Since 1980, performance troupe Split Britches has been gifting the world with its unique brand of feminist political theater. Today, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver—original co-founder Deb Margolin is no longer with the group—are still devoted to their queer-eyed vision: a mix of vaudeville comedy, music, poetry, and pop-culture appropriations that draws incessantly from their personal lives and politics. Their latest work, Unexploded Ordnances (UXO), plays through January 20 at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, ahead of a forthcoming tour to England, Ireland, and Wales. I recently sat down with Shaw and Weaver to discuss the production and why it remains so important for them to keep the spirit of the Split Britches alive.
How did Unexploded Ordinances (UXO) come about?
Lois Weaver: We were given this fantastic residency at Governors Island in the summer of 2014. A park ranger there was giving us a tour and he said, “Oh yeah, you’re not supposed to do any digging on the island because there could be an unexploded ordnance right there.” He explained that it could be a cannon ball from the Civil War, or the Revolutionary War [buried underground]. That term just stuck. We thought it was a great metaphor for talking about age, about unexplored potential in older people.
Peggy Shaw: I saw this beautiful map of New York harbor [which showed] hundreds of these unexploded ordnances at bottom of the river. Each munition down there is numbered. They know they’re there; some of them can blow up, and have. We just got excited by the idea that all this danger was underground—especially from the Civil War because, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, it seems that war never ended. It was a great symbol of danger.
Where does the Council of Elders at each performance come from?
Weaver: Well, part of my practice over the past 10 years has been looking at ways to invent public engagement formats—protocols I call them—ways to get people to talk to each other in public that are accessible, egalitarian, and democratic. I’ve had long tables, porch sittings, and care cafés—using the domestic to familiarize conversations about the unfamiliar. So after we located that metaphor and a theme [for the show], we started to think about how could we mix what we do—rehearsed performance, and poetry and music and so on—together with public conversation. And then, between those two ideas, Peggy became obsessed with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. That’s often how we make the work: Something comes in, a vision that won’t leave, and we figure out ways to incorporate it into the work.
Shaw: The whole movie is men except, in the beginning, for one woman in a bikini, who’s a secretary. So we have an elder from the neighborhood do that first scene from the movie. She comes on the stage and answers the red phone. Lois plays the president and I’m George C. Scott.
Weaver: We started this way before Trump, before Dr. Strangelove became as relevant as it is now. It was just an old movie, but it has this iconic image of the War Room, which is a circle of tables with all the generals. That inspired this new idea. We didn’t want to call it the War Room because we are dealing enough with militarization in the show, so we decided to call it the Situation Room. In the show we find a way to get 10 people in the audience, without them quite realizing what is happening, to sit at the table. We get the oldest people in the room and we get them to say something about themselves. Then we ask them what keeps them up at night, what’s worrying them. Then we try to come up with one consolidated situation, which is a through line for the evening. But Peggy and I also perform in and on the tables and around people, so they’re part audience, part participants. We drew from the doomsday urgency of the film, that something horrible is going to happen unless we do something. But it’s really about the urgency of time as an elder as well. We had already been dealing with aspects of age in our work. That started when Peggy had her stroke [in 2011] and we made the piece RUFF. And I worked with elders on a piece called What Tammy Needs to Know about Getting Old and Having Sex [in 2014].
How does this new piece relate to past Split Britches work?
Weaver: We’ve brought the Split Britches aesthetic into it. The edges have been sanded down a little bit, but there’s a Peggy-Lois relationship that runs throughout. We’re still borrowing and appropriating popular culture. I think the queerness is absolutely there, but it never was about being queer. It’s about really trying to bring our queer aesthetic and thinking to the subject matter, in this show about being old and being in a global crisis. We’ve always used performance to help us through whatever our particular challenges—whatever it is we don’t quite get—about being butch and going through menopause or being femme and feeling invisible, or being an artist during the Reagan-Thatcher era. We’ve used performance to help us sort through those things. Now that we’re older we use it to talk and think about age.
Speaking about subject matter, you’ve explored and played with gender issues since the start of the 1980s. How do you feel about the conversations about gender fluidity today?
Weaver: We have complex reactions to it. We first started thinking about this when did this piece called Lust and Comfort. It was right at the beginning when women that we knew were starting to transition from female to male. We felt the tide turn within the lesbian movement and we tried to work some of those ideas out ourselves in that piece. I became adamant that the femme lesbian was going to disappear. Peggy and I began to have internal conflicts about what represented femininity. Butch-femme had always been so playful for us. Now it wasn’t just a mask that we wore to be theatrical and play with gender. Suddenly it was more of a serious subject.
All these things started to challenge our own ideas. As old feminists we never believed in marriage and yet we believed in equality. I feel, as a cis woman, that we’re still battling as feminists for a place in the world as well as alongside our trans brothers and sisters. But there seems to be conflict and I’m sad about that. In that crazier world, in the ’70s and ’80s, it used to be that we were all under the same big old tent: all the transsexual women that we knew, the few transmen that we knew, all the weird queers that came in between. Now it feels like we’re really compartmentalized. It feels like the kids that we encounter now—we call them kids—are afraid of getting it wrong and it doesn’t feel fluid to me. I know we have to go through the hard parts to get to the good parts sometimes, but I’m finding it difficult.
Shaw: I did performance pieces with my tongue in my cheek. If I wear a suit, that’s a feminine suit. It’s not a man’s suit, it’s my suit. I feel things have moved on so quickly lately. To be lesbians and feminists—well, to learn what we were—we went through years of consciousness-raising. That’s how WOW Cafe [the feminist theater collective founded in 1980] started. Every Thursday we would all meet and talk about what is it to be a woman. And gay men got together at the Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse. Now it feels like an intellectual concept that’s very privileged, university-based. My family doesn’t know what we’re talking about when you say cis. I feel like there’s no desire to educate, but there’s an anger. I don’t know if that is my imagination or if it’s toward me. Okay, I’ve been a woman all my life, and if you want to call me a cis woman, well, do it nicely.
Peggy, what’s it been like to perform and tour after your stroke?
Shaw: The biggest thing is I still can’t memorize so I have to—as a group we have to—come up with ways for me to do lines without learning them. I don’t think I was ever all that great at memorizing words…
Weaver: She hated it, so now she has an excuse!
Shaw: The other thing is my balance. Lois is pushing me really hard in this show to do more. My stress level is lower because now I don’t have to memorize. I think the stroke had a lot to do with stress. The stress of learning was really hard and almost broke me. What a crazy thing to do with your life!
Weaver: One of the things Peggy often said during RUFF was that doing the show became her physical therapy. We found that performing with older people, they get a greater sense of well-being. There’s something about having to dress up and show up and be seen by people that actually makes you feel better about yourself. We call that Dr. Footlights.
Shaw: You know, one of our most important things as artists is knowing what’s going on. Just pushing ourselves to do shows keeps our brains sharp. Performing gets us in better shape.
Weaver: The other thing that’s come directly from the work on RUFF and the stroke is looking at the ways to use performance to embody care. In RUFF, Peggy immediately invokes the audiences’ participation in a caring relationship. Will you hold this for me? Can you hand me that if I need it? And, of course, I’m in the audience, so if she gets lost I tell her where to go. We started thinking consciously about how to put our own need for care in the work so we’re not putting ourselves at risk by carrying on, but also how to get other people to think more about a caring relationship between spectator, performer, or between each other.
Getting back to Unexploded Ordnances, what are your hopes for this show?
Shaw: Everywhere we go there are different people talking around the table about different lives. And, of course, always with touring, you learn what it’s really like in the world. I feel like already I have learned much more about what reality is rather than what I read what it is. I hope that it has some kind of calmness brought on me. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Trump in me. I find that the longer that Trump is around the softer I get, because I don’t want to be like him. He’s so blustery and such an asshole. Being around my family I used to be very combative. You know, it used to be street style in New York. That’s not so attractive to me anymore. I don’t want to be a bully, so I’m watching myself. He’s an anarchist but not in a thoughtful way. The harshness is so disturbing to me. I feel like I was an anarchist [too] but kinder. I want to be nicer to people rather be than combative and challenging.
Weaver: I’ll remind you of that! With all these public engagements that I do, I guess I hope that more people have a seat at the table. That is really my definition of democracy, and my definition of feminism. So my hope is the people talking to each other, listening to each other: having more of a voice in public that kind of thing. This show is quite a challenge, the biggest we’ve ever done visually. It occupies the most space we’ve ever occupied. It stretches us in terms of what we’re trying to achieve artistically, aesthetically, and politically. It feels a little bit like a flying saucer and I’m driving it—sitting at that table, moderating, and performing. When it starts I feel like, okay, I just hope we land this thing. I feel like I want to take this mothership and let it fly around and land it from place to place.