Voices: Lois Weaver

Feature in Issue 20-1 | Spring 2008

Lois Weaver, solo performance artist and co-founder of Split Britches, in her own words.

Tammy Whynot is preparing her new show for the Chelsea Theatre in May. Tammy’s byline is: ‘I used to be a country singer and now I’m a lesbian performance artist.’

It’s called What Tammy Needs to Know about Growing Old and Having Sex.

I want to find out how older women feel about sex, love, life. The research includes workshops and interviews with older women, placing personal ads in newspapers, attending Tea Dances and other events where older women gather.

The evening will be in a TV talkshow format, with magazine-style features, probably some of the video documentation. Like Oprah, Tammy will interview one or two invited guests.

Tammy’s attitude is one of kindness and wonder. The show title reflects an interest in sex and ageing but is also about power: older women need to conquer the invisibility barrier; to be able to manifest desire, and be seen as desirable.

One advantage to getting older is that you don’t care! It’s about productivity compared to reproductivity. I’m watching my own sexuality and need for sex change with age. I’m interested in intimacy and touch in relation to sex. I’m 58 now. We’ll be the first generation of older women to express our sexuality and desire.

When I say desire, I mean desire in the broadest sense: What do I want? What do you want?

I bring my life process to my work. I’ve always made work that is based on what’s going on. The personal and mundane is as important to me as the universal and the exquisite.

I’m anti-assimilation, I like to encourage difference. My solo work and my work with Peggy Shaw in Split Britches celebrates a love of the eccentric, the story of the ‘queer’, tells stories not told, reveals the hidden.

There’s been positive change over the years. Gay, lesbian, queer experiences are no longer invisible. The words are spoken. But homophobia and sexism are still rampant just below the surface.

I want to reclaim the word ‘feminist’ – it’s time.

In Split Britches the work has never been about being queer: we took the queer as given and worked on whatever subject we were investigating. There was never a need for Split Britches to do a ‘coming out’ play: others were doing that and we were never really interested in making ‘plays’ anyway. As artists we were interested in a wider range of subjects and styles, and as activists we thought it was a stronger position to take the identity of the lesbian as the norm rather than the exception.

Peggy and I continue to work together even when on different continents. I spend six months of the year in London and six months in New York.

I first came to London in the mid-70s. I was with Spiderwoman, touring Women in Violence. Peggy was here with Hot Peaches (the seminal New York-based gay cabaret-theatre company) who were playing at the ICA. We started working together not long after, first with Peggy joining Spiderwoman for An Evening of Disgusting Songs and Pukey Images, then forming Split Britches in 1980. Our first show was called Split Britches, too.

Split Britches takes its name from a garment worn by my ancestors in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It’s an undergarment that is split so the women could pee standing up in the fields. It’s a good metaphor for our work: independent and personal bordering on the private. And it’s funny - you could split your britches laughing!

The next Split Britches show is called Miss America. Peggy had a dream she was 80 years old and wearing a bikini and being crowned Miss America – and everyone was happy. The show will be about the feminine ideal and how a butch lesbian in her 60s can relate to that. One image we’re using is of being a giant and not fitting in.

For me, the title will have a different meaning as in ‘I Miss America’, and will be about what it means to miss America, in the sense of not being there but also in the sense of a lost American dream: the catastrophe that America has turned into, despised worldwide.

Our focus has shifted over the years from identity-based politics/art to human rights issues. But throughout runs the question of women’s issues, and a celebration of women’s sexuality.

Lois Weaver is one of a group of artists supported by the Total Theatre peer-mentoring project, Renegotiations. She is an independent performance artist, director, activist and lecturer in Contemporary Performance at Queen Mary University of London. Her performance alter-ego Tammy Whynot takes to the stage at Chelsea Theatre on the 4th and 9th May 2008, presented in collaboration with International Workshop Festival as part of the Sacred season. See www.chelseatheatre.org.uk

Split Britches Lesbian Feminist Theatre Company was founded 27 years ago by Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver and Deb Margolin. Since 1980 they have transformed the landscape of queer performance with their vaudevillian satirical gender-bending performance. Split Britches’ Miss America will premiere at LaMaMa in New York City in 2008. See www.splitbritches.com

Dorothy Max Prior spoke to Lois Weaver at Space, Mare St Hackney, January 2008, where she was taking part in a group exhibition called The Not Quite Yet: on the margins of technology, which included her solo performance ‘If I could do one thing…’ See www.spacestudios.org.uk

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p. 16