Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw were in an old army barracks in New York when they first heard the phrase that would give them the title for their new show for Split Britches, the avant-garde queer feminist theatre company the pair co-founded in 1980.
“The base had been used in the Cold War, but was now mainly used as an art space,” explains Weaver, “and I went for a walk around the space, but before I went I was told to be careful where I stepped, because there were unexploded ordnances there. I’d never heard that term before and asked what it meant, and was told it was unexploded bombs. Because we’d been working with elders, and because both Peggy and I are elders, the phrase was the perfect metaphor for us. We all have our unexploded bombs and things we’ve always wanted to do but have never done.”
The incident planted the seed for what would become Unexploded Ordnances (UXO), which is currently on the London leg of a British and Irish tour which stops off in Glasgow next week as one of the highlights of city-wide festival of experimental performance, Take Me Somewhere.
“Once we had this idea of unexploded ordnances, Peggy became obsessed with Dr Strangelove,” says Weaver, referring to Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Cold War-set comedy film about an accidental nuclear attack by America on Russia. “We realised that had resonance, especially with the film’s idea of having a Domesday device. To grow old and die, there’s a real urgency to Domesday, and in the film it’s quite serious, so we played with that for a while, but really, Peggy just wanted to be George C Scott. That left me to be Peter Sellers, so you had this idea of the bombastic general and the president.”
If such satirical notions of nuclear paranoia initially sounded more in keeping with the Cold War era in which the film was made, the impetus of the piece and its focus on the idea that an older generation could bring their experience to the table to prevent history repeating itself became increasingly pertinent.
“We started playing with all this before Trump was elected,” says Weaver. “Brexit was bubbling up, but it was only after we did a work-in-progress of the show that it became quite Trumpified. There are references in the show to Trumpian language, and his colloquialisms if you can bear to give them enough credit to call them that. But this nuclear fear is something I grew up with, and we thought it had gone way, but now that fear is back.
“In the show we get older people from the audience at the table, and I ask people what’s on their mind, so people can express their fears. When older people come up, they say they thought things would be different by now, but they’re not. I’m 68 years old now, and long before there was any response from CND or anything like that, I remember sitting in my room after the Cuban missile crisis, and thinking I was going to die. I think that sense of anxiety has very much come back again.”
The sole Glasgow date of Unexploded Ordnances is presented in conjunction with the National Theatre of Scotland and the Easterhouse-based Platform venue, which hosts the show. Further support comes from Scotland’s creative ageing organisation, Luminate, and Outspoken Arts Scotland, the new organisation born out of Glasgay! Split Britches have previously brought work to Scotland as part of the National Review of Live Art and as part of Glasgay!, with performances taking place at the Arches, the Tron and the CCA. This dates back to the 1990s, with the show, Lesbians Who Kill, as well solo works, Ruff, by Shaw, and Weaver’s piece, What Tammy Needs to Know.
The roots of Split Britches date back to a meeting while Weaver was touring with women’s performance troupe, Spiderwoman Theatre, and Shaw with drag-based theatre company, Hot Peaches. Both ended up performing in Spiderwoman Theatre’s An Evening of Disgusting Songs and Pukey Images. Around that time, Weaver began to create a show about her aunts and great aunt, which she called Split Britches, The True Story. Based in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the show drew its title from the type of underwear worn by women while working the fields, which enabled them to urinate without stopping work.
As an opening gambit for a company with an aesthetic split between poverty and comedy, it was as much of a statement as Weaver and Shaw’s co-founding of the WOW Café. The WOW for this festival to showcase women theatre and performance makers with the WOW stood for Women’s One World.
“We decided we wanted to make work with more of a lesbian focus,” says Weaver, “and that grew into our first show together, which then evolved into Split Britches becoming a company. Peggy and I would often play out aspects of our relationship onstage, and we wanted to look at that as well. In the early days we wanted to be outlaws, and with both Split Britches and the WOW Café, we were finding out how to do things as we went along, and we were having fun doing it, but we were dealing with lots of serious issues as well.”
This included a backlash from some feminists, who didn’t like Split Britches portrayal of women. The rise of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s also left its mark, as did everyday homophobia and increased gentrification of rundown spaces where grassroots art had once thrived.
“We were dealing with a lot of things back then,” says Weaver, “but in terms of queer representation, a lot of work still needs to be done, but we’ve come a long way.”
Dividing her time between New York and London, in 1992, Weaver briefly became co-artistic director of Gay Sweatshop, the British theatre company founded as a collective in 1975. By that time, managerialism and ‘excellence’ was being enforced onto artistic activity at all levels, and Weaver moved on.
In this sense, Weaver, Shaw and Split Britches have remained outsiders, unwilling to have their work co-opted and gentrified as many once radical theatre companies have chosen to do. At the same time, as the presence of many younger artists taking part in Take Me Somewhere show, the trickle-down effect of the trail blazed by Split Britches has left its mark.
“We didn’t realise we were doing anything pioneering,” says Weaver. “We were just doing what we wanted to do, which was making work with non-linear narratives, and doing all kinds of these fractured, surreal performances in ways that have now slipped into the mainstream. We’re not fighting the same battles anymore.”
As elder states-people of alternative culture, Weaver and Shaw may be ageing gracefully, but they still like to play.
“We really like that term, elder,” says Weaver, “because in native American culture, the elder plays an important role in the tribe, and when you go to parties now, you get to a certain age, and people bring things to you. And now, we’re elders at this precarious moment in history, and one of the things we’re trying to do with Unexploded Ordnances is to find out what that means.”
Weaver and Shaw’s own solution to living through adversity is simple.
“You just go on,” says Weaver. “You get to the stage in life and in culture where you’re in a moment where you’re aware of the dangers around you, but you go on anyway. One of the things we talk about in Unexploded Ordnances is desire, and hidden desire or unfulfilled desire, and we look at how you might apply that, and to try and come up with some kind of creative solution. We don’t have any answers, but we think it’s good that we’re having the conversation.”
Split Britches present Unexploded Ordnances (UXO) at Platform, Easterhouse, Glasgow, May 26, 5pm.
The Herald, May 17th 2018