- Ruff by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver
Peggy Shaw has never been one to shy away from issues affecting her personal life. As a celebrated queer solo-performance artist and cofounder and collaborator for more than thirty years with the lesbian performance troupe Split Britches, Shaw has demonstrated the value of a creative process that begins with the source text of her own life experience. Channeling her biography into complex performances, she overlays her experience with poetic language, song, and imagery, meditating on the efficacy of the personal as a starting point for political and social exchange through performative experimentation. “I do what I know!” she exclaimed at the top of Ruff, coyly signaling the feminist strategies she has used in all of her solo works to date (including You’re Just Like My Father and Menopausal Gentlemen) to make the personal political. This time, it was the very question of what she knew, or rather the recovery of what she thought she knew, that set this show apart from her earlier works, proving that she can still accomplish these goals onstage, albeit in a modified manner.
In Ruff, Shaw unearths the disorder and displacement of a desiring and fragmented queer subject facing the after-effects of a stroke she suffered in 2011. In the performance, Shaw reflected on a life history she could no longer fully remember, relying on her unwavering improvisational skill, despite the severity of the stroke. The stage became an outward projection of her own inner state of temporal reflexivity and her continual struggle to recover and remember (and re-remember) her place within the performance. The double bind Shaw faced while performing in the stroke’s aftermath is reflected in the structure of the piece: not only has she lost her ability to fully recall her own past experiences, but she is also unable to memorize lines, forcing her style to be inherently rough, improvised, and broken.
The audience at Dixon Place in New York City could feel an unnerving sense of vulnerability and urgency within Shaw’s visceral presence as she measured her curtailed capacities for memory as performance. Indeed, circumscribed within the very structure of the piece was Shaw’s determination to recover and document a past existing within, but simultaneously fractured by her memory: a kind of affective impasse staged publicly, showing us just what it takes for her to maintain the performance. Even if the performance “broke down” (that is, Shaw forgot her lines), time did not lapse; instead, these moments encouraged the audience to confront [End Page 576] Shaw’s memory loss as the loss of performance, disappearing before she could recover or realize it onstage.
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Shaw deliberately established the performative frame of potential failure with three prompter-monitors that surrounded her onstage. In fact, she introduced them as though they were a supporting cast there to keep her on cue. For the majority of the piece, she stood center stage with an upright microphone, wearing her signature black tailored suit. Enveloping her for the entirety of the performance, the screens visually displayed—through text, images, and other elements—Shaw’s fragmented psyche, which could short-circuit at random. The chaotic visual space reflected Ruff’s intermingling of popular genres with stories, songs, videos, and various other texts that are loosely connected through thematic riffs on the alienating experience of having a stroke.
But while Shaw’s stroke may be partly to blame for these structural inconsistencies, the piece unmistakably followed the style of her previous works, no doubt in part as a result of Lois Weaver’s direction. Shaw’s campy rendition of The Wizard of Oz’s “If I Only Had a Brain,” for example, juxtaposed the strange experience of seeing her brain post-infarction on an MRI scan with personal anecdotes about her eccentric family. One amusing story relayed her mother’s advice in Shaw’s early career that “black pepper causes...