Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Tess Mayer
January 9th, 2018
Up until recently, you probably had not heard of Brigid Hughes. Brigid Hughes was the second editor of The Paris Review, yet in 2010, with the appointment of Lorin Stein (who was recently forced to resign over sexual misconduct), her contributions and her credit were erased. In December, A.N. Devers published a piece on Longreads detailing the ways that the magazine’s only female editor was erased in favor of a man who better fit into the mythology of the literary culture. Of course, things like this happen all the time.
In theatre, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver had to fight to be included in the narrative of downtown theatre where they were pioneers. Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver began making work together in the 1970s, and in 1980, along with Deb Margolin, founded Split Britches and the WOW Café in the East Village, which was a home for and central to the development of feminist and queer theatre. Split Britches was known not only for its innovative and groundbreaking work in establishing the feminist and queer theatre movement in the U.S., but also for its work with the theatrical form, often mixing a variety of theatrical traditions and styles.
They’re now nearing the end of their fourth decade of making work under the auspices of Split Britches, and are presenting Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) at La MaMa as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. I recently sat down with them to discuss how their process for making work has evolved, changes in theatre since the 1980s, their thoughts on not getting the same credit as men, their legacy, and more.
What was the genesis for Unexploded Ordnances?
Lois: Two things, really. The first thing was we came across this term “unexploded ordnance,” which is a buried explosive left behind in an area of conflict. Sometimes a mine is called an unexploded ordnance. We came across this term, and we have been working with elders because we ourselves are elders. We try to work through our own questions about life in performance. We thought, “Oh, that’s a good metaphor for unexplored potential, especially in elders.” So we started playing around with that idea, keeping in mind that it had a military kind of influence. Then Peggy got obsessed with the film Dr. Strangelove, and so we thought, “Oh, let’s use Dr. Strangelove as a kind of spine, and we’ll build some of these other ideas around it.”
Peggy: I think the other thing is that we had both been doing other work for a while, and we hadn’t been in a show together since before my stroke in 2009. So we wanted to make a new show together because we had both been doing solo work. That was our initial reason for doing the show. And the other one came easy once we went to Governors Island and came across the rules that you couldn’t dig in the soil because there might be a Civil War cannonball buried underneath. It was kind of compelling.
Have you found that your process has changed over the years, especially now as you’re coming back to it?
Lois: I think it has gotten easier. I think we have a much better shorthand with each other. We always work on association, or we try to go with the first thing that comes into our minds or work on impulse. We’ve always done that, but learning to trust your impulses and trust your first associations is a long process. I think as you get older, you learn to trust yourself a little more. And we’ve made so many shows together, I think we know instinctually what comes next or what would work or wouldn’t work. It doesn’t mean we don’t struggle to work it all out, but for the most part I think the process itself is easier. We also know what our pitfalls are, and we know where our areas of conflict are, so we either go into them with our eyes open or we try to avoid them.
Peggy: We’ve always also been really clear about who the director is and that we are collaborators, but it’s clear that Lois is the director. When it’s always been there for almost 40 years and in a relationship, it’s been interesting and had good years and bad years, but it is good to have things clear when you enter a workroom about who’s in charge. We both are so different that I think the combination of us together is what works because we never agree on anything. Somewhere we find a road through that. Well, we don’t never agree on anything.
Lois: No, we agree on lots of things. And also in terms of being in charge, my whole work process, especially over the last ten years, has been about how to democratize a situation or democratize a room so that everyone has a voice, everyone has a place at the table. I direct, I initiate, and I sometimes make final decisions, but in the in the middle of that, I try to encourage everyone to have the opportunity to speak.
In terms of your collaboration process, do you feel like there are ways that has either gotten easier or harder over the years because of the way the theatre industry has developed?
Peggy: I think we started off differently because we didn’t really go along with the traditional hierarchical theatre model. We’ve learned from Spiderwoman Theater and the Hot Peaches about mistakes‚—how beautiful they are, and about the intriguing part of not having a polished piece where you have one sound designer and all that stuff, where we’re all in this mess together, and anything can happen. And that was the beginning of performance, really, and this was in the 70s. We learned from Spiderwoman Theater, from the Native American community, that spiderwomen weaved a web but always left a flaw in the web so the spirit could get in and out. And I learned from Hot Peaches that everyone’s story is beautiful, that everyone has beautiful details inside of them, and that’s what makes good theatre. Nothing that we saw in traditional theatre reflected us as lesbians or [people as] Native American or as drag queens or gay or anything. And we all learned together at the same time how to make a new type of performance that wasn’t based on the old, using the wonderfulness of theatre at the same time, but making sure we were all included as part of the package.
Lois: But things have changed. When we first started making work, we also made the place to do the work and created the community for the work, because when we first started Split Britches, we created The WOW Café at the same time, which was a space for women artists—theatre and performance artists mainly. So we were very busy making space for our work as well as making the work. Now, there’s lots of spaces that are open to us and that will have us and book us. We both come from working class backgrounds, and when we started out, we felt much more comfortable working a job, funding our own performance, and then getting that performance out on the road to make back the money that we used to fund it rather than applying for funding and trying to suit our work to the funding schemes. We decided that if we wanted to make the work we wanted to make, we’d do the work that we wanted to do and we’d try to get paid for it. And then what began to happen for us is that some of the theatres started to get funding so that they could have us, and now we are in a position where we also get funding as individual artists and as a company. So that has definitely changed for us and the fact that there’s a lot more people doing the kind of work that we started doing back in the 70s.
Does that make our work any easier? Not necessarily. Even in experimental, alternative performance theatre, we still feel on the margins in that sense. I don’t feel like that we’ve moved any closer to the establishment, not that we would want to. Things haven’t necessarily gotten easier, but we do now have money to pay for people to help support us.
Do you feel like the audiences have changed in relation to your work, in the sense that audiences now have more references to the types of work that you’re doing than they did in the past?
Peggy: I think so, especially because when we first started performing, there wasn’t a women’s or a queer women’s network of theory, even queer theory. That was developed during our beginnings, and we were part of that. So a lot of students now have studied us and are thrilled to be able to see us rather than just read about us. And so I think we have a lot of young students come to our shows, and that’s different.
Lois: Also just more proliferation of different kinds of theatre and performance. It’s just a bigger vocabulary. So yes, people at the beginning didn’t know what we were doing sometimes. Sometimes they did. But now, I think they have many more references, not just because they’ve seen other work that’s similar to ours, but also because our popular cultural references are much more ubiquitous because everything is more ubiquitous.
When we first started, we didn’t work with a linear narrative. We worked with moment-to-moment. We were very interested in relation, not necessarily in progress, and those were very new things. And that’s when people would say, “But I don’t understand. What’s the story? What are you doing?” And now there’s so much that’s non-linear in terms of film, in terms of writing, in terms of performance, that those references make it easier for people to read our performances. They have the skills and the vocabulary to do it.
Peggy: We used to always make sure we used popular references, being lesbians in the 70s and the 80s. I guess it was our road into a popular audience, to make sure that we got an audience, because there was always this tendency in that time for audiences to feel like, “Oh, I’ve seen one lesbian show. I don’t need to see another one,” kind of thing. And since that wasn’t true, we had to get them there and prove it to them.
Lois: And that’s another interesting thing about what might have changed. In the beginning, because there were so few lesbian theatre companies or even expressions, there was some pressure on us to be a lesbian theatre company. And we are a lesbian theatre company, but that doesn’t mean that we do work about lesbians. We’ve always said that we take the presence of a lesbian on stage as a given, and then from there we look at other issues and we look at other ideas. I think there is more tolerance for that now than there was when we started, when there might have been some expectation for us to be the representative lesbian feminists in a particular community.
Peggy: There’s always police and mind police in different movements and equality issues and trying to define ourselves. They want to tell you how to think. So we had that in the beginning. We had police telling us what we should think.
You mentioned that academic theory was being built around you. It seems like it must have unusual to have people discussing your work in quite that way at the same time that you were making it and evolving what you wanted to do. Did you ever feel that there was pressure on you to stay in a certain box or to be a certain thing because people started projecting something onto you?
Peggy: I think the opposite. I think they were counting on us to always live on the edge and starve to death while they were getting their academic salary, but now I think the pressure is the opposite. I think they look to us for new ideas.
Lois: I think that we grew up together, in a good way, because we engaged those academics and they started to write about our works as feminist theory and queer theory. We’re not academics ourselves, but we got pulled into it, and that felt quite good to us because it was validating. It made us feel like we were certainly not going to disappear because they were documenting us, but also it validated some of the things that we knew that we were trying to do. And they could see that, and that was exciting.
I think that we developed based on some of their theories, too. I don’t think we tried to be what they wanted us to be, but we took some of the more academic theoretical ideas, and we thought, “Oh, let’s work with that. They’re talking about the gaze, let’s give them the gaze. Let’s play with the gaze in a more obvious way.” So I think it was symbiotic a little bit, even though we don’t read it that much. We don’t completely comprehend it. We don’t talk like that, but we used some of their words and ideas as tools for the next piece.
Peggy: As Lois points out, there have been times in one or two shows where we are stuck. We’re stuck. “Well, how are we going to do this?” And we’ll look to their writing sometimes.
Lois: For instance, there’s one in Belle Reprieve. We did a show with two friends of ours, two men who do drag. The four of us made a piece based on A Streetcar Named Desire, and Peggy played Stanley and one of the men played Blanche. We came to the rape scene in the play, and we couldn’t figure out how to do that until we went back to Sue-Ellen Case when she talked about how realism works against us. The whole idea of realism and the whole arc of the logical conclusion can work against queers and feminists and women and minorities. And so we just put that into the show and made a funny thing out of it. Humor is very important to us.
When you started Split Britches and The WOW Café, what were your hopes for the company? Where did you think we would be in 2018?
Lois: People used to ask us after we had gotten established, a few years after we started doing stuff, where we would want to be in five years or where we’d want to be in ten years. And we always responded, in our different ways, “We just want to be on the road.” Literally stay on the road. And we would talk about how people think of life and success and progressiveness even, as an upward climb; we’re going to get up here and be able to stay up here. And we knew it was more like this, “You have to go around the mountain and around the mountain, sometimes up the mountain and down the mountain,” but it was never a straight line to a certain goal. And that was always our response to that.
Peggy: My favorite response to that is Ian, our grandson who is 23 now, when he started working, I said, “How’s it at work?” He goes, “It seems like everyone is looking for a piece of chocolate cake up on a mountain, and I’m just not interested in it.”
Lois: “And there’s not enough cake to go around.”
Peggy: “There’s not enough cake to go around, and I’m not interested in going up there for a piece of cake.” That feeling that everyone is looking for something better.
Lois: To go back to the actual question, when we started WOW and Split Britches, we were doing it for the fun of it, really doing it because it was fun. It felt good. It felt like we were doing something. What I mean by that is, [for example] at the early part of last year after Trump was elected, I was much more involved as a resister. I was much more involved in organizing things and doing things, and that made me feel better. And I think at that point, back in the 80s, just doing stuff made us feel better about who we were as women in the world. And we were doing it for ourselves, really. We weren’t doing it to be famous or to enter the mainstream or to get better. We’d show up every day because it was fun.
Peggy: And it was ours.
Lois: And it was political. We knew what we were doing was political, but we didn’t have a massive goal. And I think that has probably always been the case. Even now, UXO is one of our biggest shows in scale, but it doesn’t mean that now we want to be there forever. We’ve been talking about, “Well, maybe our next piece is going to be one-to-one.” Or, “We like the small theaters. We don’t need the big.” So, I don’t know if we ever had any kind of goal except to keep doing it.
I was reading about the history of the company, and now so much of what you did, probably particularly in our economic climate, seems very, very difficult to do, and that you would have to be extremely driven to be able to do it. What is your relationship with ambition, both then and now?
Lois: I completely recognize that when we were doing what we were doing in the 70s and 80s and even some of the 90s, we had apartments. We could move apartments. We weren’t stuck in the same apartment. We didn’t have to have a roommate in every room, so we could use one of the rooms in our apartment to rehearse. We were able to pay the rent on a storefront, which was $500 a month, not $50,000 a month, and also our rent was $75 a month back in the 70s and 80s.
For me to be in a position to teach and encourage people, and women in particular, to become independent artists, which is what we consider ourselves, is a bit of an ethical dilemma for me because I don’t know how people are going to survive. And yet I still encourage that, because the strength of that or the strength that that gives you is an amazing thing. I know it’s a lot, lot harder than it was when we started out.
Peggy: It was pretty hard when we started out.
Lois: Yeah, but not really.
Peggy: By “starting out” I mean we were touring in Europe all the time with great difficulty and starving and stealing and everything else. We came back to New York and realized there was a huge gap in New York. We knew already there was no performance space for this type of theatre and performance by women. In Italy and Amsterdam—all over Europe—there were women’s festivals. And we came back and decided to make one here. And that requires bravery just to go up to a place and say, “We want.”
Lois: I agree with you. It requires bravery and strength and all of that, but we could do it. We could be without money and still survive. We could go up to a place on St. Mark’s Place, and there would still be a place on St. Mark’s Place that was sort of half-ass funded so they could give us a little space. That doesn’t exist so much right now. I guess real estate is the main threat in all of that. Loads of people have bravery now, but the what it takes to pay your rent and to eat for a month is a lot greater than what it was when we started. So yeah, we had lots of grit then, but we didn’t have the same overheads.
I think a lot of people look back on that time with a slightly romantic, nostalgic view. Over the holidays I was reading Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries, which is about a similar time period but mostly covers very wealthy people and the start of Reaganomics and a lot of policies that have led to the economic problems that we’re seeing now. Looking back, what do you think people in general get wrong about New York and New York theatre during that time period? What do people get wrong about your work during that time period?
Peggy: I would like to answer with, “New York: what went wrong?” I think it’s the basis thing of what’s wrong with this country, which is this systematic racism and sexism and misogyny. Living in the East Village, we saw white flight. We saw all the white people leaving the neighborhood because there was a lot of Spanish and black people moving in because there were apartments available. The whole co-op and condo phase had to do with owning your apartment. And if you didn’t have money, you couldn’t own your apartment, so you rented. And now the result is that everyone is buying and holding onto their apartments and selling them for a lot of money, so everything goes up and up and up and up. We bought our apartments through Cooper Square, where I’ve lived since the early 70s, which is a low-income housing. And if you move or if you die, your apartment doesn’t go on the market. It goes back to the co-op, and they have to sell it to a low-income person. I think it was in the systematic problem of New York City, which was the city actually making rules about housing that were against tenants and against retail because retail also went skyrocketing. So you can only have a Starbucks. You can’t have the cobbler anymore, or you can’t have the fish market anymore. You have to have coffee. That kind of super-capitalism that happened in the city and a lot of it could have been prevented with rent control and retail rent control.
Lois: But “What did theatre do wrong?” We didn’t buy our spaces. Now, that’s a capitalist point of view, but what I’m going to talk about by saying that is that as a culture, particularly the alternative theatre culture, we’ve always been kind of itinerate. We have an itinerant streak in us. We’re a little bit like the circus. We like to pack up and move on to the next town. Or Vaudeville. All of those histories, I think, are in some of our DNA. Peggy has often said, “I could have bought that building for a dollar [in the ‘70s].” Ellen Stewart bought this building [La MaMa] for a dollar. We didn’t see that coming in the way that it came and has flooded us, so that we didn’t hold onto our spaces so that we could still keep working. Theater for the New City did. La MaMa did. A lot of others of us didn’t because we were committed to a more fluid lifestyle and also a non-capitalist lifestyle. We didn’t want to own things. We didn’t want to own the buildings.
We made a piece in 1984 called Upwardly Mobile Home, which was us kind of trying to work through the Reagan/Thatcher days. We made it in 1984, and in that piece, we were an itinerant theatre company living in a Volkswagen van under the Brooklyn Bridge while a fourth member of our company was competing in a kind of marathon to win a mobile home. We really looked at how what we were experiencing was upward mobility of the 80s. And what was happening to us was that our margin culture, our alternative culture, was starting to get dressed up in Nikes and nylons and go to work for Wall Street. And so we were actually feeling that stretch then. And our only way of dealing with it was to make work about it.
The second part of your question, “What do people get wrong about your work?” is that we kept saying, “We just want to go to New Orleans and do our work,” or, “We just want to be on the road.” And I think people looked at us at that point, even our lesbian feminist community looked at us at that point, as downwardly mobile and not ambitious and not wanting to make it. And we even had conflicts with our friends, people who came into the partnership on WOW. Part of the partnership wanted to make it into a successful company, and we wanted to just keep it in this…
Lois: Our relation to ambition has been to try to stay true to our own politics around how we make work and why that work is important and how we want to live, which is not about being upwardly mobile or buying our building or owning property or any of those things, which might have been mistakes in the 80s.
How did it make you feel to have people thinking of the company as downwardly mobile, especially after you had done so much to create the work, create a community, and be at the center of it? Was there any anger at people then? Is there anger at people now?
Peggy: I think so, and especially in our building of WOW and this block on 4th Street. It was a factory building. There was two artists living upstairs, and the rest was a factory. And I got a space in there by going in there every day, talking to the community, talking to the people that were in there, “How can we do this in a nice way?” because they were leaving this space and, “How can we get it?” and all of that stuff. It took a year of just trying to figure out how to do it in a kind way to make sure that our desire for their space, because we heard they were leaving, did not destroy them in some way. It took a long time. We had to cut up all their equipment with torches and put it out the windows. I mean, we did a lot of work. Then we got in there, and now all these fancy people are moving in there and telling us we make too much noise, and there’s too many people of color in there, too many of those big old dykes from Brooklyn in there. That kind of thing. Or when all of a sudden everyone has money to redo their floor, but we don’t have money to redo our floor, and we’ve been in there 34 years or something.
Lois: That’s now. Going back to the Upwardly Mobile Home performance days, I think we were hurt and confused a bit at that stage because we had pulled together this whole wild community to make WOW happen, and there were women of different classes from different countries, different races, and we all made this fabulous community. And then we really did see a move into this sort of upward mobility, and I think we were confused about what was happening to our community. I remember feeling a lot of hurt, and I think that definitely inspired the show because I remember us sort of lying on the floor, thinking, “Have we got it wrong? Have we missed something because we’re not on that parade?” And someone said, “That’s our next show. Upwardly Mobile Home.” And then we took it from there. And we’ve often used performance to help us work out the things that we can’t understand in life.
At the beginning, you mentioned still feeling on the margins of theatre. When I interviewed Lisa Kron she talked a little about how she got her start at The WOW Café, and she said something to the effect that she felt that there was so much luck and timing involved in terms of how people coming from that community were seen by the theatre community at large, and the fact that she very much moved into mainstream theatre and other people didn’t. Obviously, some of that has to do with different people’s goals, but I thought it was interesting that she also mentioned timing and luck, and I wanted to get both of your thoughts on that.
Lois: That’s a really lovely thing for her to say, and I think that’s true. I think that that was her goal, and so she had a different driver than maybe someone else had. And she pushed through, and she managed that, but I think it is luck and timing.
I often feel like that, not just about us, but about some of our other collaborators whose work was really groundbreaking. A choreographer that we work with, Stormy Brandenberger, is a really groundbreaking choreographer. She was having women lift each other at a time when that wasn’t being done in modern dance or any kind of dance. And, of course, then that became the norm, and other people, because of the timing and their luck, became known for that. But Stormy was the pioneer in that. On one hand, I often think that we’ve gotten plenty of attention, but on the other hand I feel like in a lot of ways we were pioneers, and we carved out different territories, and we made certain opportunities for other people to then be able to take another step up that we ourselves couldn’t take or weren’t given the opportunity to take or the same kind of door opening. And I think that’s timing, generational timing.
Peggy: Well, part of it was what was happening on the Lower East Side. We were lesbians, and a lot of white men started opening spaces after we did, and there were all these books written about them, and they never included The WOW Café. So, we worked very hard to get two books out. There are two books now. But when it comes to culture, a lot of times there is no real timing, and it has to do with the culture and who they’re going to support. They’re not going to support uneducated black women on the Lower East Side or older lesbians, or whatever. It’s the boys. They go flying by because they lift each other up to the next stage. Lisa got to where she wanted to be through a lot of hard work. She worked really hard. The Lesbian Brothers were an extraordinary company, and she worked her ass off and didn’t just get lucky. She worked hard.
Lois: But it was a timing thing. I do think that she was able to move into a time when something like the Public Theater was ready to look at lesbian subject matter or work with a lesbian playwright.
In terms of all that, do you feel that even though, yes, things have changed a certain amount by the beginning of 2018, that in fact things have not particularly changed that much about whose work gets noticed or who gets credit for things? Do you feel like, with women’s work in particular, people are more likely to see it as up for grabs in terms of things that they can borrow and steal from, or that there’s a projection of something altruistic onto it of like, “Oh, you must be trying to help, and therefore we can take this”?
Lois: I think you just answered your own question. And I will just say, “Yes, you’re right.”
Peggy: Our answer is, “Yes.”
Lois: Absolutely. I have to say, I’m starting to feel a little bit of a shift in relation to race, as far as that’s concerned, that all of the hard work of Black Lives Matter and all the painful stuff over the last couple of years and all the stuff about the Oscars. All of that has just started to shift just a little in terms of race so that when I start to see who’s getting attention, there are more faces of color. And I think that’s good.
I don’t necessarily think it’s happening for women. I hesitate to say this because it can sound bitter, and I’m not bitter, but what Peggy was saying is that over the years we’ve seen young, male performance artists who come from the same kind of world that we do, the same kind of aesthetics that we have, similar, maybe different kind of talents, and they just go like this [straight up]. They go like this. They go like this. They go like this, and we sort of stay here. Even this big performance piece we’re doing now with lots of support and lots of attention, we didn’t get some of the feature articles we thought we might have gotten. And yet we see these little boys that we knew when they were little boys, and “Oh, they got one.” And not that they don’t deserve it. I love their work. But it’s always the boys. It has always been the boys. So, that I think is still a big mountain to climb for us, and I don’t see a lot of progress. Feminism has become the word of the year for the first time in our lives, and we’ve been through many ups and downs in terms of the popularity of the word “feminist,” not for us, but the culture. Maybe that will shift in some way just in terms of consciousness. It’s about consciousness-raising. But I don’t see it much.
Peggy: The shift is very slow, because in the early WOW days, people would call up and say, “There’s a demonstration at the Gay Men’s Film Festival. There’s no lesbians in the thing.” I would just say to them, “Go make your own festival. Why are you wasting your energy demonstrating in front of a gay men’s festival? Take all that energy, and make your own.” So, you get tired after a while because it didn’t change it. It changed things, but it takes decades. It doesn’t change overnight, but in this culture it takes centuries, unfortunately.
Lois: And then we slide back.
Peggy: And then we have Trump come along and stomps on all of the slow progression that was being made through Obama and his kindness and diversity.
You said before, “Not to sound bitter.” Do you not feel that you’ve earned the right to be angry and have emotions like that, or does that still feel taboo?
Peggy: I don’t have any trouble being angry, but I feel like it works against me, that it takes a lot to be angry, and it’s useless unless you have to get it out.
Lois: I disclaimed that I could have bitterness or anger in that someone would pay more attention to a man than they would pay attention to me, and that’s a really tricky kind of internalized misogyny, I think, on my own part. I think that’s a really interesting question, and I think Peggy’s right, and I think you’re right in asking it. We have every right to be angry, and we should be angry. We should be more bitter that we haven’t gotten more of our share of this.
What do you want your legacy to be, if you define it for yourselves?
Lois: My greatest compliment has always been someone coming up and saying, “Oh, you made me feel like I could do that.” And I think that would be my greatest legacy, is that we could create work that makes people feel like they could take something from that and make something themselves.
Peggy: The word “legacy” is funny. I think it’s the same as it was when we started doing work. I didn’t do performance work until later in my life, by mistake, and it was really to fill a void that was empty and that I would spend my life throwing more information of reality into that void or that black hole, which was true stories about lesbians, true stories about women, a space for people of color to perform and a space for old women to perform, young women. I think my artistic vision was to make more material that is written and produced and directed and acted and everything by women. I remember on St. Mark’s Place, we went to the Ukrainian theater in the end of the 70s, and me and Lois saw…
Lois: Toulouse Lautrec.
Peggy: And he was a disabled guy, and in the climax of the show he, of course, raped a woman. We vowed at that moment that we were going to become revolutionaries, and we were going to get all of our friends organized, and during every single show that was on Broadway and everywhere else where a man oppressed a woman, the lights would go dark, we’d remove the perpetrator and leave a black mask or something. Instead we created The WOW Café because we realized that would have been an endless job, and it was much better to create work. And that was from anger. That was anger, of course.