Peggy Shaw

by Craig Lucas


Peggy Shaw. Photo © Robin Holland.

Peggy Shaw and I have waved at each other at various queer conferences over the years, and we once performed together at a benefit for Dixon Place in which I appeared as Mary Lou, the Southern Belle in Stage Door (I had seven lines), and Peggy essayed the role Adolph Menjou played in the movie (she had thousands of lines); she was utterly truthful to the material, never sending it up, and I found myself watching her and thinking how sexy she was as a guy; now suddenly she was sitting across from me late one evening at Café Loup; she was wearing her man’s jacket, and her magnificent face and frame were comfortably ensconced in the banquette. Close-up, this legendary cross-dresser and co-founder of Split Britches has soft features; in her presence I again felt myself stirring in a sexual way which I almost never do unless a man is talking to me and leaning in and looking at me directly in the eye. She speaks in Southie-inflected, aggressive bursts (she’s actually from Belmont, Massachusetts), and she frequently circles back to correct an earlier phrase, building word upon word in a rhythmic incantation like a preacher. Peggy’s supremely transgressive art explodes every box which might be used in some vain attempt to contain her: language, societal norms, sex, fashion, romance, art—she breathes life into all of them and there is nothing but surprise and pleasure in store for anyone encountering her. Every mundane question I lobbed her way felt like a little turd I was tossing out to a magician who instantly transformed it, mid-air, into some miraculous fauna which she caught and sent scampering off to a new life of its own.

Craig Lucas I was really turned on by Menopausal Gentleman; I thought it was a play and not performance art. As a playwright I have a slight allergy to the sort of piece where the performer comes out and says, “And then I did this and my mother said this and . . . Now I’m gonna take off all my clothes.”

Peggy Shaw And do it over and over, and even call it a new show! But you know I didn’t do theater until I was 31. I was raised in theater by drag queens. And you don’t just take off your clothes, you put ’em on and you get bigger and you speak really loud so that people can hear you and you put a lot of music in it to keep ’em entertained and you change costumes.

CL What do you mean you were raised in the theater by drag queens?

PS Hot Peaches. Before that I was a social worker for the NYC Agency for Child Development. I was a [sic] artist before that, a famous American artist.

CL A painter?

PS A printmaker. I came to New York in ’67, and I went to one play—I’d never been to a play—it was Bluebeard by Charles Ludlam with Lola Pashalinski. I walked in and signs on the seats said, fuck, shit… and I thought, Oh, if this is theater, this is really wild. And then Charles Ludlam took this flying leap onto a couch and came up picking pubic hairs out of his mouth, and I thought, Wow, theater’s really interesting! Then, about two years later, I was in Sheridan Square one afternoon and someone handed me a flyer which said: “Scene One, The Lamp Post.” I looked up and there was Wilhelmena Ross, this six-foot-six-inch black drag queen in a red sequined dress singing “The Welfare Blues.” And then the flyer said, "Scene Two, The PATH Station. " I went to the PATH station and six girls and boys with big red lips in yellow wigs and high heels were singing about being gay, and I went to the Silver Dollar Café which was Scene Three, and it was all about Marsha P. Johnson and can you spare any change for a dying queen? That was Hot Peaches. It went all the way to the river, as the sun set they did a song on the Hudson, and I went, Wow, I want to do this, and I went up to ’em and said, “Can I follow you around?” I had a kid, my kid was four, so I started painting sets for them. They had a big parade, I made paper mâché heads in my apartment—so big that I couldn’t get them out, I forgot they had to go through the door. But working with Hot Peaches was the most exciting thing. I did sets for a coupla years. And then one day Jimmy Camicia, who was the director, said, “Let’s do a gay tour of Europe!” I was having a hard time with my girlfriend, so I broke up with her. I made five keys to my apartment, gave ’em to all my friends, said “Go take everything, my cat, my things, I’m going to Europe.” Gathered all the money I could. Took my kid and me, we each had a backpack—six drag queens and Jimmy, the stage manager—we had no bookings, we had one phone number and there was nobody home when we got there—and Tuie (short for Tuiano) and Java, who was Hot Java—I think he’s still in Paris somewhere, we left him in Paris—he was actually six-foot-eight and had fingernails out to here. We all said, “Well, if we’re gonna have nowhere to live, we might as well go to the park.” So we went to Hampstead Heath and it was getting dark and we were gonna sleep in the park, we didn’t know what to do, we had very, very little money and this woman came by and said, “Who are you?” And we said, “Oh, we’re gonna do a gay tour of Europe.” She said, “Wait a minute.” She went and got her friend, Mika Nava—I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the People Show in London, Mika’s the head of the People Show. And she came back and said, “Well, my friend said you can all stay in her attic.” So eight of us slept on two mattresses; she opened her house to us, fed us…

CL That’s just unbelievable…

PS Yeah. And then a few days later we squatted a house on Hampstead Heath, we had our own mansion, and Ian MacKay and Jimmy went and got us a booking first at the Oval and then at the ICA. I don’t know how they did it, they just talked their way in ’cause there were no other outrageous drag queer groups from New York in London at the time.

CL This was before Bette Bloolips?

PS Oh, yeah; ’75. And Jimmy said, “You have to write a monologue, you have three weeks, and you have to be in the show, get a costume.” So I went into a room next to the theater where we were rehearsing, with all these mirrors around, and I started just talking and writing and yelling, like, “Dyke! That’s what you call me!” And Jimmy said, “Just remember, it’s your story, it’s important, so whatever you have to say, we’ll help you with it, just tell the truth.” I smoked a lot of dope and we’d sit in the park and they made me read poetry out loud to get me used to talking, ’cause I didn’t talk, and we got costumes out of the garbage and sewed sequins on, and opened the show with my monologue. I started screaming at the audience, I got 31 years of aggression out on the first night. So that’s how I started doing shows. And we stayed there three years; we starved to death, we stole, we were in jail, we bought a van. Somewhere we met Bette Bourne, who said he’d do anything: “I’ll sell peaches!” He was doing Shakespeare and street activism, he wasn’t doing any queer theater. So he worked with us. Then at the end of three years we were going home and we gave him our van, and he started Bloolips. I went to Amsterdam while I was living in London where I saw Spiderwoman and I met Lois [Weaver, Shaw’s colleague and lover]… All the groups that I’ve been with have never gotten funding and they all still exist! Spiderwoman, Hot Peaches, Bloolips, Split Britches.

(We toast.) Here’s to health.

CL Are you a playwright, performance artist, poet?

PS I never thought of myself as a performance artist, I was a performer. Because we knew we were queer, we weren’t theater, but we always called ourselves theater anyway. The reason people liked our shows is that we rehearsed! We worked really hard and wrote and had all our theater unconventions. We played characters, told stories, and we liked making fun of conventional theater, ripping it to shreds—since conventional theater never did anything for me, as far as stories go, except once in a while. We wanted to dedicate our lives to making a lot of stuff that had to do with us, and making it theatrical; that’s not exactly performance art.

CL This particular piece appears to have a lot of true stuff: your child, the fact that you’re a grandmother, you like to dress up like a boy. Is everything in the piece a reflection of something that’s happened to you?

PS It’s creative truth; I’ve just expanded myself a little. Like at the end of the show when I talk about dressing up all shiny-shiny and being paid $500. A close friend of mine did that in the West Village in the ’70s. Beau was an artist and an S/M guy, he had coffins and he had two dogs, S and M. Every Saturday night he’d put on a tuxedo and he’d take this very rich, older woman out dancing, he’d get paid and it was enough for him to live on.

CL And kiss her goodnight at the door and do that beautiful thing where he says he’d like to come in but he has too much respect for her?

PS That was my imagination. That was what my mother would have wanted, that just came out; I try to tell true stories even if they’re not always exactly mine.

CL At the end of the show you’re singing “Don’t leave me, don’t leave me,” and the story seems to be about a person who left you and suddenly I thought, No, she’s singing that song to her eggs. And I burst into tears. Is that something you meant for me to think?

PS It’s one of those things when you’re writing and you’re thinking something, and something else comes out on the page; it wasn’t conscious… I heard Jacques Brel do that song and Nina Simone’s version. You know, when you work with a musician and you go in and say, “I want to really do this song, let’s just lay something down and we’ll practice with it.” Hopefully they’ll make a lot of mistakes, they’ll leave a big gap in the middle or they’ll do three endings. So when I was working with Vivian [the music director] there was this big gap, and I said, “Ooooh, I can put in this thing that I couldn’t find anywhere else to put.” And so we worked together, of course, and eventually figured out how to do it right. It’s that feeling. Like my last solo show, You’re Just Like My Father, I thought it was about my father but I didn’t know until I performed it that it was about my mother.

CL That’s the greatest thing, when you’re working and you’re trusting, this thing happens, and you just step out of the way. It’s hard to do, I want to think my way through it, sometimes I don’t let it have its own life.

PS Well, you can always rely on your body for memory instead of your mind. Your body will tell you the right thing. That’s the way I’ve learned theater—by being told to trust my stories, that they’re valuable, but also to trust my body, that when it moves and I make a sound, whatever comes out is the truth, or the first thing that comes out is the most creative thing even if it sounds wrong or stupid or not politically correct or boring. When I write a show, I practice-write, I go, Okay, ten minutes and I don’t take my pen off the paper, that’s the only way I write.

CL And Menopausal Gentleman was written from beginning to end that way?

PS No. Yeah, well, all the material was gotten that way. Me and Rebecca [the director] said, "Oh this is not right, oh this is just plain instinct… " I was teaching her, she’d never seen this process that I do before. You develop an instinctual sense of what should come next; and she has really good instincts. That’s why I work with her. I did this play called Slow Drag at American Place Theater about Billie Tipton, I played Billie Tipton with a five piece jazz band. It was in my control and I had the ability. I could improv as Billy Tipton and the jazz band—of course, they didn’t know what to make of me. Betty Carter’s piano player who had fingers this long, 21 years old, a genius; all these trumpet players, the best players in New York; they were all mine. I can’t even sing, right? I mean, I act like I can. So all of a sudden I was in the middle of a monologue, and I’d just tell ’em, “Play something.” They loved it ’cause they were jazz musicians. So every night Rebecca gave me precise and detailed notes. I love detail. Details are it, man… The first show Split Britches did as a company, Lois plays this character who has a little tea cup and tea pot inside a handkerchief in her pocket. She takes out the handkerchief and pours tea while I’m doing a monologue, and then she puts her handkerchief back in her pocket and sips from this intricate little teacup. When we did it in Italy the cameras couldn’t stay off the teacup… So Rebecca had this really great eye for detail, everything she said made sense to me….

CL And how long did it take you to actually make it from the text that was all over the place?

PS Oh, I don’t know… First, I did Hampshire College. Every year Hampshire College books whatever I have new for Parents and Friends Weekend. I don’t know why, but they support Split Britches’ work a lot. I’d got to Hampshire and forgot my printer, I had it all in my computer but I couldn’t print it out. I had all the text with me, so I just cut it up all night. I don’t know how long it took, once I had all this material, it was just like throwing away all the garbage…

CL Do you use Scotch tape?

PS Yup, Scotch tape.

CL That’s what I do.

PS Even with a computer, how can you not do that? Do you like to put ’em on walls? I make categories like IMAGES, THEMES, COLORS, OBJECTS…

(We are now eating noisily. My mouth is full.)

CL The French song?

PS Jacques Brel wrote that. Rebecca speaks French, so she did a direct translation, which is: “I’ll be the shadow of your shadow, I’ll be the shadow in your hand, I’ll be the shadow of your dog.” As opposed to the American version, “I’ll make you a night like no night has been or will be again.” It’s not that I don’t like to use original songs, but being a lesbian artist, I find that the more popular images I use, the more I draw in the audience. And original music combined with being queer can be very alienating to an audience. Like with Frank Sinatra, you’ve got ’em, and then you can twist it. I always found that as an aesthetic, I like to fuck around with popular culture.

CL I think you’ll get lots of character work in movies if you want it. I mean, look how well Ron Vawter did.

PS God…

CL Anna Deavere Smith. Willem Dafoe. All these downtown actors populating studio movies. You’ll just have to decide whether those are things you want to do.

PS Stuart Sherman asked me to come to LA, he wrote this pilot, wanted me to play the police captain. But he goes, “Peggy, you just have to come to LA and audition in a studio.” I said, “No, you’ve seen me perform, if you want me to do it, I’ll do it, but I don’t audition.” And he goes, “This is a pilot, you’re gonna get $35,000 a week for two weeks.” I said, “I don’t audition. You think me, as a butch lesbian, is gonna go to LA, the most disgusting place in the world, and walk into a room with pigs and audition and put myself—No,” I said, “I’m really happy.” And then he said, “Oh, come on.” And I said, “So what else?” And then he says, “Well, if the pilot gets picked up, you have to sign for five years, you have to guarantee—” And I said, “Bye!” Five years!

CL But now the price you pay is that you’re always touring and broke.

PS If I had done that, I wouldn’t have done the last four shows that I made. No, I don’t make ends meet. I ran into David Cale on the street and I said, “How you doing, David? How much in debt are you?” The average is like 15,000—20,000. That’s what I am. The last three shows were on credit cards. Most performers I know charged their last three shows.

CL So you’re just paying off interest.

PS Heartbreaking. Waiting for my MacArthur! But I don’t want it right away, I want it when I’m like Ellen Stewart who got 500,000! Luis Alfaro got one. He’s a Mexican-American performer. I just performed with him in Boston. He’s too young. I want to buy a town in Italy like Ellen did.

CL I spent some time studying the text to Menopausal Gentleman; there are all these opposites in the script: inside versus outside, night versus day, young and old, a gentleman versus an animal, male and female; it works in a way that doesn’t seem academic but like life. Were you aware of those dichotomies working on it?

(Long pause. This time I have really asked a dumb question. Then, very patiently, a few sniffs along the way:)

PS You know… I love teaching, and I’m trying to teach self-scripting and performance… The hardest thing to teach people is to trust instinct rather than what anybody tells you is a plot. All these academics… If you start reading that shit, it fucks with your head, it changes your work. I feel like sometimes I’m a service person; I service their ideas. So I don’t read what they say, because I’m not really interested in product. I’m not aware of anything until the end. Me and Lois and Deb Margolin were together for 14 years [as Split Britches], and Debbie jokes that I am the Margaret Dumont of gay theater ’cause I never knew what was funny—a lot of things I didn’t get. I don’t have a whadyacallit? I don’t have any logic. Only at the end of the whole process, I understand.

CL What you have is a great sense of withholding. Your script gives us information only when we’re ready for more insight into the character, which is what a plot is. This is my crackpot theory: when the exposition is over, the story is over. A storyteller goes: You know what else I know, you know what else I know, and I know this and this…

PS Yeah.

CL And… Fine.

PS Well, that’s the thing about Split Britches as an aesthetic: the image. You don’t ever listen to a piece of music once, you want to hear it over and over again; there’s more going on than that little bit of information you’re withholding. Theater is all these moments.

CL What keeps you paying attention? It has to be fun, you have to feel something, you have to be surprised.

PS Surprise is big. I’m going to England to meet Lois, we’re doing this show, Salad of the Bad Café with Stacey Makisha, a Japanese Hawaiian performer who I dragged to New York to help with my last solo show, and then Lois dragged her to London. She’s extraordinary, she’s one of those performers that you can’t take your eyes off: Japanese, small, clown. It’s like silent movies: me and her, amazing, we exaggerate our differences, I get taller and she gets shorter. We’re doing this show about Yukio Mishima, Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers. You know The Ballad of the Sad Café? She’s the hunchback, and Lois is Marvin. Anyway, the show is about three misfits after World War II who would rather love than be loved, as you can imagine—Carson McCullers, unrequited love, the beloved and the lover. So it’s this triangle, which is perfect for physical comedy—me being in love with the hunchback, the hunchback being in love with Marvin and Marvin being in love with me. Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers were great friends.

CL Is that true about your mother being administered electroshock all those times?

PS Oh, yeah, my mother had 11 nervous breakdowns and 11 shock treatments. I was raised in a family with seven kids, well, actually there were 11, but four of them died, well, five of them have died—

CL How?

PS They died mostly at birth, four at birth, twins, but one of them lived to 15.

CL Where is your family?

PS Boston. Working class, Irish, Protestant. On the wrong side, the Irish side of the tracks. But really poor working class, too many kids, too young, beat us, beat beat beat beat. My sisters used to wish our parents would get killed in a car crash. My mother was manic-depressive but I just found out two weeks ago in Boston when I met her best friend after 45 years, that my mother had St. Vitus Dance as a kid; I had never heard this story before. St. Vitus Dance was so intense, she had to stay out of school a lot. It’s neurological, you shake. Anyway, we were a religious family, we had prayer meetings every day. There were seven days of the week and there were seven kids, so each kid had to lead a prayer meeting and we went to church five times a week. I was a missionary in Costa Rica when I was 13. Ha ha! Most theater people have been missionaries in their past. Oh God. Gets ’em in front of a crowd! I was a missionary in Costa Rica. Why would they send Protestants to a Catholic country, to Central America?

CL What kind of Protestant?

PS Congregationalists. Serious stuff. Billy Graham spoke at our church once a month. Park Street Church of Boston. I accepted the Lord as my savior when I was 11. By the time I was 13, I was in Central America.

CL The thing in the play about walking into the tree? Did that happen?

PS It was a parking meter. You know, I have high blood pressure and I also tend to do too much, burn candles at both ends and be passionate and all this stuff, and now that I’m in menopause, I have to really be careful I don’t smash into everything. I was just talking to somebody and… smash! right into a parking meter. Took the wind right out of me.

(Pause. I read from the script:)

CL “I’m so queer I don’t even have to talk about it.” I love that line.

PS Thanks.

CL I love the thing about experimenting with saying “No.”

PS Can I show you my grandson?

(Shows me a picture of her grandson and her, both staring out at the ocean.)

PS That’s me and him, we’re the same person, can you see us thinking the same thought?

CL He’s so dark, is he black?

PS Yeah, he’s Jamaican.

CL What’s his name?

PS Ian. He’s named after a drag queen from Hot Peaches who raised my kid with me… Isn’t he cool? Isn’t he beautiful?

(Again, I read:)

CL “There’s a word for me apart from the one that springs to your lips.” What’s the word?

(Pause.)

PS It’s one of those things, I don’t know… I live on the Lower East Side, I’m really involved with the community, and I go to the same laundromat all the time and I go to the same places all the time… Some people’ve called me “Sir.” You know what I mean? I think they’re really in tune with me and then they’ll call me “Sir” or “Guy.”

CL You don’t like that?

PS No, part of me, no, I don’t care. Where have I been? Why didn’t I know this? I guess that’s what that is. All those names. I try not to become bitter or resentful… I went on the Web at this big party, 500 people at Franklin Furnace. This guy is in this glass booth in the middle of this room, the head of Pseudo.com, where Franklin Furnace interviews artists. Afterwards, I heard how misogynist and homophobic and racist he is—but I’d just come back from London that day and I’d had two vodka and tonics, I’m sitting in the studio, and he’s a white straight guy, and there’s ten technicians, all 21-year-old black, hip-hop kids, and he goes, “So uh… you a guy or what?” And I said, “Wow, I don’t know how to answer you. Do you get out much?” And he goes, “Well, you know, I always thought I was a faggot in a straight guy’s body.” And I said, “Oh, in your dreams.” I couldn’t believe that I had to deal with this in an artistic setting, this asshole. Why did I start talking about this? Oh, words — it’s that feeling when he goes, “So in a lesbian relationship isn’t one of you the guy?” It really scared me.

CL I get a clipping service of much of what is published every day relating to gay and lesbian issues from all around the country and the world. The people who want us dead are getting much more vocal, they’re getting much more play time. Living in downtown Manhattan, I wouldn’t even know about it if I didn’t see these daily clippings. (Referring again to the script of Menopausal Gentleman:) The thing about “cheap light,” wanting to be loved in cheap light…

PS You know the Wow Café on East 4th street? The hallway of Wow is fluorescent, and I was down there one night doing the reservation list, thinking how extraordinary it is seeing people in that kind of light, and thinking about having been with Lois for so many years, and the opposite of romance…

(A long-ish tangent about our complicated private lives, lovers, threesomes…)

… It’s really important to remember not to go by anybody’s rules. People keep making the same rules and the same mistakes and want you to do the same thing. My sister’s been married for 45 years to this guy and she wants her kids to do the same. And I said to her, “Why? Your husband doesn’t talk, he doesn’t fuck you right, he doesn’t do anything except you’ve been with him for 45 years.” And she wishes the same thing for her children.

CL It’s like architecture. It’s something you can lean on. There’s a wall here, and it existed before so it must be something.

PS But don’t you think as queers we’re supposed to forge all these new territories… Are you into this whole marriage thing?

CL Yes and no. I think everybody should have the right to play by those rules; if the society gives tax breaks and inheritance rights to straight spouses, then we should have those same rights. What I think is liberating is to keep saying, “Yes, that’s an option” but to come back to “What’s my experience?” And that’s what’s very hard right now, ’cause the assimilationists who want “a place at the table” and to be “virtually normal” have dominated the discussion and reduced it to marriage and the military.

PS All our energy going to these two things. Whereas I thought we were all gonna be different. The whole feminist movement was against marriage; very hard all of a sudden to sanction this horrible institution with the property, very hard to switch… Tell me something, seriously… How do I say this? Don’t you think we’re special people? Queers? I always thought we were special for many different reasons, and lately, as I get older—you know, Bette Bourne and Paul Shaw just did a show in London, the best of Bloolips, and all the queer magazines were approached, and they said, “We don’t do anything unless you’re between 20 and 30 years old.” They actually said that. The whole age thing… and the misogyny, and… But you do still believe that we’re special?

CL Of course.

PS Ha, Ha! I do too, but it’s getting harder to believe it.

CL It’s the same fight faced by Jews and blacks in America. Does one want to be on an equal footing? Yes, but does that mean we disappear into the majority, or do we want to be defined by our being different which was in part reinforced by our inequalities? It seems to me to be an age-old and tragic fight. And whether I’m accepted in the larger culture has lost its charge for me compared to what I think is a bigger fight: there’s something so entirely wrong with the economic system…

(I then go on a long toot about socialism which Peggy politely listens to, I turn off the tape recorder, and when I turn it back on we’re talking about drugs, then and now!)

PS …I hadn’t eaten all day, and I smoked a whole pipe of hash and Lois started singing. She became these gold molecules that floated up to the sky and that’s how I feel now. And I’m going, Is it that old Orange Sunshine kicking in… or is it the truth?

CL I think all that was useful—it gave us some sense of largeness, of something beyond the two-car garage and the two point five kids.

PS But young people don’t know anything about drugs, or smoking cigarettes, or how low or how high you can go. Like LSD, we had good drugs. Coke, and all these high speed drugs now, they’re not so good. But we had mescaline and mushrooms and…

CL Taking LSD was like reading a novel about something you knew nothing about—a whole other room in your own house that you didn’t know was there with all this elaborate period furniture and different views outside.

PS I used to not trust people who didn’t take drugs. Do they still make LSD? Really? Wow. I’m telling you, man. It changed everything forever for me. I used to listen to music and see pearls in peoples’ mouths.

Tags:
LGBT
Gender identity
Comedy
Acting
Storytelling
Drag
Marriage
Experimental theater
BOMB 69
Fall 1999
The cover of BOMB 69
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