By Professor Matt Delbridge
I want to share a quick lockdown story about performance ensemble Split Britches – Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw. Lois and Peggy found themselves at the start of the pandemic this year locked down in London – and as two senior artists (both in their 70’s) lockdown in the UK was very different for them compared to many of us. They found themselves in the precarious situation of being in between homes during the earlier months of this year, and in London seniors were confined to their homes only allowed limited exercise due to perceived vulnerabilities. So, for Lois and Peggy this meant finding a place to ride out the shutdown and relying on friends and colleagues to deliver groceries and all other supplies. They were offered a vacant two storey terrace, filled it with props and furniture from previous shows, and set about surviving (and making work). Lois, a Performance Professor at Queen Mary University of London, delivered classes from home, Peggy painted portraits of people in masks, and through the confines of isolation they made a new and extraordinary work – “Last Gasp WFH”.
Last Gasp (without the WFH working from home) was originally conceived as a live performance co-commissioned by LaMaMa Theatre (NY) and the Barbican (UK). We had been in the development stages for the show for over a year leading up to the beginning of 2020, with a previously scheduled opening in NY for April and June for the UK. Choreographer Morgan Thorson, Sound Designer Vivian Stoll, myself as a designer (and many others) had been working variously through intensives with Lois and Peggy starting back in January 19’ in Minneapolis, in August in Upstate NY and a range of other normal new work development processes leading up to 2020. Of course the whole thing came crashing down with the closure of borders and public venues, but that didn’t stop Lois and Peggy from making something out of the worst of situations. Split Britches have been making work in (and about) difficult circumstances since their beginnings in 1980, maintaining a lifelong commitment to working with women, women of color, and LGBTQ+ communities for over 40 years. Their accessible yet radical performances and workshops consist of a larger, lifelong project to facilitate communication, wellness, and social change.[i] Last Gasp WFH is a vital contribution to this legacy.
Lois and Peggy have been making what they call Public Service Announcements (PSAs) for a few years now, beginning with Peggy’s F.A.S.T[ii] which emerged from the solo show RUFF (directed by Weaver) exploring Peggy’s recovery from a near devastating stroke in 2011. In lockdown they produced new PSAs in a series called two stories from a two storey home calling people to Take Action to Take Care. This exploration of lockdown video set the scene to develop the screen based version of Last Gasp which they filmed and produced in the vacant mansion through zoom and other available technologies with creatives from the live show (Vivian Stoll and Morgan Thurson) and importantly a new addition to the team video artist Nao Nagai. Last Gasp WFH is available to stream via LaMaMa until the 5th December 2020, and likely available through other channels into the future. Similarly the live version of Last Gasp will appear on stages eventually but what has been made in the meantime is a testament to maintaining creativity in times of crisis.
A couple of months ago the final escape arrived for Lois and Peggy – both are natives of the US, and this repatriation occurred during the final stages of the Presidential election. Of course they didn’t stop for respite – instead both committed themselves to connecting with others, rallying everyone they could to get out onto the streets and vote. Using Lois’ relatively new methodology of the ‘care café’ to do this, they activated postcard writing sessions with their local community, encouraging all they could to maintain positivity and vote in the election (as well as organising a demonstration to save their local postal service). Always, always, always their inspirational story telling and activism is a performative act – but vitally these acts of performance serve to make the world a brighter place, illuminating in times of dusk, discomfort and isolation.
[i] Text adapted from website http://www.split-britches.com
[ii] Made in collaboration with Lois Weaver, Jo Palmer and Claire Nolan
Matt Delbridge is a Professor in Performance Studies and Head of School Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. He regularly collaborates with famed performance ensemble Split Britches and is currently producing a documentary celebrating their 40 year history called Anniversary Waltz.