The Lost Lounge opens
Split Britches celebrates the last holdouts.
Tue Dec 1 2009
When the not-yet-out Southern belle and women's-theater thespian Lois Weaver met the butch social-worker-turned-drag-troupe-member Peggy Shaw while on a European tour in the 1970s, it was a match made in dyke-drama heaven. Soon after that day, the two formed a partnership both personal and professional that would quickly become iconic: They fell in love, and founded the feminist WOW Caf Theater in the East Village and (with Deb Margolin) the Split Britches performance troupe. And together, they have written, directed and starred in at least 20 plays all over the world.
Today Weaver, 60, is a performance professor at Queen Mary University of London, and both she and Shaw, 65, tour and lecture frequently. But they haven't abandoned their first love—writing and performing intelligent, funny, edgy queer theater. This week they unveil their latest work, The Lost Lounge, at the new Dixon Place theater. Weaver spoke via phone with TONY from the University of Virginia, where she and Shaw were finishing up an artist-in-residence gig. They couldn't rustle up a speaker phone, so Shaw listened in on our discussion of the past, the present and the burden of progress.
Are you and Peggy still a couple?
We...we have other lovers, both of us, and have for about ten or 15 years. But we're still very primary. We're partners in work, and life partners, too.
Do you still live in the East Village?
Yes. Peggy lives on East 4th and I live on East 3rd. We live in the Cooper Square apartments. Fran Golden was one of the people who started it all. They rescued these buildings, in the '70s, when they had all been slated for demolition for urban renewal, and then the city went bankrupt, of course. So a community group got together and said, "Let us manage these buildings for low-income people," and they said okay. It's a miracle.
Especially when you look at the neighborhood now.
Which is kind of what our piece is about. We call it a tribute to the last holdouts, to the people who kind of hold on or resist or fight or just hold on in the face of the kind of real-estate development that's been going on in the Bowery. It's shocking, what's been going on there! But a deeper inspiration was this place in Hawaii we found when we did a residency out there. It was this tiny little lounge called the Tahitian Lanai, which is a one-story thatched-roof lounge on Waikiki Beach wedged between a Hilton and a Hyatt. And it's just where all the outsiders went—the restaurant entertainers, the older locals. There's a piano bar and they just sang all night. We fell in love with it, but we also knew that it was not going to last very long because it was prime real estate. And in fact it didn't.
Do you feel like strangers in the East Village now?
I walked down the Bowery and turned right on Bond Street the other day, and for a minute I thought, Oh my God, I don't know where I am! I just didn't recognize it. And so one of the themes that we're working on is how memory is tied up with landscape, and what happens when you lose your landscape—how identity is tied into place and how it feels like we're losing part of our identity by losing those places.
So the show is kind of a metaphor for you and Peggy, too, right?
[Laughs] Very insightful! I think we're having a hard time admitting it, but absolutely.
Split Britches never went mainstream in any way. Was that always a conscious decision? Or did you sometimes hope to be "discovered" in a bigger way?
Well, on some level we did, because we'd like to get paid for our work. We would think, Oh my God, it would be so great if someone would pick up the show and we could just run it! One, because we would get a paycheck, and two, because a lot more people would see the work. A lot of times people think they know what we do because we're a lesbian company, so they think they know what that is.
Which is what?
They think it's about being lesbians, about coming out, about something that doesn't have anything to do with them. In fact what we do is we take the perspective of a lesbian as a given, and then we think and talk about other things. And then they see us and they're like, Oh! I had no idea this is what you did! So there's part of us that wishes more people would be open to what we do. But I think we like the cracks—we like to reveal the way things are made. We like the mistakes that sometimes get made and we like live, '50s TV, where people cracked up. We don't really aesthetically like the polish; we like the rawness. So I think aside from wishing we had a bit more money or maybe more audience, I think we're very, very happy in our aesthetics, as well as in our politics. And we wouldn't want to have to change any of that to go mainstream.
The Lost Lounge opens Fri 4.