May 6-8, 2004
Friday, May 7
Talk to me Peggy.
I have had the privilege of seeing Peggy Shaw and Vivian Stoll perform “To My Chagrin” twice. The two-woman show with a drum kit in the back of a beater Datsun pick up (the bed of the truck is on one side of the stage while the front end is jacked up on the other) is not to be missed. Peggy is a storyteller and poet who rips through her deeply layered and impacting language with wit and grace. Vivian and Peggy have timing that rivals the trapeze artists in Cirque du Soleil.
The first time I saw it was December 2003 in Washington D.C. at the National Performance Network Conference.
Let me set the stage…..Conference – D.C. – hundreds of artists and hundreds of presenters. The focus of the conference is art and its ideals – its loftiest forms. The conversations are about “building better artist/presenter relationships”, “the socio, economic and political climate of art in our time”, “gender art”, “race art”, “regional art”. You get the idea…. Meanwhile, the desperation is palpable. All these presenters in one room! All these disempowered artists NEEDING work! There has got to be some way to sneak in a good impression! The elbow rubbing, gin and tonic drinking, joke cracking, wildly laughing crowd was at an all time frenzied high. And in the middle of it all, there came Peggy Shaw.
She was in a curated show – one of the elite artists in the crowd that was actually given a platform to strut her stuff. We were there – held captive in the blackness of the theater – the most intimidating audience one can imagine – a group of artists and people who have the power to present art. Peggy walked on stage with one big, glorious and delightful “fuck you” to the crowd, the scene, the power dynamic, the whole of it. She was a woman with just the jacket of a costume, just the remnants of a set, just the drums of a back up band. She had a mic and a story to tell, a razor sharp wit and a deep and resonant punch line that broke open the ironies and inadequacies about life and humanity that plague us all. You see, she just didn’t CARE about the power of the opportunity she was given. The potential future work the room possessed for her. And through her ramrod straight delivery and blatant defiance, she empowered us all. The artists remembered why they are so beautiful. The presenters remembered why they work overtime for small audiences and small paychecks. She brought us back to the power of the story and the exposure of the history of the woman who had it to tell. We all wanted to marry her.
Since seeing the show in December of 2003, I have been waiting impatiently for it to grace the stage at On the Boards, never missing an opportunity to tell my Seattle posse “they better not miss this show.” Last night I sat rocking back and forth in my seat awaiting the first downbeat. When Peggy sauntered down the audience aisle from the back of the house – her flat line, nasally voice shooting through her body mic, I felt the thrill of live performance – the beauty of being at the BEGINNING of her story and getting to experience it all over again. But ten minutes into the show, I realized the show had been changed. It had been cleaned up. Tidied. It had been…..choreographed!
So, I am a choreographer. I have spent all of the 15 years of my adult life exploring the nuance of movement. The detail of gesture. The beauty of abstraction. And yet, for all of my obsession with the body, I found myself wanting their bodies to stop. Not that they didn’t do their part well. Choreographed to a tee, the car door swung shut right on cue, the dive roll over the hood wowed the crowd, the drumsticks rapped the hood instead of the kit and variation was born. But this tight nit choreographic creation felt like a thin layer of film I was looking through – trying to see the Peggy and Vivian I have held in my mind for a year and a half as the women and artists who deliver their goods with passion and a clean slate – unplugged.
See, there is something about Peggy and Vivian that cuts around the outside, discarding it all, leaving the very center behind. Something raw and unadulterated that reminds us of how we all want to be in world – exposed in the most sexy way – if only our lifetime of failures didn’t cloak us. Somehow this “new and improved” show was given the smallest of masks to hide behind. And as smart and crafted as the new work is, as smart and impeccably timed as Vivian and Peggy can be, I wanted the simplicity of the mic and the stand and the story to return. I wanted Peggy to stand there and tell me her story again.
Peggy Shaw's Ripe Chagrin
Peggy Shaw's material is so ripe. As a nation, we stand practically numb with bravado over our supposed personal freedoms. Yet, we struggle to forget that legalized racism lies only forty years behind while today's politicians insist on banning gay marriage. What might a butch lesbian with a mixed race grandson have to say about that?
After seeing Shaw's performance at OtB last night I cannot say, precisely. I know she asked a lot of questions. Some conspiratorial, like the questions on Marvin Gaye's and Otis Reading's deaths. Some apparently rhetorical, such as "how can I relate to you my love for cars?", after which she listed all the cars she, at one time and still, owns.
Stoll's sound design and Lois Weaver's direction were at times interesting. And Shaw herself poses a striking presence on stage. I most enjoyed seeing Shaw 'play' her truck's door like a guitar to a dissonant musical re-mix and watching a video clip of her young grandson dancing that was projected on Shaw's exposed torso. And she proposed a clever plan to keep trees from being clear-cut by naming them after Bush administration officials.
Most other times the stagecraft seemed flat, the set claustrophobic, and directorial choices arbitrary. There are three things I believe make for a memorable live solo performance. A single performer. A solid rapport with the audience. And, an engaging narrative.
Yes, yes, Peggy Shaw's show was not billed as a purely solo performance. But, Vivian Stoll's presence seemed superfluous, figuratively holding Peggy's hand on stage and ripping into a respectable yet inexplicable drum solo. I found it curious that a drum solo seemed out of place in the midst of a show steeped in rock'n'roll, but it did.
Shaw seemed more like she was rehearsing than engaging with her audience, gazing just beyond them rather than seeing and responding to them. Instead of revealing, her delivery seemed academic. I longed for vulnerability in Shaw's story telling. I wanted to witness some kind of transformation within her performance. If I had, she might have had me eating out of her hand, pleased with anything she or Vivian did on stage.
Shaw did tease an insight or two when she declared "I long to be what I was before I was me" and "Sometimes, I tell you only half my dreams, 'cause the other half is good…keeps you from knowing to much about me." Indeed. Shaw has said that this third part of her trilogy, after "You're Just Like My Father" and "Menopausal Gentlemen," is about passing on her butchness, her masculinity and how to survive in the world on to her grandson. I would have enjoyed understanding more about that and getting to know more about Peggy Shaw.
Thursday, May 6
To My Chagrin, Blog 1
This wasn't at all what I expected. While thematically "To My Chagrin" may be Peggy Shaw's message to her mixed-race grandson, structurally the show is far from straightforward narrative or screed. Instead, three things happen simultaneously: the language interlaces and flows from speech to lyrics to poetry and back; speech fuses with music through unaccompanied rhythms, Vivan Stoll's drumming, and actual song; and the sheer physicality of cars and music making merge, and not only when Shaw plays air guitar on the car door or air piano on the hood with unabashed joy.
I grew up in a town where no one's grandparents were born in America, and their "otherness" was rooted in their various immigrant experiences and their tell-tale accents. In contrast to the lessons/speeches our parents gave, it was the authentic voices and keywords that our grandparents' used that transmitted their core values to us. Shaw does the same, for example, when she gives a list of what she hopes her grandson will not become: basketball player, CEO, doctor, etc., and in two sentences tells us a bit of where she stands on race, class, and gender, a message that cuts to the quick, and then moves on.
Shaw's large and impassioned persona -- there's the occasional bombast that borders on, "in my day, we walked uphill both ways" -- is very cleverly juxtaposed with Vivian Stoll's wry and subtle physical and (occasionally) verbal responses, like an old friend or spouse who's heard this post-dinner discussion a few times before and is going to clean up the kitchen. Stoll also quietly takes care of things on the set and keeps the show running, and the true feel to this relationship made sense as Shaw described in the post-performance Q&A how she started to write by improvising to Stoll's drumming, and how Stoll taped the dance segment and edited the tape and the audio.
The show was miked beautifully, so that every word was clear. I found the music of the language to be so pleasurable, it was like eating a big chocolate ice cream cone on a hot day, when you lick the melted part off your wrist, so that you don't miss a drop.
Come Back Friday
Our first Blog the Boards postings about Peggy Shaw's "To My Chagrin" should be up Friday morning, so check back then.
About BLOG THE BOARDS
Who better to write about what happens at On the Boards than the people who support and attend our performances? Making art is part of a dialogue between artist and audience, and so we've created Blog the Boards...
About OUR BLOGGERS
We are pleased to have Helene Kaplan, KT Niehoff and Frank Video as our guest BLOGGERS for Peggy Shaw's performance.
About PEGGY SHAW
Actor, Playwright, and Producer PEGGY SHAW has received three OBIE Awards for her work with the Lesbian Theater Company, Split Britches, which she founded with Lois Weaver and Deb Margolin in 1980. She won the Obie Awards for...
About 'TO MY CHAGRIN'
Actor, playwright, and OBIE Award winner Peggy Shaw has been accused of being masculine, what a surprise! She has been a king, a drag, a racist, a he-man and a confessor and...
Read what others have to say about Peggy Shaw and "To My Chagrin." And contribute your own comments...
Beauty in Strength and Honesty
Check Back Later...