Lives Lost: Woman who performed Shakespeare on the street
NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — She had all the makings of a rising star, someone who wrote, directed and acted in her own plays in her 20s and attended one of the country’s top drama schools around the same time as Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver.
But unlike those stars, Margaret Holloway never made it to Broadway or Hollywood.
Instead, the 68-year-old’s stage was the New Haven streets where she lived and became known as “The Shakespeare Lady” for her gritty, intense, colorful and sometimes over-the-top performances of the bard’s “Macbeth” and “Hamlet.”
“It was absolutely electrifying,” said Richard Dailey, a writer and filmmaker who lives in Paris and spent time with Holloway in the 1990s when he was filming a short documentary about her called “God Didn’t Give Me a Week’s Notice.”
“She became alive and was just transformed,” he said of Holloway, who died of coronavirus in May.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people who have died from the coronavirus around the world.
Often homeless and hobbled by drug addiction and mental illness, she spent decades on and off the streets. But her performances almost always left an impression, sometimes drawing the ire of merchants. Still, she befriended many residents, including a former mayor.
She was estranged from her family, so she relied on friends and acquaintances to keep her company, give her money and supplies and occasionally arrange for meals at local restaurants. Needing to make a few extra bucks, she would stop passers-by outside Clark’s restaurant, Willoughby’s coffee shops or theaters at Yale and ask to perform a scene from Shakespeare.
Holloway would then take a breath, steady herself and then begin reciting, her mouth quivering, eyes wide. Her delivery at times seemed as if she was singing. It was often Holloway and an audience of one. The performance lasted just a few minutes.
“It was a way to maintain her dignity,” said Joan Channick, who met Holloway in the early 1990s and remained a friend until her death.
“She wasn’t standing on the street corner panhandling or begging for money. She was offering something in return for a contribution,” said the chair of Yale’s theater management department.
The interactions could sometimes be friendly — she was known for her big smile and tendency to greet regulars by name — or a little intimidating if she was on drugs and looking gaunt and disheveled.
Holloway’s friend, Pete DiGennaro, a New Haven musician and human rights educator who saw her perform dozens of times, recalled how the uninitiated would quickly shift from treating her like a “weird eccentric homeless person” to someone who “embodies Shakespeare.”
“Her performance of Shakespeare was her holding onto her substance, that last vestige of a healthy self,” DiGennaro said.
Holloway’s life early on seemed filled with promise. A Georgia native, she attended Bennington College in Vermont, where a classmate remembers a vivacious woman who loved soul music and the theater. The tall, regal Holloway always seemed to draw a crowd.
“Oh my God, she was fantastic. She was truly gifted,” said Laura Spector, a friend from Bennington who would later reconnect with her in New Haven. “Seeing her standing on the steps of the Common, she was a magnet. She stood out.”
Spector still remembers Holloway’s senior thesis, a play that told the harrowing story of a Black housekeeper working for a white family in the South. Holloway, who was Black, played all the parts.
“It really shined a light on what it was like to be an impoverished Black person in the Deep South during that period of time,” she said.
Holloway went to Yale in the early 1970s for acting and told the Yale Daily News in a 2001 story that she left after encountering racism during casting for a student production. She returned to Bennington to get a masters degree in 1977 before returning to Yale to get a master of fine arts degree in 1980. She told the New Haven Register had hoped to direct avant garde theater in New York.
It is hard to know what happened next but, by her own account, Holloway was living on the streets by 1983 — often just blocks from Yale. Friends believe that is about the time she began to experience schizophrenia, telling Channick and others about hearing voices and feeling as if she was constantly being sexually assaulted. Addiction to crack cocaine soon followed.
It was about this time Holloway embraced Shakespeare, possibly inspired by her days at Yale. Her performances turned her into a minor celebrity in New Haven and, to some degree, put a face on the city’s homeless population.
She was featured in several newspapers articles and was in at least two other documentaries, including one, “Remembering Shakespeare,” where she became the unlikely star talking about the English playwright and performing several scenes for the camera.
“I like the bloody gore ones. I know ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but I don’t recite it on the street ... People’s favorite, when I’m on the street and they stop by with their kids, they want to hear ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth,’” she said in the documentary, sitting on the edge of stage, dressed in a sweater and brown pants. “It’s their money so they get to hear what they want to hear.”
Her performances also got her in trouble. She was arrested several times in the early 2000s after conflicts with local businesses. Many complained she was driving off customers in the city’s arts district, often entering coffee or pizza shops in search of an audience. Holloway insisted she had the right to perform Shakespeare.
“She was a nice lady but at the same she was costing us because people would try to avoid her. They would leave and go across the street,” said Nick Yorgakaros, who owns a pizzeria on the street where Holloway would often perform.
Soon after her arrests, she got the help she needed, said Rosemarie Paine, a lawyer and friend who represented her for free. Holloway got into a facility offering treatment for substance abuse and got medication for her mental illness. She later moved into a nursing home.
“She was able to come to terms with who she was and overcome a lot of her struggles with mental illness,” Paine said.
As word spread about Holloway’s death, friends said they were amazed that she managed to make art amid her chaotic life. A New York playwright who worked with Holloway is hoping to stage a play about her. There is also talk of a movie.
“It is entirely fitting with the tragic trajectory of Margaret’s life that artistic recognition and interest come too late to do her any good,” Dailey said. “But still, I’m sure she would be pleased.”