- “I went into the hospital as a woman who gets mistaken for a man, but it seems I came out of the hospital as a straight white man cause half my brain was missing.”
- “I have never claimed to be an original person. But if you have a chance to see inside your body, don’t do it.”
- “You can’t photograph your thoughts; take a picture of what you believe in.”
By quirk of fate, quirk of timing, quirk of demographics, quirk of geography, I have educated myself this season about theatre created by feminist queer women over the past few decades and currently on New York Stages. Women sharing their histories in this city, and the art they have created. Lisa Kron over the past few years in a panel on solo plays and in her own works on stage. Moe Angelos evoking the spirit of Susan Sontag. Both Kron and Angelos together speaking of their current work and their past, invoking the WOW Cafe and the Split Britches acting troupe and quite frequently the name of Peggy Shaw. And now, in the presence of Ms. Shaw herself in her newest one woman show Ruff as well as a healthy amount of her personal professional archives currently on display at the La MaMa Galleria, I have learned much more about queer theatre and powerful women’s voices. One woman’s voice, on stage, alone with video monitors and, yes, some inflatable fish. Peggy Shaw in person. And I am smitten.
On the main floor, main building, La MaMa performance location on East 4th Street, a set that screams irreverence and a conspiratorial wink greets you before the one woman show even begins. The stage is bare to the theatre wall brickwork, containing a few video screens turned with their backsides to the audience to start, and built around a swath of green that represents at least one huge inside joke that Shaw shares quite soon into her show. In a piece in which Shaw claims her life post stroke, performance of a lifetime, engagement with her audience, she pokes a bit of fun (sometimes using those video monitors as prompters, sometimes as projection screens) at the theatre den mother who started and ran La MaMa until her death in 2011, and at the same time (for those who know the date of that passing) places her own stroke in its own chronology.
“She didn’t allow green to appear anywhere on her stage;
she believed that it brought bad luck,
and if you didn’t believe that
you would soon find out that she was right.
It was a spiritual thing
because something always happened to those who defied her.
I guess that’s why I had a stroke.
I didn’t go with her,
and that was a huge moment in my life,
deciding not to do everything Scorpios tell me to do.
So maybe if you are psychological,
you could say this performance is about defying Scorpios,
or Ellen Stewart.”
Shaw thinks in stories and shares them: of late night worries about ham sandwiches; of 50-year-old film of herself dolled up as an adolescent for a relative’s wedding; of roasting a turkey in her Lower East Side apartment forgetting to remove the giblet bag; of doctors, of fears, of hopes. This performer reaches out and embraces her audience in words, with props (oranges or shoes), with set pieces of whimsy (floating blow up fish — why not!), with her personal charisma.
The performance could, I suppose, be seen as one of defiance: a woman several years after a stroke that has hampered her movements and hindered her memory and articulation. On the other hand, this performance could, and should, be seen as one of quiet charms and a sort of honoring of a performance milieu and style and community. Women speaking to women, lone voices reaching out to embrace other human beings, a pared -down sensibility telling a tale of self-revelation through poetic words, through sharing a shoe or an orange or a piece of clothing with the audience (later to be delivered to the performer). Small acts of connecting adding up to a big theatrical heart that beats consistently and loudly for audience members smart enough to make their way to La MaMa before this show closes.
After my performance of Ruff, I wandered a few blocks away to East First Street and the La MaMa Galleria’s companion show Desperate Archives — composed of materials re-purposed by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver from their own performance and development archives for shows developed for Split Britches. Archives with rough organization yet available to touch and muse upon. I had not seen any of the shows that used the materials represented in the archive show (much to my chagrin), yet I felt I learned from my time in the exhibit much about the Shaw and Weaver’s artistic tastes and processes. Archives like these are intimate and powerfully evocative. Those who know the shows that draw from the materials on display in the Galleria as well as those new to this important history are in for a gluttonous archival meal.
© Martha Wade Steketee (January 20, 2014)