Split Britches: Together or apart, still going strong (feature)

by Sue Feinberg & Judd Hollander

For nearly two decades, Split Britches has been presenting original and innovative works of lesbian theatre, often with autobiographical elements. During this time, Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver, cofounders of the group, have explored issues of home and hearth, taken on such classics as Little Women and A Streetcar Named Desire, and performed solo pieces on issues universal to all woman, gay or straight. As Shaw put it, "We go through a lot of things in shows that we go through in life. Such as relationships. (Weaver and Shaw have been a couple since before they founded Split Britches with Deb Margolin in the early 1980s.) We try to portray our relationship as open and positive [and] try to make our shows lined up with moments of life. I guess our mood is one of anything is possible."

Weaver and Shaw met in 1977 when Shaw was performing with Hot Peaches, a male drag group, and Weaver was working with Spiderwoman Theatre, a feminist theatre company. The two became friends (and more) and eventually formed Split Britches, the name coming from a garment which women working in the field during pioneer days would wear so they could urinate while standing up. The idea behind the new company was to create pieces of lesbian theatre, or works containing lesbian elements, which they could perform themselves. The group's first piece (also called Split Britches), looked at the pioneer roots of Weaver's family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The word "pioneer" is a bit ironic, as the group has been seen in that light in many quarters of the lesbian and performance-art communities - a description Weaver accepts with some modifications. "I suppose we're pioneers born of other pioneers - those being Spiderwoman and Hot Peaches. They were the real first explorers. And then we came and settled the territory. But in a way, I think we're still pioneers. [Today] it's much easier for lesbians to work in the mainstream. But in terms of some of the work we're doing it's still not easy for the mainstream [to accept], so it still feels like carving out new territory."

The group has turned out numerous works over the years, performing them all over the world. They include: Upwardly Mobile Home, Beauty and the Beast, Belle Reprieve and Lesbians Who Kill. Some of the awards the group has received over the years include: a 1985 Villager Award for Best Ensemble and another in 1991 for their show Belle Reprise, which they performed with the London performance group Bloolips. In 1998 Shaw won an OBIE Award for her solo work Dress Suits for Hire. And in July 1999, Split Britches received an OOBR Award for lifetime achievement for their contributions to the Off-Off-Broadway theatre community.

Perhaps one of the most significant monuments to their efforts was the creation of the WOW (Women's One World) Cafe in 1982. Currently located at 59 East 4th Street, near La MaMa, WOW provides women a space in which they can perform their works. Notes Shaw, "We saw a lot of talent having nowhere to go. And so we just created [a place] for it." To this day, WOW remains an integral part of the East Village performance-art world.

Split Britches has, however gone on to other challenges (although Weaver and Shaw take part in the annual WOW retreat where the schedule for the next year is tentatively laid out). In addition to changes in their group (Deb Margolin has moved on), Shaw and Weaver are also branching out on their own solo performances. "The solo stuff came about out of desire to see what we were like without each other, but also out of convenience and necessity," notes Shaw. "It's something we can do while the other person's doing something else." (Currently Weaver is the co-artistic director of the Gay Sweatshop as well as a teacher at Queen Mary and Westfield College, both institutions located in the East End of London.) Last summer Shaw toured in her one-person show Menopausal Gentleman. Commenting on the show, Weaver said "Whether you're gay or not gay, as a woman, you're going to confront menopause. I think that Peggy's confronting it as a butch lesbian takes a sort of masculine approach to something that's so feminine." As for Weaver, she finished a stand at La MaMa last spring, starring in her own solo work, Faith and Dancing, in honor of her mother, who passed away in 1995: a work she noted as being about "mother love." "It's about growing up and learning to understand my feminine self and accept my sexuality by looking at my relationship to my mother and my motherland. It's also a fascination with natural disasters and a look at how the creative destructive force of nature has been attributed as being female." (It used to be that all hurricanes were named after women.)

Despite their solo efforts, Shaw and Weaver have no plans to stop working together when their schedules allow. They will present their new work Salad of the Bad Cafe (based on elements from Carson McCullers's book Ballad of the Sad Cafe) at La MaMa in February 2000, in collaboration with Asian-American performance artist Stacy Mikishi. Asked what they hope will come with the turning of the millennium, the two shrug hopefully, with Weaver saying, "I think it's wishful thinking, but lots of people are saying we're moving into an age of compassion, and I think that's true. [Because] the [type of] person we've come to admire is the person who's willing to give their life for another and not risk all in order to get ahead. So I sort of think maybe we're going to move in that direction." To which Shaw adds, "Things don't come true unless we imagine it. So if we can imagine the future having trees and rivers that enrich our lives rather than destroy us...."

And as for where the two of them hope Split Britches will be when the 21st century rolls around, Shaw says simply, "hopefully we'll be doing the same thing we are now."