April 1017, 1997
By Jeannine DeLombard
"I'm tall, I've got red, short, curly hair. I'm 52. I kind of look like Sean Penn a little bit."
This is how lesbian performer Peggy Shaw, a founding member of the New York/London-based avant-garde feminist theater group Split Britches, describes herself. She is in town as a part of the Women's Theatre Festival to perform her one-woman show,You're Just Like My Father, a humorous yet melancholy self-portrait about developing a butch identity while growing up in the conservative 1950s.
She founded Split Britches in 1980 with Lois Weaver and Deb Margolin. A book on the group and their work, Split Britches: Lesbian Practice, Feminist Performance (Routledge Press), was published last year. As a member of Split Britches, Shawalso conducts theater workshops for college students at places like University of Hawaii, Hampshire College and Vassar College.
Tell me about the show.
This is my first solo show. At first it was pretty shocking to not have anyone come out ever on the stage for the whole show. I become my father. The show is about drag I think, about how much I love my father's clothes, the smells, theway they are in the drawer, all that kind of stuff. You know, you get to a point in life where you really don't take your parents personally anymore. I think that's what this was. I had a pretty rough time with them and this was sort of my way ofcelebrating them.
My family was very poor and there were a lot of kids. From 2 years old we had to be able to pick our weight up because my father said the world is a very rough place and you have to be ready for it. So the image I had was of a boxing ring; I'm notliterally boxing in the show, but it does have that feeling.
The New York Times described you as "James Cagney with a dash of Joe Pesci." Do you feel that's accurate?
They always do that to me. Usually they say: "A cross between Harvey Keitel and k.d. lang." I get James Garner a lot. I used to get Sean Penn a lot. People just don't know quite what to make of me, so they pick popular Hollywoodcharacters.
Who would you pick to be compared to, if you could pick someone?
Well, in my fantasy I would say Marlon Brando. I played Stanley Kowalski when we did Belle Reprieve with the Blue Lips from London. We did a modern adaptation on AStreetcar Named Desire, and I did get to play Marlon Brando.[Laughs]
Has your family seen the show?
My family loves my work. They come to all my shows. They love this one. It's very interesting, because it's very queer and very creative with the family history. The only thing they were upset about is I said our father was a Leo and he was anAquarian just because it sounded better to say Leo. My sister got upset about that.
What are the show's origins?
What happened was Hampshire College in Massachusetts called up and asked if we could do Lesbians That Kill, and I said Lois was busy but that I had a solo show. But of course I just made that up; I didn't have a solo show. They said,"Great! What's the name of it?" And I said, "What's it for?" And they said, "Parents' weekend," so I said, "Well it's called, You're Just Like My Father." Then I had to write it.
What does the term "butch" mean to you?
It used to mean different things in the '50s than it does now. Lois and I use it in our classes to get away from the words "male" and "female," we use the words "butch" and "femme" just to add more words tothe vocabulary of masculinity and femininity, just to make the range a little broader. It doesn't mean anything except an appearance to me: it doesn't mean that's how I perform sexually. It's a way of playing with words, really, and being able to usethem to your advantage.
What do you think about the recent drag king phenomenon?
It really has little to do with me; it's kind of young. A lot of it is heterosexual. The men's drag thing is like that too sometimes. It's fun; the women are having a lot of fun. I haven't seen all that many. I know a lot of drag king womenwho've been doing it for a long time Diane Torre and people like that and they do it with great love. I have a feeling, though, that a lot of people don't do it with great love. When I play a character, I love this character. I don'tmake fun of anybody, because I find whatever it is in me that wants to be in drag or pass. I think a lot of the drag king stuff is more like vaudeville, or it's more like taking the piss out of men. It's very different from what I do. It tends to bea lot of lip-syncing, a lot of dildos, and a lot of bulges.
The one drag king show that I saw in a bar in the East Village I found really disturbing, because the audience was really straight. I don't know, there was something about it that was a bit of a freak show. Which happens often with drag queens. But Ithink it's wonderful that this drag king humor is being developed, because women in drag have never been particularly funny to anyone except to people I know. [Laughs]
This friend of mine was doing a book called Kings and Queens, and he wanted me in the book. His editors wouldn't put me in because they thought I was a guy. They said, "Well, this isn't funny." A lot of people want it to be a clownthing, but I take it pretty seriously.
How did you get into theater? Do you have any formal training?
I'd never been to a theater show in my life. When I was 31, I just ran into this street theater group called Hot Peaches in the West Village, and I just gave up my whole life and started following them around. They were drag queens from thestreet, and they taught me literally everything that I needed to know. If you perform with drag queens, you learn really fast: you have to be taller than them, you have to have more sequins, you have to get your diction really together or you can'tbe heard. It's pure, complete competition.
Peggy Shaw will be performing on Thursday, April 17, 8 p.m., at the Painted Bride, 230 Vine St. Info.: 546-8008 or 925-9914.