In In this exclusive extract from The Only Way Home Is Through the Show: Performance Work of Lois Weaver editor Jen Harvie interviews Lois about the history of her work.
Photo credit: Christa Holka
This is an edited version of an interview conducted in Lois’s apartment in the East Village, Manhattan, New York, on 13 October 2014
JEN: I’m interviewing you about the history of your work. You’ve talked about your work with the Baltimore Theatre Project. What did you get out of working with them?
LOIS: When I left college I think I was in a bit of a confused state. I had become politically active, or at least politically aware, and I wanted to do something that meant something. I thought I wanted to do social and political activism. I was invited to Baltimore – I didn’t know what to do. I had given up on going to grad school for various reasons; one of them was that I had realised that wasn’t the kind of theatre I wanted to do. I’ve spoken about this before, but it’s really true. I thought: ‘Is playing Nora going to be my fate?’ That was the only kind of feminist view of – certainly dramatic – literature that I had encountered, although I knew a bit about experimental theatre. So, I went to do political activism. I went with the church. There was an inner city Baptist church that had an inner city home; a bunch of us were going to live there, restore that home, and then work in some of their social action projects. One was a halfway house for ‘restored’ mental patients – that’s what they called it. It was a house for people coming out of mental institutions. Also, as a member of the church I worked a little bit in their inner city day care and breakfast programme for kids. The other thing I did in collaboration with a peace and justice group I was working with was set up a soup kitchen for alcoholics, basically, our homeless people in the neighbourhood. It was a really dire kind of neighbourhood we were living in. The church was in that neighbourhood, the house was across the street, so we worked in that community. Aside from that church work, I started working with Peace and Justice Center, which is really active in Baltimore mainly because that’s where the Berrigans were. They were big peace activists and pacifists who had been put in prisons for their activism: the Catonsville Nine, Daniel Berrigan, and his brother [Philip Berrigan] – priests. So it was a kind of ecumenical peace and justice movement; I was doing peace and justice work with them, and social justice work with the church. I saw an advertisement in the paper for free workshops at the Baltimore Theatre Project with someone who had worked with the Open Theater, and somebody who had worked with the Grotowski theatre. Those were big key words for me in my last couple of years at university; so I went to the workshop. I realised that I had tried to sort of go away from the theatre, and the moment I went to those workshops I was hooked back in. I realized that was my priority, and that political and social justice was a part of what I wanted to do, but I wanted to do it with theatre. It was there I learned how to do that. I had started to learn that, but it was at a distance, and out of a kind of academic study at university. I had been introduced to experimental theatre that had politics at its heart, but this was my opportunity to actually take workshops and learn the techniques of how to do it.
JEN: What were the techniques you learned there?
LOIS: Working with impulse, and also working with what they called ‘worlds’, which is where you set up a world but it’s not necessarily linear improvisation. It allowed for more abstract, non-linear, non-psychological interventions. It was image making. Also, there was a lot of physical work, like ‘machines’, physical and vocal conducting – stuff like that.
JEN: And those things felt viable or valuable to you as ways of doing the politics you wanted to do?
LOIS: Yes – I didn’t make that connection, but by the end I was making it. We took two classes: one, on the Grotowski technique, and one on the Open Theater technique. We created an ensemble out of that Open Theater class that actually produced some work at the end. So it was in that trajectory of the whole year that I understood exactly how to do it. I don’t think I would have understood just taking the classes. Along that journey we also started doing workshops with people who were freshly out of prison. I quickly started teaching the things I was learning. It was in the teaching that I started to think, ‘Oh, this is how I would make this work’, or figure out how to make this work for me, or adapt it. I started adapting it quite quickly.
JEN: It sounds like some of the principles of it that worked for you were things like impulse?
LOIS: … Impulsive – the physical element was what you brought to it. It wasn’t until I started working with Spiderwoman that I actually started to trust the value of the personal. But then, of course, [Spiderwoman director] Muriel [Miguel] had worked with the Open Theater, so that came from the same place, but I think it was just the difference in the two teachers. Mark [Samuels] was much more intellectual, more philosophical, a man, you know. His take was to bring texts for us to work through, and bring our personal [stuff] to those texts – but we didn’t go into that totally autobiographical place until I worked with Spiderwoman.
Photo credit: Lori E. Seid
JEN: And Mark Samuels was the leader of the Open Theater workshops in Baltimore?
LOIS: Yes, and Lynn Norris was the leader of the Grotowski workshops. They were a couple, and were residents at the Baltimore Theatre Project for a while.
JEN: I’m curious about your relationship to religion at that time. Up to that point, probably the church – as distinct from religion – had been important to you. Tell me what religion and the church meant to you then.
LOIS: I think I had already understood by the end of my time in college – a year prior – that, for me, the church was primarily a platform and an audience. While I adhered to certain Christian principles, I wasn’t really a Christian in the sense of thinking that Jesus was my saviour and that everyone else was doomed. I don’t think I ever really believed that. I did believe in peace, love, generosity, and responsibility for your neighbour – all these things that I think were rooted in Christianity. I knew early on at university that I was using this as a platform both for my feminism as it was budding, and also for my social justice work. That was 1972. What happened also was that we had managed as students to make a shift in the Southern Baptist Convention to pay more attention to social issues. But, there was a backlash, the Jesus Freak movement.75 Once the Jesus Freak movement took hold nationally, it meant the Southern Baptists, I think, really grabbed on to that as a way to backtrack and think, ‘Oh good, we can stay with our proselytising and conservative principles’. I knew, even as I was walking into the situation in Baltimore, that I was in some sense walking away from the church, and again I was using it as a structure. Even though that church was a fairly liberal Baptist church, I didn’t really engage. In fact, I started to kind of get in trouble because I wasn’t coming to the services and, when I did, sometimes it was after being out late at night doing naughty things. [JEN laughs] I think it became clear between the Baptist preacher and me, at a certain point, that we were parting ways. That also coincided with me getting more and more involved with the theatre, and less involved with some of those projects.
I mention this in What Tammy Found Out: those projects were the first time I had set something up and started working on them, where I actually felt like I couldn’t succeed. I kept pushing against something; not in the church, it was fine in the church, and not necessarily in the theatre, but it was in the sort of left political realm. Once, I organised a film screening to raise money for North Vietnamese hospitals, and actually that was the one thing I felt like I pulled off really well. I remember the men who ran most of these organisations sort of congratulating me in a way that made me realise what the problem had been all along: they didn’t expect me to succeed. There was that stereotypical sexism of the left. They thought I was cute and nice to have around; I was a great assistant, I helped them, fed their egos, whatever, but for me to actually be a leader? They had never seen me as a leader. I thought, OK, so this is what has been going on. That, and probably the fact I had started to split my focus and my focus was going more into the theatre than the real hardcore organising of getting a soup kitchen going in the middle of inner city Baltimore.
JEN: Can you tell me what you think had started making you a feminist, and when?
LOIS: I was the baby of the family by ten years, and a child of the 1950s, born in 1949. We were, as a generation, told that we could do and be anything we wanted to be. It didn’t come down to me as a gender-specific possibility; I really did think I could be anything I wanted to be. My parents encouraged that, and not because they were particularly liberal. My mother used to talk about how independent I was. They saw an independence in me and they wanted me to do the things I wanted to do. And I was surrounded by women. I grew up around all my mother’s sisters, my own sister, there were very few men I interacted with. My brother was in the air force and my dad was very mild-mannered, a very gentle and unconfident male; consequently, he was not very macho. I’ve told this story too, that I learned my first lessons of non-violence through him, because as a milkman he carried dog biscuits in his pocket, whereas everybody else carried Mace. That had a huge impact on me when I realised what it took to make that decision, and what a simple decision! They would come and bark at him and he’d pull out the dog biscuit and it would be over – whereas everybody else had a very aggressive approach. He was a very non-violent, gentle, and shy man. My mother and my sister were kind of everything to me – and my mother’s sisters: my aunt Edna, my aunt Vesta, my aunt Carrie, they were big role models. Not because they did anything other than being housewives, but they were pretty fierce – just strong country women. Then, I don’t know, I succeeded in high school…
JEN: …You won awards, you were the first woman to do certain things….
LOIS: I won awards, I don’t know if I was the first woman so much, but I was a cheerleader…. There weren’t that many options. I was the editor of the yearbook the year I graduated, and I took leadership roles. I enjoyed being in leadership positions. Again, it never occurred to me that there was a limitation on that because of my gender. Then when I went to college, out of a certain kind of laziness and a lack of guidance, I ended up going to this women’s college nearby, and it was all women! We had a theatre department of around 13 majors, two really non-sexist, gentle male professors, one into contemporary theatre, and one into the classics, and we had to do everything. We had to build the sets, direct the show, be in the show, publicise it, and re-build the theatre out of an auditorium in an old elementary school each time we did the show. I thought that was all normal. So, back to your question of how did the feminism wake up…. In 1970 it started to proliferate through the mass media, really mass media. There was no other contact with any on-campus organising or anything like that; this was a fairly conservative girls’ school. They were all going to college to either get married to someone at Virginia Tech, or to be elementary school teachers – except for the 2000 women who were Physical Education majors, who were probably all lesbians, but I didn’t know about it then! Half the student body were Physical Education majors.
I think also wanting to be the first woman president of the BSU [Baptist Student Union], wanting to lead and succeed, and moving into positions of leadership…. It wasn’t pushing against what I thought I couldn’t do; I was moving forward with what I thought I could do. My feminism started with supporting that. Also, there was my idea for this talk I gave when I was a junior in college, ‘Beyond the White Picket Fence’; I was starting to think that what I see my sister doing, or my friends doing, is not something I’m going to do. I’m not going to get married, settle down and have kids. So, I think it all just came out of that, and it was supported by some limited reading.
Photo credit: Eva Weiss
JEN: After Baltimore, you went to New York City. I know it’s kind of an obvious question, but why did you go to New York?
LOIS: I was sort of on my way to New York. I had only been to New York once before and fell in love with it. Of course, there was all it represented in terms of theatre. I had worked with people from New York in the summer stock days, and I had almost auditioned for NYU [New York University]. So, New York was a goal. Not a very clear goal, but a goal. I think if I had been braver I might have just gotten on a train, come here, and checked it out. But, this Baltimore opportunity, and that other side of myself that wanted to do social activism, pushed me in the Baltimore direction. At the end of this year of working at the Baltimore Theatre Project, several of the people were moving to New York, and these teachers were going back to New York. So, it was kind of natural to come. Having spent one year in an urban environment, it was easier. But, it was kind of a conflictual situation because the reason for coming to New York would be to try to get into theatre – audition, get headshots, do all those things I had understood the theatre to be. But we were coming as these little initiates in experimental theatre at a time when all the theatres were falling apart. Performance Group was breaking up. The Open Theater had broken up. So there wasn’t a substantial experimental theatre scene happening at that moment. This was lucky for all of us in that little group, because a lot of the people were teaching workshops, because they weren’t working; they were trying to figure out how to make their own work. Paul Zimet, for instance, and Tina Shepard who had been massive members of the Open Theater, were starting to work together and do these workshops. That ultimately became the Talking Band, which still exists. Elizabeth LeCompte was starting to do workshops around the use of deconstructing texts – I think she said that – which then ultimately became the Wooster Group. Joe Papp from the Public Theater organised an event, kind of like a smorgasbord of workshops where all these young practitioners would show up, and there were five or six different leaders, and each of those leaders gave a spiel about what they were going to be working on, and then you could work with them. LeCompte was one, and Zimet another. Some people became members of those companies. It was good in that way; the historical intention is to get here, get into a show, get known, and make print advertisements and commercials. But then there was this other thing, which we had been involved in – ensemble, political, alternative theatre. So how could you do that?
JEN: Did you have to pay for the workshops?
LOIS: No. Well, some of them we did, but this Joe Papp thing, no. I think he probably got funding. Then I continued working with Tina Shepard and Paul Zimet. A lot of those artists went to Boulder, Colorado – that was [around] 1975 – and worked with Ch.gyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist who established this place called Naropa Institute. [Allen] Ginsberg and a lot of that group of poets and alternative theatre people went there and taught classes. I went out there for a summer, or a month. I took mime and yoga classes – and also acting classes. I even auditioned a couple of times.
JEN: How did you support yourself?
LOIS: My first job when I got to New York was working in a fish market. This is a very upscale, up on the Upper East Side, fish market. My job, alongside the wife of the man who owned it, was to take telephone orders, and be the cashier. That was very interesting because Woody Allen would call – or, he wouldn’t call, his cook or house person would call, who could barely speak English, and you could hear him in the background shouting the instructions; I thought, just fucking get on the phone!
JEN: So it was interesting because of the social hierarchies you were exposed to?
LOIS: Yeah. Edward Albee came in to set up an account, but it was this pretty young boy who came to the [counter]. I wasn’t paying attention and he said, ‘I want to set up an account.’ I said, ‘What’s the name?’ He said, ‘Albee.’ I said, ‘First name?’ He said ‘Edward.’ I looked up at him and he was 20 or so. I looked and there was Edward Albee behind him. Things like that happened.
JEN: And it was flexible enough it allowed you to keep doing the workshops?
LOIS: This was probably in my very first six months in New York. I had this arrangement that I could leave early and take classes at night. But I left because the guy who owned it became really paternalistic towards me. But he was also a bit of a monster. I had arranged to leave early to go to this class, and one day when I did that he started screaming at me, asking me what I thought I was doing – and this was a very clear arrangement we had. I never went back. I went, nope, I’m not going to do that. Also, I felt really uncomfortable about how the family aspect of it had started to infiltrate the working. They were treating me like family, which had its perks, but I didn’t like it. So, I quit that, and then I got a job as a messenger for the Village Voice. This was before it became this high-powered, very competitive ‘get on your bike’, kill everybody kind of thing. They just had their own messenger. It was print messages, so you had to pick up the print-ready advertisements – this is before the Internet –and you just had to be on call. I loved that. I really enjoyed that.
JEN: What did you love about it? Being out and about, talking, meeting people?
LOIS: Yeah, I had my little bike, I met people. I met some real weirdos – that was OK, I felt alright about that. It was flexible and it was active; I enjoyed it. I also had gotten a few gigs, ‘artists in the schools’ type gigs. There was a big ‘gifted and talented’ – I hate that, but anyway – initiative. There was a lot of money putting artists in schools to identify kids who had talent. My boyfriend and I got hired to do some of these. We would go into the classroom and do workshops. We started also working with some of the teachers to create curriculum-based performance. I did this Bustin’ out the Box [performance with children], in 1974 or 1975. I was still of the working class, I had to have a job; I didn’t understand how to be freelance, quite. So after the fish market job I did a few things. I was a ‘para’, a teacher’s assistant, at a residential home for emotionally disturbed adolescent girls. It was a diagnostic centre. After six months, the Board of Education said that, because I had a teaching degree, if I studied, took an exam, and got a certificate as a special education teacher, I could get an actual teaching job and not a ‘para’ job. So, I took the test and got the certificate, but god only knows why they gave it to me. I didn’t know anything about testing. Anyway, I got a job. I finished up that year as a teacher, so I got more money. But then the city went bankrupt and we got laid off. Then I went on unemployment. It was after that I understood how I could piece together a living. Some of it was through these ‘artists in the schools’ programmes, directing youth projects, going on tour with Spiderwoman a little.
JEN: So you discovered a way of committing yourself fulltime to your art and performance practice?
LOIS: And finding ways to support that, yes.
JEN: And you discovered how to feel safe, because you could be on unemployment and pick up multiple jobs?
LOIS: Yes, I think my brain changed, and that idea of the ‘livelihood’ – it was scary and risky. I would come home from being on tour with Spiderwoman and think, oh my god, what am I going to do? But usually then there would be some offer of teaching, or other things. I did catering; that really filled in some gaps.
JEN: Were you the cook?
LOIS: No, I had a friend. I also assistant directed, making a little money doing that. I did a few performance projects where you could get paid, and add that to your employment, so you could extend your unemployment; I learned ways to work the system.
This catering job, there’s a great story of that. Peggy and I were catering, and we mainly worked in the kitchen, assembling hors d’oeuvres. The waiters had it easier and made more money. [The woman who ran the catering] was our friend so we talked her into letting us be waiters. She said, ‘OK, if you get a good haircut, I’ll let you be waiters.’ So we both went and got good haircuts. We were working on the WOW Festival at the time, and we showed up, and we were going to wait this particular event the night before the Festival opened. We got out of the cab (we took a cab I think because we helped her bring this stuff up from the kitchen), and there was a Women Against Pornography picket in front of the event. The event was the Penthouse Pet of the Year Awards…. Peggy and I looked at each other: oh my fucking god. [JEN laughs] We had no choice, we had no money, we had to do the job. Besides, we had committed; it wasn’t her fault. So, we said, ‘OK, you’re going to have to put us in the kitchen, we’re not going to wait!’ So, she put us in the kitchen. She made the most beautiful food. One of the things we had to do was scoop out these mussels, do something to them, put them back and garnish them. There were oysters, prosciutto, beautiful wines. And these people showed up and they would rip off a hunk of bread, make themselves a ham and cheese sandwich, and get a bottle of beer. I was like, oh my god. They announced the Penthouse Pet of the Year, and the woman stood up and she said that was very nice but she didn’t want to do it! She said, ‘I’ve got my own career now, my own business. I just think it would interrupt me’….
LOIS: Peggy and I were backstage in the kitchen, with boxes full of her picture on the front page of the Penthouse, because they had already chosen her and published her picture. When it was over, there were tonnes of prosciutto hams, bagels, all sorts. So, we brought huge bags of food home, and we catered the opening night of the WOW Festival. That would have been 1981.
Photo credit: Lori E. Seid
JEN: That’s a great story. You’ve mentioned Spiderwoman. Is that the first theatre company you really joined, and how did that come about?
LOIS: Well, Lynn [Norris], who I mentioned did the Grotowski work with us, I maintained a connection with her. She had been asked by Muriel [Miguel] to join a group of women who were getting together regularly, not really to make a theatre company but to think about taking control of their own work. Muriel, as well as a few other women who had worked in the Open Theater, really suffered – it’s a strong word but I can’t think of anything else – because they were always the assistant director, the dramaturg; they didn’t get any of the credit that the men did, like Jean-Claude van Itallie and Joseph Chaikin. That was a really good early lesson for me to see what happened when people worked collectively on a piece and one person takes authorship of it. They all complained of that. Roberta Sklar had worked with Joeseph Chaikin as an assistant director, as well as Megan Terry, and initiated a lot of the techniques. Megan Terry in particular pushed it on its political path, but didn’t get any of the credit. So, that kind of thing was happening and Muriel wanted to get together a group of women and talk about that. Muriel had also been part of a group that had gotten a small grant to do some investigating around women’s issues in theatre. She called together this group: Lynn, her best friend Josie [Josephine Mofsie], this Native American rights advocate – a wonderful woman, powerhouse, terrifying person – and a few other people. Lynn proposed me and told me they were having to have a conversation about that, because I would have been the youngest one and they weren’t so sure about that. Anyway, they let me in the group.
JEN: How old were you?
LOIS: I was 25 when we actually started making work as Spiderwoman, so I would have been 23 or 24. We met once a week and did hardly any theatre work. We all talked about husbands and partners, situations and directors that we had worked with. Once in a while we would do one exercise. Then we’d go out and eat. I thought, what is this? But I was fascinated! [JEN laughs] Somewhere along the line, I thought this was a consciousness-raising group, actually. I thought, why are they talking about their children, or their uncle? But that was the nature of the way they talked, and worked. Then, Muriel got an invitation. It was a new music ensemble I was doing in the evening, and they wanted Muriel to contribute some performance. She said, let’s do something called ‘story-weaving’, let’s put together these stories, and let’s call ourselves Spiderwoman. She described the reference to the Hopi goddess Spiderwoman. We did this one evening. It was me, Josie, Muriel, and maybe one other person. People liked it, and we liked it. Then Muriel got another little grant, and at that point she said, ‘OK, I’m making a company.’ In the meantime, her friend Josie had died, and the other one went off to advocate for Native rights in Washington, DC. So, she asked her two sisters [Lisa Mayo and Gloria Miguel], me, a student she had been working with at Bard College, and one other person to make this company, and we called it Spiderwoman. We started working on this piece called Women in Violence. That was the summer of 1975 because I went away for Naropa. By the time we started doing Women in Violence in the spring I’d already made this commitment to go and I really wanted to do that. I needed to get away from my boyfriend, I wanted to learn more about theatre, I’d spent a lot of money, so I went. I had to plug back in [when I came back], which was a little bit tricky but it worked. We made the show and performed it.
JEN: What do you feel you learned working with them?
LOIS: I definitely learned the value of the commonplace detail, and mundane aspects of people’s lives, that talking about, sharing, and working through those things with a group is another way of working. It can produce material. I’m the kind of person, still, I don’t say my sister’s name. I say, ‘oh, my sister’, or ‘my mother’, whereas they were like, ‘oh, Judy’. The familiarity with family, and detail, and the importance of that, it took me a long time to trust that. I learned that. I also learned how to work with fantasy. It was Muriel who taught us how to take our performance fantasy, and turn it into something we could make, that would fit into and build on the performance. I’m sure there are some other things, to do with how not to structure a theatre company around this structure of the family…. [laughs] Again, there’s great comfort in that, but when it comes down to it, family is family; there were the three sisters against us. The power dynamics are never straightforward.
JEN: What were the highlights and some of your best memories of working with them?
LOIS: Well, finally being able to identify myself as a working performer in New York. I don’t know if I’d even been able to articulate it as a dream, but it was. The next biggest highlight would be that we toured Europe. It had never occurred to me that we would be able to do that. Muriel said, ‘I’m going to get us a tour of Europe, because that’s how Open Theater survived; we’re going to do that too.’ I thought, she’s nuts, we’re never going to get this. She invited the director of the Nancy Festival to come and see a run-through of this tacky little performance group. He loved us and booked us for the Festival. From that one gig we toured, as a company, I think, a good five times. There was one devastatingly long, totally dysfunctional tour, but yeah, we toured a lot. I obviously built my system for how I got to London, based on Spiderwoman.
Photo credit: Eva Weiss
JEN: Then you joined up with Peggy.
LOIS: Yeah, one of the members of Spiderwoman Theater, who was not Muriel and not functioning as the director, Lisa, who happened to be the older sister, decided to invite Peggy – unbeknownst to the rest of us – to join the company for this performance of An Evening of Disgusting Songs and Pukey Images. Her reasoning for doing that was, supposedly, because it was a cabaret and Peggy, in Hot Peaches, had a lot of cabaret experience. And she probably had a little crush on Peggy. So, Peggy joined Spiderwoman.
JEN: Then you started collaborating more with Peggy?
LOIS: Well, we became lovers, while we were on her first tour. This is another documented story, I’m sure, because I’ve done it in performance. I had met Peggy myself two years before and she’d said, ‘I’ll give you two years to come out’. When she joined the company I was really thrilled because I was trying to come out, but I was going to bars, getting drunk, and it wasn’t much fun. Once Peggy joined the company, a lot of lesbians started hanging around, her friends, her gang from the East Village. I met a friend of Peggy’s and was able to have a short, but a good little relationship. So, I came out as a lesbian. We went on tour and of course we fell in love, finally. I think I was chasing her. I had been chasing her for years, probably! [JEN laughs]
But we had to keep it secret, because there was a rule in Spiderwoman that you couldn’t shit where you eat. That rule, I remember the moment it came about; it would have been much earlier, when we were on tour in Amsterdam. The three sisters kind of had a crush on the same guy, who was this really fantastic Argentinian clown – it was kind of a professional crush. In all this talk of working with him, Muriel would say, ‘You can’t shit where you eat.’ That became the edict of the company. Of course, it had never been a problem because there had never been any lesbians or lesbian activities within this woman’s company. It wasn’t a problem… but that was what it was, and we knew it would be really frowned upon. So, we kept it secret. Keeping it secret was probably a really good thing for us, because the whole reason for not ‘shitting where you eat’ is because your personal life interferes with your work. Peggy and I were determined not to let anything interfere with the work. The work always came first, and the relationship second. That just became a muscle that we developed and maintained – sometimes probably to our own detriment. We kept it secret for quite a while.
JEN: There seems a double standard. Spiderwoman’s sisters obviously had relationships, as sisters. So, their biological relationships were permitted, but your family of choice, your lover…
LOIS: You’re absolutely right. I don’t think I was sophisticated enough to think about it in those terms. Also, I think there was an intense power dynamic, partially to do with age (I was much younger), partially to do with that Muriel was the director, and also something to do with the racial aspect of being white in a primarily Native company. That’s probably really low down on the list, but it was there. You couldn’t challenge Muriel, because if you challenged Muriel the other two would come after you – and they were formidable women. Lisa, bless her heart, has passed… but whew…. I’ll never forget the time when Peggy and Muriel were naked in the dressing room, and they came at each other [as though to fight]. When I looked up, there was Lisa and Gloria behind Muriel. I thought, this is what they mean by the phalanx, you know? Then there were others of us sort of … [standing by feebly]. Anyway, they didn’t come to blows. Me and the others, not quite the same size, not quite sure what the hell to do…[laughter].
JEN: You and Peggy ended up going a separate way from the others, and setting up WOW. Can you narrate that?
LOIS: It kind of happened simultaneously in a weird way, because we’d been touring so much with Spiderwoman, and there was real growing cultural energy in Europe around feminism – there were lots of women’s festivals. On the tour where Peggy and I got together in 1979, there was a really big women’s festival at the Melkweg in Amsterdam. That’s where we met Pamela [Camhe] and Jordy [Mark] and we started to talk. Peggy said, ‘I’ve always wanted to do a lesbian festival in New York.’ I started saying how I didn’t understand why we didn’t have a similar structure around theatre, where you can go and have a drink, see one show, stick around and see another, go to a movie, go dancing, all in the same venue – which was a European thing we’d seen everywhere in the festivals. I wanted to bring that to New York. Peggy wanted to have a lesbian festival in New York. These two other women were, I think, very excited by what they had encountered, and wanted to do stuff too. We got together, and started fantasising about this. And at the same time, I guess for that first festival I wanted to work on this idea, Split Britches, that I’d been thinking about for a while. I never thought about starting my own company, I just wanted to do a project. So, the first WOW Festival, and the very first, fragile little showing of Split Britches, happened in 1980. For the second festival, I had worked on the play, and that’s when Deb [Margolin] got involved. We presented it under the auspices of Spiderwoman, but that’s when we knew we couldn’t do it any longer, because we’d already begun to split the power, and change aesthetically. I wanted to do something different from what I’d been doing with Spiderwoman.
JEN: How was it different?
LOIS: I wanted to play with different kinds of subtleties.Certainly everything we did with Spiderwoman was very episodic. It was fabulous, shouty, rude, big, vulgar, obvious, you know, in ways that I did love, but I wanted to find ways to make something a little more subtle. I was interested in ideas of relations. I would have called it relationships then: relationships between women obviously, between family members, but also between women and their environment, women and their objects…. I was interested in moments, and also portraiture, and layering. We had talked about layering with Spiderwoman, but I wanted a deeper kind of layering. For instance, when I first started working on Split Britches, that was because I had read this book Hillbilly Women,76 and I thought, ‘Oh my god, if she’s going to tell that story, I need to tell my story!’ Suddenly I got competitive and I would go, ‘No, I have to tell this story.’ That set me in the direction of wanting to work with material from my family. But I also had this fascination with bag ladies, and how the bag ladies looked the same. Then around about that time Grey Gardens 77 came out and I started thinking about how we could make those associations across different environments – working with personal story (which I had learned to work with in Spiderwoman), weaving that into the context of a bigger story (which was something we hadn’t really done with Spiderwoman).
JEN: Could we backtrack a little to WOW? WOW was two festivals, but then also a venue that had longevity….
LOIS: Yes; we did two festivals. In 1980, we were in Andy Warhol’s old Electric Circus on St. Mark’s Place. It had already been turned into something else, but we were kind of thrilled by that. We did what we said we were going to do, which was to put together pieces that would inspire people to come and see one, and then happen to see another. We were trying to broaden the lesbian palate slightly. It was international, we brought people from all over, and we worked with a sort of ‘party’, clubby aspect of it. We did lots of extra things in the bar; kissing booths, stuff like that. We had lots of events leading up to it to support it, because we had no funding. Then we did another one in 1981, where, again, we had no funding, but we got different kinds of support because international artists could get their governments to get them here. That was in another venue, the old Ukrainian Home on 2nd Avenue, and several other venues. Several theatres were willing to put stuff on.
After that second festival there was a collective of about 10 or 11 women who had really volunteered to make it work. We wouldn’t have called ourselves a collective, but we kept meeting and having brunch, because we had such a good time. We talked about what would happen if we had an ongoing storefront space. At that point I was more interested in that than this big ‘one off’. We got a storefront and established that with probably about eight or 10 people, and started to run it as a collective – sort of. It took us a while to learn how to do that. So, we finished the festival in autumn 1981, and it wasn’t until 1983 that we got it together and opened and became established as WOW Café.
Jen’s note: We took a break at this point in the interview. When we reconvened for another half hour, I failed to record us properly. Maybe this is the flaw in the weaving, the puncture Muriel and Lois refer to in the interview that follows. While I didn’t record what came next, I did take notes. I asked Lois what her principles were as a director, and she said she was interested in collaborating, responding, and orchestrating. I asked her the same about being a performer and actress and she talked about not wanting to be in character. Regarding the importance of word play in her work, she spoke of her love of ‘overblown language from Southern Gothic writers such as Tennessee Williams’. On the differences between performing solo, in a duet, or in a group, she said that solo work was not her preference, that she was more interested in group work for its processes than its products, and that work on timing with Peggy was ‘a complete pleasure’. Projects she had most enjoyed included Belle Reprieve, because she wanted to collaborate and work on that area with that team, and Ruff and Lost Lounge, where she had trusted her impulses and fine-tuned them. My final question was, what would you like to make or do that you haven’t yet made or done? Her reply: ‘Something virtuosic.’
75 The Jesus Freak movement was a Christian subculture of the 1960s and 1970s with links to hippie cultures.
76 Kathy Khan, Hillbilly Women: Mountain Women Speak of Struggle and Joy in Southern Appalachia (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1973). Republished with new material as Skye K. Moody (Kathy Khan), Hillbilly Women: Struggle and Survival in Southern Appalachia (New York: Anchor, 2014).
77 Grey Gardens (Portrait Films, 1975) is an American documentary film by Albert and David Maysles (and others) featuring a reclusive upper class mother and her adult daughter, both named Edith Beales, who are near relations of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and live in a decaying mansion in East Hampton.
Buy the The Only Way Home Is Through the Show: Performance Work of Lois Weaver on Unbound.