THE NAME Holly Hughes should be familiar to Washington audiences: The playwright and performance artist wrote "The Well of Horniness," a lesbian noir pulp-slapstick comedy that closed Sunday at the Source Theatre after an eight-week run. It went from three nights a week in the Late Night slot at Source to an eight-performances, five-nights-a-week Main Stage attraction and was extended three times. Source artistic director Pat Sheehy says "The Well" was a hit by all accounts, drawing nearly 2,500 people.

"It did beautifully, with all sorts of audiences," Sheehy says. "There was a range of people, young, old, hetero- and homosexual. From the responses we got, people seemed to enjoy it, and take it in the spirit of fun and outrageousness in which it was written."

But Hughes's name is known for another reason: Last Friday, the National Endowment for the Arts rejected applications for performance art grants for Hughes and three other artists, including Tim Miller (who performed in May at the Church Street Theatre), Karen Finley (who appeared at Dance Place in 1988 and more recently at Fifth Column) and John Fleck. Performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, who brought her prescient environmentalist work "L.O.W. in Gaia" to Dance Place in 1988, this week refused her own $11,250 grant in solidarity with these artists, refusing also to sign an agreement that she wouldn't use the monies for "obscene" works.

So for the time being, Hughes's performance work consists of talking about these thorny issues.

"You might ask, why us four?" Hughes says. "Clearly, what's happening is that the scapegoat du jour happens to include three open, visible gay and lesbian artists. My work is homoerotic with a capital Homo. It's clear that any kind of explicitness about sex is verboten right now. And what I share with Karen {Finley} is that we're both angry feminist artists. In addition, performance artists are very diverse ethnically and gender-wise, and that's perceived as threatening. We are in direct and complete control of our work, and our voices are not as marginal as a few years ago. We're too loud."

What's at stake for Hughes and the others, she says, is more than just badly needed money to subsidize performance art careers, hardly a lucrative field of enterprise.

"First, there's the issue of the money. The NEA is saving all of $26,000. Whoopee! What's that, four coffeepots at the Pentagon? Then there's a blacklist that's being established," Hughes says. "The money enables me to do new work -- I go around the country doing my performances wherever I'm invited. I hardly ever turn down a performance based on money. Arts-producing organizations are going to be afraid to present us, for fear that all the 'initials' will come down on them. I've become a red-flag artist."

Hughes says she has begun an appeal process. "But what we really need is a public outcry. I need my audiences. More than ever I need everyone who saw that show to call {NEA Chairman John} Frohnmayer and tell him it wasn't pornographic.

"What is pornography anyway?" Hughes asks. "Here's what I say to those who call me -- and Tim and John and Karen -- 'pornographic': If we were pornographers, we'd be making a {bundle} of money and we wouldn't need the NEA. Pornography deals only with genital sensations. An artist works to provoke an emotional and intellectual response to imagery, and art that deals with sexuality encompasses the whole human being."

After a press conference in New York next week, Hughes leaves to perform at the National Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival in Seattle, along with many artists and groups, several of whom have been produced here including Washington's own Essex Hemphill, Michael Kearns (Source Theatre), San Francisco's Theatre Rhinoceros (Kennedy Center), New York's Split Britches and Seattle's Alice B. Theatre, which is sponsoring the festival. Playwright/activist Larry Kramer ("The Normal Heart") will deliver the keynote address. Call 206/323-2623. Hughes will bring her acclaimed, autobiographical work "World Without End" to Dance Place Aug. 25 and 26, presented by Pushing the Limits. Call 891-2729.

PLAYING OUT of town: A few well-known Washington names are doing Big Things in New York this summer. Former Arena Stage company member Mark Hammer is featured in the cast of the New York Shakespeare Festival production of "The Taming of the Shrew," which stars Tracey Ullman and Morgan Freeman. Director A. J. Antoon has set it in the American frontier. For festival reservations, call 212/861-7277. And Betty, Washington's favorite rockappella trio, has a standing gig at the Ballroom, a tony Manhattan cabaret space in Chelsea that has hosted the likes of Peggy Lee. Betty has been well-reviewed and popular on Sunday nights, so they've been extended through July with a Wednesday through Sunday run. The group is working on an EP with British producer Mike Thorne (Bronski Beat, 'Til Tuesday), anticipating an August release date. For Ballroom reservations, call 212/244-3005.