In Belle Reprieve (1990), Split Britches’ queer and experimental riff on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, the butch, bullying Stanley Kuwolski character (played by Peggy Shaw), says, “I’m just thousands of parts of other people all mashed into one body. I am not an original person. I take all these pieces, snatch them off the floor before they get swept under the bed, and I manufacture myself.”
A quarter of a century later, that speech sums up the work of this pioneering theatre company, founded in 1980 by Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw and Deb Margolin. Margolin has since left, but Weaver and Shaw continue to produce excessive, surprising and endlessly performative theatre shows which, in the words of one 1987 New York Times review, “evoke characters whose multiple identities are starting to burst out of their skins.” Now those multiple identities are coming together in a parade of Split Britches’ ‘greatest hits’.
In Retro(per)spective, Weaver and Shaw will perform excerpts from ‘old favourites’ and ‘newer shows’, spanning their 35 year career. It’s a ‘greatest hits album for those who remember the 1980s,’ they say, ‘or a Split Britches primer for those who may have missed it!” And, as the title suggests, it will be both a history of radical, queer performance art, and a radical intervention in its own right.
Weaver and Shaw are now doyennes of the performance art scene. As a result of their “career-long interventions in conventional gender performance and the signs of sexuality” (in the words of Theater Professor, Jill Dolan) there exists a language of avant-garde theatre that draws lustily from contemporary pop culture, Hollywood myths, networks of personal desire and theatrical excess. The company continues to make groundbreaking work – as ferociously real and taboo-busting in its approach to topics like ageing and health, as earlier work was in relation to lesbian sexuality. It is not only fitting, then, but also radical that Retro(per)spective adds Split Britches’ own performances to the library of references from which to assemble beautiful and alternate worlds. The show promises both to write history, and write into it.
A testament to the influence of artists like Weaver and Shaw, a few days later on the same stage at Chelsea Theatre, Simone Aughterlony, Antonija Livingstone and Hahn Rowe will roam a landscape of shifting subjectivities as a found terrain. ‘Maybe music, maybe dancing,’ is how the company describes Supernatural: an hour-long, semi improvised exploration of materials and space by two (female) dancers and one (male) musician. The dancers, Aughterlony and Livingstone, occupy the stage – pink ground littered with logs, moss and axes. The musician, Rowe, plays an orchestra of conventional and unconventional instruments at the edges of the space.
At times clothed and at times naked, Aughterlony and Livingstone chop and splinter heavy wooden logs, sweeping masculine gestures across their bodies as they go. It is still a political act to see two performers like these on stage – female but not possessed by the feminine; looked at but not contorted for the gaze; sexual but not trussed by heterosexual desire. In fact, you could argue that since the 1980s, the appearance of female bodies has acquired an extra facet of political agency. The dancers use axes as imaginary phalluses, explore the sensuality of the space around them; and yet, writes Megan Wright, “little about the work felt pornographic.”
Wright’s response is revealing. In 2015, the context for female subjectivity is dominated by the insidious presence of online pornography (or, specifically, heterosexual, capitalist-driven and increasingly violent online pornography). It seeps into the proliferation of images, both the source and poison of representations of femalehood. Under its influence, women appear in the public realm in ever-diminishing reality; their/ our bodies are digitally retouched and physically remodelled; they/ we cannot be naked, sexually active or physically strong without drawing comparisons to pornographic narratives. And, all the while, the immaterial currency of digital imagery belies the real violence of its effects.
Against this backdrop, then, Supernatural is resolutely, politically, material. The women chop and destroy the logs. They destroy and reconstruct their space. They move together and apart. Through a concentrated exploration of the objects on stage, they occupy an eternal landscape of shifting, contingent, unidentifiable identities.
Just like Split Britches, this potential for multiplicity is not simply about appearance, but also about time. Split Britches rewrite stories about women by tearing them up and reassembling them anew – Dress Suits For Hire (1987), for instance, is a romance that starts with a death and ends without a consummation. Meanwhile, Supernatural’s stubborn materiality launches it outside of time entirely. “This was Eve and Eve at the end of the world,” continues Wright, “engaged in pursuits perhaps forbidden or fruitless, but altogether without censure or shame.” Here, the fruitlessness is also vital – a purposeless, story-less physicality that not only refuses to adhere to linear time, but resists capitalist time, too – that marching clock that demands us to be ever-more productive, ever-more visible, ever-improved representations of ourselves.
Supernatural, writes Louise Orwin “encapsulates a queer jouissance which says ‘fuck you’ to heteronormative linearity in the body, and our perception of it.” As such, it contains none of the warmth to its audiences that characterises Split Britches’ approach. “These two have always been clowns of a sort,” writes Jill Dolan about Weaver and Shaw, “but rather than playing for laughs, they play for insights, creating a community of presumptively like-minded folks.” And yet, both Retro(per)spective and Supernatural share a fluency in a loose, self defined dialect of refusal and excess. Their power lies in their ability to exceed expectations – that is, to be in excess of the expectations laid down on them as women, as lebsians, as performers, or as anything else that can be understood.
To say Retro(per)spective and Supernatural are feminist shows about female subjectivity would be to play into the hands of the people who claim ‘women’ as category of other. Better to say, then, that both shows lie well beyond this description of them. They will confound your beliefs, they will perform themselves out of the performance of identity: they will be part of the world, in other words, at the same time as they destroy and rebuild its terrain.
Mary Paterson is a writer who works with performance, visual art and text
 Stephen Holden Dress Suits, Feb 3rd 1988. Originally published in the New York Times. https://splitbritches.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/split-britches-reviews.pdf
 Jill Dolan Lost Lounge, 2011. Originally published on the Feminist Spectator blog. https://splitbritches.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/split-britches-reviews.pdf
 Megan Wright Hot Pink Heaven: Queer Utopia at American Realness, April 2015
 Louise Orwin Review of Supernatural at Fierce Festival, 23 October 2015