One of our butch-grand-elders needs our support. I’ve just lost my job and I’m kind of iffy about rent right now, so I can’t currently help out with money. So I’m writing down memories of my time with Peggy, to show my support, and in the hopes that maybe you are in a different situation and might be able to contribute. (Keep reading ’til the end to learn about an exciting incentive from me to donate!)
Who is Peggy Shaw, you ask? As if she needs any introduction, Peggy Shaw is a writer and performer of the highest caliber, co-founder of the internationally renowned troupe Split Britches (along with Lois Weaver and Deb Margolin). To quote the artists themselves:
Split Britches creates new forms by exploiting old conventions. It borrows from classical texts and popular myths, but its true sources are the details of everyday life. The work is personal, bordering on the private. It relies on moments rather than plot, relationships rather than story. It is about a community of outsiders, queers, eccentrics – feminist because it encourages the imaginative potential in everyone, and lesbian because it takes the presence of a lesbian on stage as a given.
I’ve fallen into the well (of horniness! no, no, sorry, that’s a Holly Hughes joke) of their video archive trying to find something to best sum up what these wonderful artists have done for the world. But, I think I’ll let the archive just speak for itself. After all, this is about my night with Peggy Shaw, right?
I met Peggy Shaw in a dance studio of a no longer existing University of Michigan building in early 2006. I was a second-semester UofM freshman, way over my head in how cool the world of lesbian performance art was. Quite by accident, I had become the student of the inimitable Holly Hughes, a brilliant writer and performer who has taught me more about art, laughing and dogs than I can even relate. (I’ll save the story of how I met Holly for another time, but suffice it for now to say that it involved a promise of dancing rabbis on my part and a spinning ham graphic on her part.)
Holly had brought in Split Britches to work with our class – an interdepartmental glory called Hysterical Reenactment – to help us develop Holly’s new play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Ham?” (hence the spinning ham graphic.) I didn’t deserve how awesome this whole experience was – heck, none of us 19-year-old smartasses deserved it, but that’s just how cool these artists are.
I sadly don’t remember everything about that master class in cool, although I do distinctly remember the terror in my voice as I described to them my hypothetical double drag performance (in which I would have gotten into full female drag and then done male drag on top of it).
I also remember that Peggy and I just clicked. It might seem weird to some, but I can’t think of anything more logical. Peggy, the grand-butch-elder, and I the young femme faggot just starting to figure out this new word genderqueer. There was even a certain arch platonic flirtation in the way she stopped me to talk about my tsitsit – which she ever so sweetly misidentified as payos – and how she nervously related the story of a female rabbi she knew who also wore tsitsit. I can’t lie, I still get a little stomach flutter when I think about that moment. And it was only later that I figured out how famous and important Peggy is. That moment is important to me just because of the human connection, of butch and femme, of lesbian and faggot, of master and student, of Jew and gentile, of person and person.
And as my great good luck would have it, I found myself at her elbow when the class went out to dinner later that week. In true you-couldn’t-make-this-up-if-you-tried fashion, we were at the original Cottage Inn, an Ann Arbor mainstay festooned with giant grape sculptures and a wine list. I, of course, was 19, and also driving that night, but Peggy let me have a few surreptitious sips of her wine.
It wasn’t the sweet corruption of a minor I’ll always remember, though. It was the relationship advice.
You can only really talk to celebrities when you don’t quite grasp yet that they’re famous. Here I was, a 19-yo faggot sitting next to what really already should have been one of my idols – and if they taught useful things in school, like lesbian performance art, maybe she would have been – and I was prattling on about my relationship problems. I was in a lead zeppelin of a relationship, and my partner was freaking out about my gender presentation, and blahdy-blahdy-blah.
And Peggy turned to me and said: “Schlomo, don’t get married.”
It really was as simple as that. And I’m embarrassed to say that, like most advice, I didn’t take it. That lead zeppelin kept catching updrafts, and it lasted for another couple of years after that night. But I should have taken that advice. Yes ma’am, I should have.
What I really got was a sympathetic ear. My, our, butch-grand-elder took a real, active interest in me as a person, over pizza and wine in that bizzarest of Ann Arbor landmarks. I got free relationship advice from a real pro: anyone who’s seen a Split Britches show knows they probe love like aliens probe Midwesterners who are overly fond of Jim Beam.
Now I’m all growed up and creating queer performances of my own. Sadly, this leaves me without the funds to help Peggy materially at this time. But maybe you can?
This is my offer, which is in no way, officially or unofficially related to the actual fundraiser: I will publicly publish (on this website) the text of my new performance, “I Feel Good Diet Coke,” dedicated to Peggy and the first person to contact me with proof of contributing at the Fag Hag ($100) level.
Please consider helping this wonderful artist.
Big Mama Schlomo