I recently wrote in this space about learning to live with failure – to experience what it means to mess up, or be messed up, without needing desperately to get outside of that feeling, to move quickly on and away from the terror of what seems in the moment like a shattering personal disaster. Then, ten days ago, I received an extraordinary object lesson in what living with failure, with personal disaster, and moving slowly and publicly through that experience, can be in practice.
Peggy Shaw, one of the founders of the iconic performance troupe Split Britches, is also one of my performing heroes. As a young graduate student at Dalhousie University I read about her work with Deb Margolin and Lois Weaver in books and journals, in awe of their hilarious, pointed, bracing performances of gender and sexuality. I saw Peggy perform live for the first time in Menopausal Gentleman (1996), when she terrified my partner by seemingly threatening to come into the audience and make him participate in the show. Later, I had the privilege of working with Peggy and Lois during their month-long residency at the University of Texas at Austin in 2005, when they revived their ground-breaking Dress Suits for Hire at the Throws Like a Girl festival. Now, I am very fortunate to work daily with Lois Weaver at Queen Mary, University of London, where she is a professor in the Department of Drama, and to see Peggy when she visits town.
In 2011, Peggy Shaw suffered a stroke; her new show, Ruff, is about the experience of living and working through and with her stroke-changed body and mind. I saw the show at the Chelsea Theatre on April 5; it opened in Alaska, and visited Dixon Place in New York before coming to London (read about Ruff here, here, and here). It is, in reviewer Alena Dierickx’s words, an “ode to vulnerability and ageing that is all too often hidden away as if it is shameful or, worse still, boring.” For me, this is what makes Ruff an essential intervention into contemporary feminist performance, and into contemporary activist performance.
Peggy arrives on stage to thunderous applause and hoots of glee from an audience of friends, colleagues, and fans; she grins broadly, clutching an orange, a shoe, and a bottle of water to her chest. When the applause dies down she begins speaking in what strikes me as a quite formal, studied tone; it’s almost as though she’s struggling to remember her lines. I become a bit uncomfortable. What’s going on? This isn’t the virtuoso I remember. Then, she hands me the orange. “Will you hold my orange, please?” she says, looking into my eyes. Of course I will: immediately, I’m in her (slightly awkward) space, part of her performing world. She gives my friend Catherine the shoe, and my colleague Lara the bottle of water. Always the same question: could you please help me out for a minute? And now, we’re all in this, with Peggy, together.
I’m uncertain and nervous for about 10 minutes as the show proceeds and it’s clear that Peggy is struggling to remember her lines; that she is not the virtuoso I remember. She’s different now; age has changed her body, the stroke has affected her memory, and her physicality. But then I realise what else is going on here: Peggy is making this show out of these shifts and changes – out of what we as a culture would typically deem her failures as a performer, post-stroke. Her failure to remember her lines (a direct result of the stroke’s alteration of her brain) is literally on display: there are three LCD monitors on wheels around the performance space, running the full text of the show throughout the hour-long performance. Peggy moves them and uses them as needed; often, she turns the monitors toward us, letting us mark the differences between her (imperfect) memory of the script and the script “as written”. (I enjoy this a lot: it’s a salient reminder of how provisional all scripts are when they hit the boards in the bodies of actors.) Her newly compromised body is on display, too: she sits when she needs to sit, takes a break when she needs to take a break, and drinks from the bottle of water when required (always asking Lara politely first: can I have a drink?).
Most importantly, Peggy makes the performance one in which we, her audience, participate again and again as carers: audience as support system. We hold her stuff while we watch; we hand it back to her when she needs it (or, in Catherine’s case, walk on stage and place it as she needs it, when she’s already on her side on the floor and realises she’s missed the cue to reclaim the shoe); we witness her struggling and her amazing achievements; and we laugh and clap and laugh again as she turns the Kafka-esque ridiculousness of living through stroke into her trademark lesbian-feminist-butchly-outrageous comedy. We are with her as co-participants, as a community of vulnerable human beings: from the moment she walks on stage and reminds us how embarrassing an actor who struggles with lines is supposed to be; to the moment we understand that, in this performance, an actor is going to struggle to remember her lines and we are not going to be long embarrassed about it; to the moment, very late in the show, when two inflatable, remote-controlled fish float into the space to remind us all that this stroke is not in any way the end of Peggy Shaw’s world, but the beginning of a new set of journeys, journeys for which she’s going to need a bit more support than we’re perhaps used to giving one another, and very likely more support than we’re used to having to give actors on stage.
“Lois, am I supposed to be here now?” Peggy calls out to Weaver, who is sitting in the audience, at one point when she can’t quite remember her blocking. Why, Ruff asks then, is performance supposed to be about virtuosity, about dazzlement? Shouldn’t it also be about community, about expressions of care, about generosity and the celebration of long-standing friendships and working relationships? Above all, can it not be about recognising the human-ness of failures when they happen, about supporting our others through those failures, and easing the burden of moving through (not past) them?
In some ways, Peggy acts as our teacher in Ruff: full of humility, full of grace, but full of brass and intelligence and wit, she shows us what it means to get up in front of a group of people, mess up, and then embrace (even laugh at) the messing up, own it and live it, and turn it into a lesson in shared survival. In turn, we her audience act as teachers for her, too: a web of support that offers her the grounding she needs to get her performance (and her fish!) off the ground on this night, and every night from now on. Her stage becomes a true arena of learning. What a gift.