various sources that Holloway is not on drugs.
He said rather that Holloway has fallen through the cracks of the mental health system.
“Margaret has a mental illness,” Ecker said. “It’s prevented her from having a job and leading a life like people who aren’t mentally ill do.”
Holloway’s Drama School friend said she remembers when Holloway first displayed signs of mental illness. It was rumored that Holloway had had a bizarre reaction to antibiotics, she said.
Day to day life
The tall, thin Holloway begins every day by grabbing breakfast at the Whitney Avenue Willoughby’s, which is filled with professionals throughout the day.
“They give me free food in here all day,” Holloway said. “It’s a godsend to know that if I am hungry, I can always come right here. And they’ve been very good to me.”
Holloway then stations herself on the sidewalk and waits for donations.
“There are lawyers, doctors and financiers over here on this side of town, and they love me,” Holloway said. “We talk about stuff that doesn’t even have to do with theater, like physics, geology and math. They’ll give me money to have these discussions with me.”
Holloway repeatedly shouted out names and waved to people who waved back as they ran into their respective buildings. It appeared that Holloway was well-known on this block.
Holloway said it costs her $20 a day to stay illegally in a crawl space above a New Haven restaurant. She said the owners incur expenses because they are paying for a superintendent just to protect her.
In August 1999, Dailey said he visited New Haven, only to learn that Holloway, the brilliant student he attended Bennington College with, was now performing on the streets of New Haven for spare change to provide her with shelter for the night.
“This news hit me like a lightning bolt, and I immediately went to find her,” Dailey wrote in an e-mail. “It wasn’t difficult. She was on Whitney Avenue, her ‘theater’ of choice and chance.”
In possession of his first digital video camera, Dailey said he suggested recording Holloway’s performances, and she agreed.
“Her performances were electrifying,” Dailey wrote.
Dailey and Holloway worked on the documentary for two weeks together, he added.
Set to jazzy music, the film features Holloway dramatically reciting several pieces from Euripides, Shakespeare and Chaucer. Dailey also recorded Margaret speaking about her life. Interspersed through the documentary are candid and telling stills of Holloway in various locations in New Haven.
“The film brings both her life and her performances together,” Dailey wrote.
Dailey said he then returned to his home in Paris and spent the next six months editing the film that will be presented on Dec. 9.
“Margaret’s immediate approval of my efforts was a tremendous relief as it was essential to me that she feels positive about the image of her life and work that I put together,” Dailey wrote.
Holloway’s lawyer, Dailey said, sent him a contract that reflected the
hand-shake agreement Holloway and Dailey made before filming. The contract stated that any revenues produced by the film would be divided equally between the two.
The Dec. 9 benefit screening at York Square Cinemas on Broadway is an exception. All of the proceeds from that show will be donated to Holloway.
But, thus far, the film has made no money.
“There is no commercial market for an eight-minute film about a homeless person,” Ecker said, although the documentary is now 15 minutes long.
That’s how the idea for the benefit came up. Posters advertising the screening at Yale Square Cinemas were made up and shown to Holloway.
“It was really moving when I gave Margaret the posters,” Ecker said.
Soon after Ecker told Margaret about plans for the benefit screening, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. called Ecker to offer his support.
“He likes Margaret and wanted to help,” Ecker said. “He clearly cares about her. John DeStefano wasn’t calling me before I knew Margaret.”
Holloway will be receiving all of the proceeds from Sunday’s screening and is free to use the money in any way she wants.
“I don’t feel comfortable directing how she uses the money,” Ecker said. “I am not comfortable giving her a big wad of money.”
Holloway said that the film screening will change her life.
“What’s going to happen to me is that I will have no bone to pick,” Holloway said. “I will have no cross to bear and I will have no battle to fight, and that will be bad for me because I am the kind of person that I believe in fighting for something.”
Ecker sounded enthusiastic about the screening, but remains realistic about the effects it will have on Holloway’s life.
“This isn’t going to save Margaret,” Ecker said. “It will make a few thousand dollars and support her for a few months. It will give her some real happiness and recognition, not as a poor, pathetic victim, but as an artist too.”
Holloway will have fulfilled a lifelong dream after Dec. 9.
“I can’t complain that I won’t have my 15 minutes that Andy Warhol promised everybody, because now I’m going to get it,” Holloway said.
In the documentary, lines from Holloway’s 1980 thesis run sporadically across the bottom of the screen.
“Many artists have aspired to a theater of hunger,” Holloway wrote.
“Many were imprisoned, driven insane, etc. These artists know that there is no separation between the quest toward a theater of hunger and a quest toward a way of life. We continue in this quest.”