Date of Degree

6-2022

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Theatre

Advisor

Annette J. Saddik

Committee Members

David Savran

Jean Graham-Jones

Subject Categories

Acting | Dramatic Literature, Criticism and Theory | Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies | Performance Studies | Theatre History | Women's Studies

Keywords

aging, performance, theatre, queer studies, age studies, memory

Abstract

This project investigates the later works of the celebrated New York–based lesbian-feminist performance troupe Split Britches made up of founding members Peggy Shaw (b. 1944) and Lois Weaver (b. 1949). Revealing how the duo consciously interlaces aspects of aging and age-based identity into the very fabric of their later performances in both form and content, this project analyzes how Shaw and Weaver integrate an explicitly anti-ageist and overtly queer representation of aging on the experimental stage. Their later performances serve to challenge narratives of decline and debilitation that come with (hetero)normative representations of old age and the life course in dominant culture. By analyzing Shaw and Weaver’s major later works over the last decade, including both their duo and solo performances, this project serves to document how these longtime fixtures of the downtown theatre scene re-present aging as a jumping off point for aesthetic experimentation. In their later work, Split Britches underscore aging as a dynamic and transformative process, offering reflections on themes of longevity, history, memory, and mortality rooted in queer identity, practice, and embodiment. Reading age through the critical lens of queer temporality, my analysis intentionally pushes against what Elizabeth Freeman defines as “chrononormative” ideologies of time and age. As Shaw and Weaver’s later works from 2009–2020 demonstrate, advanced age is both literally and figuratively a point of queer radical resistance as opposed to a condition to be resisted. Maintaining the butch/femme role play that they have embraced since the company’s founding in 1980, their performances retro-activate the past by engaging “lost” cultural performances of their earlier periods, suffusing the past with/in the present, thereby creating a more hopeful and resistant vision for the future that gives elders—both themselves as artists, and their intergenerational audiences—a seat at the table to engage in dialogue on the contemporary culture and politics.

Drawing together theoretical perspectives from both age studies and queer studies serves to deepen the critical exploration of the intersection of aging and queer identity embedded in the later works of Split Britches. A focus on aging identity is explicit in the form, themes, and content of Shaw and Weaver’s work beginning with the 2009 staging of Lost Lounge, and continues to be centralized through their latest pandemic-era performance, Last Gasp (WFH) (2020). This period is marked by a notable shift in Shaw and Weaver’s theatrical aesthetic, engaging in an activist practice with older communities and audiences, and openly incorporating the duo’s own identities as elder artists as they explore the positive and, at times, negative effects of aging. In their work, Shaw and Weaver purposefully develop an intergenerational model of performance-making that poses crucial questions about what it means to age as/in a community both on stage and off. By analyzing the radical and queer retro-temporalities that inform Split Britches’ works of the period, this study provides a critical model for the analysis of queer aging in theatre and performance studies while showing how age itself remains an undertheorized intersectional identity in comparison to gender, sexuality, ability, race, and class.

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