Tag Archives: Dixon Place

New Titles in Feminist Performance

In the category of shameless self-promotion, let me call your attention to two forthcoming titles, one by my partner, Stacy Wolf (or “Feminist Spectator 2”) and the other a collection of performances by Peggy Shaw, which I edited for the University of Michigan Press.

Stacy’s book, Changed for Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical, can be found on the Oxford University Press web site or on Amazon.

The book is a terrific feminist engagement with musicals from the Golden Age to the present, written for a trade and academic audience in readable prose with keen insights. Stacy is particularly good on the difference between how a musical’s book might position its female characters (that is, in often derogatory ways) and how a female star’s power in performance often works against her disempowerment by the text.

A Menopausal Gentleman: The Performances of Peggy Shaw, for which I was honored to write the introduction and to edit, is available for pre-order on Amazon. It can also be ordered at the Michigan web site. The book collects Shaw’s You’re Just Like Your Father; Menopausal Gentleman; To My Chagrin; and Must: The Inside Story, on which Peggy collaborated with the UK-based Clod Ensemble. It also includes interstitial pieces from Peggy’s work with Split Britches and her own introduction.

At the ATHE conference at the Palmer House in Chicago this August, Peggy and Lois Weaver will perform their two-hander Lost Lounge and we’ll celebrate the publication of Stacy’s book and Peggy’s collection.

Enjoy both books and join us for the celebration if you’re at the conference.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

Lost Lounge

This elegiac evening with Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver, and musician Vivian Stoll is a beautiful meditation on change, loss, and aging, delivered as a Sid Caesar/Imogene Coco-or Mike Nichols/Elaine May- style lounge act with post-modern stylings. In Dixon Place’s expansive basement black-box theatre—excavated, as Shaw and Weaver imagine, from three stories of layered dirt—the inimitable lesbian pair and their musical partner trade songs and repartee against a visual and sonic backdrop of the city being demolished and (presumably) reconstructed in unrecognizable ways. The images never picture the new; they only show us the wreckage, through an aperture that expands as the evening progresses. Lost Lounge testifies to the past, keeping its view of the present and the future only rueful.

The show is melancholic, the laughs wistful and poignant. Seeing the performance just a day or two after the death of Ellen Stewart, the doyenne of New York’s downtown theatre scene, made the performance even more of a testimony to time’s passing, an even more nostalgic, slightly doleful examination of life’s fleeting.

Before the show begins, as the audience waits upstairs in Dixon Place’s own small lounge, Shaw mingles, asking people what they miss about New York (be it a person or a building) and taking notes on small pieces of square white paper. Dressed formally in a black tux and cumberbund, with a lively black and white bow tie topping her on-going illusion of gentlemanliness, Shaw is a woman with a mission—she chats, but she’s collecting impressions, ideas, words, names. When the audience descends to the theatre, Shaw accompanies us.

Weaver is pre-set, sitting on a black wooden stool and slumped against the black wire bar that’s the evening’s only set piece. Weaver wears a wide black-and-white horizontally striped dress adorned with excessive petticoats, a black velvet bodice, and a décolletage deep enough to store some of her (and our) secrets.

Stoll, too, is already present, standing sentinel by her electronic keyboard, an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips, white against her purple-black dinner jacket. Throughout the short evening, she plays, sometimes 1950s standards to which Shaw and Weaver sing in off-key, heartfelt renditions, sometimes instrumentals, wistful melodies that set the evening’s scene and its tone.

The “lounge” act provides the evening’s conceit and its structure, while “lost” provides its theme.Shaw and Weaver play—although Lost Lounge is in some ways a “reality” show—an embattled duo who’ve worked together long enough to be able to predict one another’s moves and motives, whose long-term relationship chafes just enough to give their act a testy edge. In fact, when Weaver turns her back, Shaw flicks folded up bits of paper at her, whether to get her attention or to annoy her.

Weaver and Shaw have explored these themes before in their duets as Split Britches (they formed the influential, historic feminist performance troupe with Deb Margolin in the early 80s, and now use the name themselves). Their work together—It’s a Small House and We Live in it Always, for example—often tracks the emotional complications of a once romantic, life-long working relationship.

But the performance of on-stage intimacy takes on new poignancy in Lost Lounge, in part because Shaw and Weaver are now squarely middle-age, and in part because they perform their own longevity and their relationship’s changes against the backdrop of a city transforming in ways they mourn.

The video projections of demolition and deconstruction and the clanging, beeping sounds of jackhammers and dump trucks backing up and moving out also evoke the work that’s been on-going at Ground Zero for the last 10 years. But it also recalls the rest of downtown Manhattan and its many, if less cataclysmic, losses. When, at the show’s end, the performers read the slips of paper Shaw collected from us in the lobby, describing what and who we miss, we hear people refer to restaurants and other neighborhood locales that no longer exist, as well as people (more than one referred to Stewart’s death).

Weaver expresses her own astonishment at how quickly these changes are wrought. One day, she remarks, the Bowery mainstay Marion’s is there, flourishing, and the next, the neighborhood restaurant is just . . . gone. Spectators hiss at the mention of NYU, whose corporate expansion plans have changed much of the West and East Village into a student dorm.

Lost Lounge mourns these changes, but at the same time, it celebrates what endures. Weaver and Shaw (or their “characters”) might harp at one another, but they’re there, witnessing one another’s solo performance turns and helping one another with grace, respect, and love. One of the evening’s loveliest numbers is meant to be funny—and generates a few laughs and no doubt a lot of smiles—but it’s also deeply moving: Shaw and Weaver dance, partnering one another through iconic ballroom dancing poses and moves. But they need assistance to carry it off; instead of accomplishing the bends and lifts and twirls with which a younger couple might display their virtuosity, the ubiquitous black stool is used as an assistive dancing device for those whose bones and muscles and tendons can’t emulate those movements without it.

Weaver lays across the stool as she falls back into Shaw’s arms in a conventional swoon, and rather than lifting Weaver when she leaps, Shaw holds up the stool. Weaver reaches up toward it, representing, rather than executing, the balletic moves of a conventional romantic duet. The partners accomplish the scene with the wink and nod that’s the signature of Lost Lounge, but its elegiac implications are inescapable. These performers are aging women, whose bodies can’t quite realize everything for which their imaginations continue to wish. And yet at the same time, they’re observant, mordant, and smart, prodding us to see what’s lost and what’s gained in the inexorable progress of personal and public history.

Shaw and Weaver have always been very physical performers, actors who devise their own choreography (with help from Stormy Brandenberger) and dialogue, fashioning their numbers from a wish-list of images, ideas, and issues to which their desires lead them. Lost Lounge lets them mash up the crooning melodies of lounge singers (one of their best duets is “Autumn Leaves”) with the direct address of stand-up comics, combined with the feminist insights of the political project that always grounds their work.

Their career-long interventions in conventional gender performance and the signs of sexuality continue to flourish here, as Shaw’s mercurial gentleman courts and cares for Weaver’s femme dynamo. Shaw runs through her quintessential poses, arms up in the air, Richard Nixon-style, pointing and punctuating, fiery and present. Weaver is a solid, dependable presence, hands on her hips around her big hoop skirt, casting her ironic gaze in our direction.

Both performers get down and dirty. Shaw lies on the floor close to the top of the show to listen, she says, to the sounds of the earth, and Weaver falls to the ground later on, her petticoats awry, to deliver a ruminative monologue. They aren’t ginger with themselves—Weaver and Shaw’s whole-hearted physical investment continues to be risky and delightful, a model for how to dispense with fear of foolishness.

These two have always been clowns of a sort, but rather than playing for laughs, they play for insights, creating a community of presumptively like-minded folks. We’re something of a coterie crowd, the audience at this performance, an assumption borne out when Shaw, Weaver, and Stoll read what spectators miss about New York, and the performers, invariably, nod in recognition and agreement. Shaw and Weaver see the world through the unique, productive perspective of people who’ve been around the block and know its history intimately.

A palpable sense of “then and now” infuses Lost Lounge. But Shaw and Weaver don’t intend to chastise those who know the present better than the past, but rather to suggest a kind of costs-benefits analysis of what happens when time passes, when neighborhoods change, when the small get devoured by the large.

Lost Lounge is finally a generous gesture, an opportunity, Weaver tells us, for us to “rest,” since we so rarely get the chance. In fact, the show moves more slowly than much of their other work; several times, a big digital clock is projected on the screen behind the performers, and they stand, silently, while a few minutes tick by in something of a doomsday countdown. Or perhaps it’s just a time-out, a real rest, an opportunity to truly lounge, together, inspired and moved by our favorite lesbian feminist downtown performers, who carry our history and help us imagine our collective future.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

Holly Hughes’ The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony)

Holly Hughes has been plying her particular brand of solo performance for over 30 years now, experience that provides her authority and refreshing, admirable self-assurance in her latest, The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony), which ran for two, too short nights at Dixon Place during their recent “Hot” Festival.

Holly’s last full-length piece was Preaching to the Perverted (2000), which detailed her experience as a so-called pariah during the culture wars in the 1990s, and her run-in with the NEA and the subsequent Supreme Court case over its grants to individual artists. Dog and Pony takes a different turn, narrating Holly’s attachment to the dogs with which she and her partner, the eminent lesbian anthropologist Esther Newton, have created their family.

Hughes’ politics here are as incisive as usual, but also personal and subtle. The self-deprecating irony is gone, as Holly takes physical, emotional, and intellectual command of Dixon Place’s gloriously wide, deep space. Holly and director Dan Hurlin set her story within simple décor: a small, comfortable armchair to which Holly retreats to tell some of the story; a tall wooden stool on which she sometimes perches; and a music stand from which she occasionally consults her script to mark her progress through the tale.

Slides of historical women and their dogs run behind her, punctuating the story with humor and a gentle reminder that this is an on-going, timeless relationship, into which Holly and Esther find themselves cast. In one of the show’s funniest visual moments, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas pose in a projected photo with their poodle between them. As we watch, the image morphs into Newton and Hughes, neatly tracing the legacy of famous lesbian couples and their canine kids.

In another very funny visual moment, lesbian singer Phranc is on hand for “Phranc Talk,” a segment in which she films Holly and her Norfolk Terrier, Ready, preparing to execute a difficult agility course. In an affectionately satirical style reminiscent of Best in Show, Phranc narrates as Holly and Ready go through their paces. Ready scurries obediently across the course, bounding up steep ramps, down see-saws, through tunnels, and over challenging obstacles, while Holly offers vocal encouragement to keep the pup on track as they move through the stations together.

Much of Dog and Pony pokes good-humored fun at the routines and obsessions of “dog people,” in this case largely middle-aged white women, whom Holly says need their bodies to carry stuff around the same way they need a good truck, and who, in erstwhile lesbians-of-a-certain-type style, simply throw clothes over themselves that immediately signal that they’ve “given up.”

Yet rather than belittling this community—of which she clearly considers herself a part—Hughes understands that at a certain point, the body becomes a vehicle, like those trucks, a means of delivering something or of getting somewhere rather than an end in itself. Even the funny bit about how these women dress signals a freedom from convention, a liberation from worrying about how they look so that they can concentrate on what they do and what, at the end of the leashes they hold with such seriousness and care, their dogs can achieve.

Likewise, Hughes’ description of her life with Newton and their dogs becomes a sly allegory for the vagaries of lesbian families. Hughes honors the importance of the primary domestic arrangements many of us have created with partners and beloved pets, taking seriously the nature of these special kinship structures.

The reference to offspring is always present, happily morphing into stories about their dogs. An anecdote about Holly and Esther waiting until the eleventh hour to reproduce turns into the hilarious and instructive tale of taking Newton’s prized poodle, Presto, for sperm collection. Holly describes Presto as her son, and admits she felt as if she were taking him to a whorehouse for the first time when they take him to the vet for an appointment with a flirtatious bitch.

She relates her mortification when Presto’s interaction doesn’t produce enough sperm to make him a good stud. That even in the world of dog breeding gender presumptions go without saying is part of the story’s moral, but Holly plays it for laughs instead of lessons. She describes the dog’s maleness in their lesbian household as a challenging curiosity (Newton, Hughes says, won’t have the dog fixed because she likes to look at his balls).

Likewise, the story of Hughes and Newton buying a sectional sofa so that they and their nine dogs can have “family time” together paints not just an hysterical picture of “dog lesbians” (as Hughes calls them), but also describes a viable alternative to more conventional lesbian families (if that’s not a contradiction in terms). I can still picture Holly and Esther on their ever-growing sofa, surrounded by terriers and poodles competing for their humans’ attention.

In Dog and Pony’s opening speech, Holly announces that the lesbian community remains divided:there are dog lesbians and cat lesbians and the asthmatics who can’t breathe either way. But her declaration underlines that the lesbian community continues to exist and even thrive despite these (and obviously other) differences. Holly continues to enjoy community and to find it important, a refreshing commitment in the face of its more trendy disparagement.

She might have left New York and the pleasures of WOW, the theatre “home for wayward girls” comprised of performance artists Holly recalls were kicked out of one feminist organization or another in the early 80s. But in her Michigan residence, she’s clearly embraced another community of women with practices as equally out of the ordinary. In fact, she says, dog people are a lot like artists; no one cares what they do.

Alongside stories of dog agility, breeding, and the women who know just how to do it come Holly’s observations about being a lesbian and a feminist of a certain age, about how her work and her life have always been inextricable from the politics of gender and sexuality. This aspect of Dog and Pony is poignant, politically smart, and often moving. When Holly announces her identifications, her performed declarations are really rather performative—that is, they do something to remind us of how potent the words “lesbian” and “feminist” once were and still can be, said with the conviction and faith and historical depth of experience Holly brings them.

A vignette about Holly wearing a “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt to give a lecture at a university and the political fallout that ensues from her talk is terrific, as it illustrates the muddle of expectations people bring to contemporary politics. Invited by a lesbian academic to address the bad reputation of feminism among college students, the woman winds up accusing Holly of giving a talk that only exacerbates the stereotype of feminists as “angry lesbians.” Astonished, Holly retorts that “angry” and “lesbian” are her schtick—why was she invited if that’s not what this woman wanted?

Despite ironies such as these which she continues to track, Dog and Pony presents Holly in a generous mood. The lovely writing describes her relationship with Newton, and with a new best friend in Ann Arbor, where Holly is now a professor in the Art Department at the University of Michigan. These relationships clearly matter to her a great deal, and their texture and import color her stories with a new depth of feeling.

I consider Hughes one of the most important artists of our generation, someone who’s always taken formal risks to tell stories that too often go unheard in other cultural venues (mainstream, lesbian, and feminist alike). This new show retains her trademark outré humor, but also delivers authoritative insights in a style that’s beautifully modulated and tonally diverse.

Holly’s stories ring with the confidence of a cultural warrior who’s come out of the fray not just intact, but wiser, with a distinctive clarity about where she’s been, where she’s going, and what it all means. We’re invited to laugh with her, in Dog and Pony, to see the grace and beauty of ordinary people with their crazy but somehow humble obsessions.

For the performance’s final, lyrical bit of image-making, Holly stands downstage center and describes a silver wolf, with four legs that “spell fear,” coming out of the woods to assume the place created beside human beings when evolution left us without as much to do. Dogs, she protests, don’t descend from wolves; she credits the animals with agency, suggesting they chose their place beside us to help create us, just as we, with great empathy and affinity, help to create them.

As Holly takes her curtain call, one last video clip plays of a woman handling a Golden Retriever that she’s trained to dance beside her. The two perform in a large, nearly empty arena to music we can’t hear. Both of them seem thrilled to be moving in sync, dancing as a cross-species couple. The grainy image is striking and poignant, an homage to mutually fortifying, joyful and enabling relationships between humans and canines.

Thanks to Holly’s beautiful rendition of Dog and Pony Show, those relationships become a model for us all.

The Feminist Spectator