Split Britches is an American performance troupe, which has been producing work internationally since 1980. Academic Sue Ellen Case says "their work has defined the issues and terms of academic writing on lesbian theater, butch-femme role playing, feminist mimesis, and the spectacle of desire". In New York City Split Britches have long standing relationships with La Mama Experimental Theatre Company, where they are a resident company, Wow Café, which Weaver and Shaw co-founded, and Dixon Place.
Split Britches was founded by Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver, and Deb Margolin in New York City in 1980. Shaw and Weaver met in Europe when Weaver was touring with Spiderwoman Theater and Shaw with Hot Peaches. The company started while Weaver and Shaw were performing in Spiderwoman Theatre's performance of "An Evening of Disgusting Songs and Pukey Images”. This was the first time Spiderwoman had presented lesbian content and introduced Peggy as a Spiderwoman performer. During this time in the summer of 1980, Weaver began to write a performance about her 2 aunts and great aunt in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia called Split Britches, The True Story. Split britches is a reference to the type of pants women wore while working in the fields, which allowed them to urinate without stopping work. The name of the company has been said to mimic the “split pants” of poverty and comedy. The performance was originally developed with Spiderwoman performers and was performed at the first WOW (Women's One World) Festival, founded by Shaw and Weaver, in 1980. Following a subsequent run of the performance in 1981, Weaver and Shaw decided to leave Spiderwoman, and one of the Spiderwoman performers they had been working with declined to continue with them. This led them to ask Margolin, who was a writer, to assist with writing the script, and Margolin became a part of the company for many years. The final version of Split Britches was performed at the Boston Women’s Festival in Spring of 1981 and at the Second WOW festival in Fall of 1981. The script was first published in Women & Performance, and premiered on public television in 1988, directed and produced by Mathew Geller in association with WGBH/WNET Television and the NYFA ‘Artists New Works Program'.
Early on in the company determined they would not spend time trying to apply for grants to support their performances, and would instead work outside of these systems using their own finances from jobs to support their performance work. This is due to a belief stated by Shaw that, "it's easier to get a job than a grant". This held true for the beginning of the company's existence, but as they became more established they began to apply for grants.
Peggy Shaw (b. 1946) is a theatre artist whose work combines butch identity and dry humor. Her most recent solo show, RUFF (2012), relates her experience having a stroke. The performance was directed by Lois Weaver and toured internationally.
Lois Weaver is a performing artist whose work is recognized as seminal in creating a template for lesbian performance methodologies. Her recent solo work has centered around the persona Tammy WhyNot, a 'former famous country-western singer turned lesbian performance artist'. Weaver is Professor of Contemporary Performance in the Department of Drama, Queen Mary, University of London. Weaver most often acts as the director for Split Britches.
Deb Margolin, no longer a member of Split Britches, is a renowned performance artist, currently a professor at Yale University. She was primarily the wordsmith of the troupe, known for transforming visions into the final script. Margolin worked with Split Britches on Split Britches (1981), Beauty and the Beast (1982), Upwardly Mobile Home (1984), Little Women (1988), and Lesbians Who Kill (1992).
The company engaged in a number of collaborations, including working with Isabel Miller and Holly Hughes to create Dress Suits to Hire (1987), with the Bloolips in Belle Reprieve (1991) and with James Neale-Kennerley in Lust and Comfort (1995).
Impact and Significance
Split Britches has worked with concepts of lesbian, queer, dyke, butch and femme identities and cultures  in a context of American feminism and live arts movements which emerged through the 1970s. In Split Britches: Lesbian Practice/Feminist Performance, critic and theorist Sue-Ellen Case aptly sums up the importance of the trio in the development of contemporary lesbian performance: "the troupe created a unique 'postmodern' style that served to embed feminist and lesbian issues of the times, economic debates, national agendas, personal relationships, and sex-radical role playing in spectacular and humorous deconstructions of canonical texts, vaudeville shtick, cabaret forms, lip-synching satire, lyrical love scenes, and dark, frightening explorations of class and gender violence." The troupe uses these performances to create a safe space in which non-normative sexualities and genders can occur in peace, and it is praised for having maintained a theatre space for women's artistic endeavors.
Geraldine Harris has placed the work of the troupe in a "postmodern Brechtian tradition", and in an article on this troupe, describes the focus in their work on borders, as they often take on ideas of duality. With concepts of butch/femme highlighted in their work, as are concepts around class, classism, and oppression. Harris also explains that the troupe opposes the gender binary as a mode of political performance. Split Britches also examines the fetishization, objectification, and narcissistic misidentifications that cannot be separated from love, passion, and desire. The shows are often praised for the deconstructive and transformative lenses through which they are written.
Split Britches' work comes from a tradition of performance art that is documented academically by the field of performance studies. Their work is cited as indicative of lesbian art which brings up issues of subjectivity. It has been central to the development of feminist performance theory and distinguishing lesbian critical theory, for example in the pioneering work of Jill Dolan on the feminist spectator, Sue-Ellen Case on butch/femme aesthetics and Alisa Solomon and Kate Davy on feminist performance contexts.
In a dissertation by Deanna Beth Shoemaker, Split Britches was said to use games, fantasies, songs, dance numbers, and monologues to addresses issues including female desire, power, and lesbian identity. The characters in the performances play on gender and sexuality binaries, and explore issues of lesbian femme identity within and without the butch/femme dynamic.
The company begin by exploring a personal obsession or frustration, like Tennessee Williams or Aileen Wuornos, which is often take from popular culture. Shaw has said this is because through popular images they are able to maintain a queer aesthetic while keeping an audience engaged. Weaver and Shaw always try to make reference to a comedy duo from the 1950s or 1960s, which is often Mike Nicols and Elaine May, due to their comedic structure and gender dynamics. Next the company make lists, including a list of things they want to do on stage, current social issues, cultural icons, and stories they want to tell. They then choose characters that are split between good qualities and bad qualities, which Weaver has said is "like loving a part of yourself and your past". Despite playing characters, Weaver and Shaw say they always play themselves, including personal stories and anecdotes. Weaver has said "In the process of making personal performance, lying is always an option and creating truth is the goal." Next they begin collecting found objects, and working on music to incorporate. Finally the company begin rehearsals, weaving together the disparate fragments. Throughout their history Weaver has functioned as the primary director.
In recent years, public engagement and dialogue with the public have become an integral part to the Split Britches creative process. This takes the form of workshops and public conversations, often moderated through formats from Weaver's Public Address Systems project.
From 2002-2003 Weaver and Shaw designed and ran workshops in four women's prisons in Brazil and the UK as part of the project 'Staging Human Rights', initiated by People's Palace Projects. The workshops intended to use performance to talk about human rights with female prisoners.
At the time Split Britches was formed, cross-dressing and drag were popular, so this has become a central part of some of their performances. Some of the performances by the troupe have come under fire for the portrayal of certain characters. Specifically, the coproduction of Belle Reprieve by Split Britches and Bloolips, a group of gay drag performers. In this performance, gender norms are erased, and the binary is played upon. This performance has been critiqued due to the female actors dressing as men. Because most instances of cross-dressing are males dressing up ultra-feminine, this performance was unusual. It was said that this type of performance further holds men to be superior to women. Additionally, it has been criticized that cross-dressing reinforces the gender binary, which so many feminists have worked to eliminate.
2017: Innovative Theatre Achievement Award
2014: Hemispheric Institute of Performance Senior Fellowship, Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw
1999: Obie, best performer Peggy Shaw for Menopausal Gentleman
1991: Obie, best ensemble, Split Britches and Bloolips, for Belle Reprieve
1988: Obie, best performer Peggy Shaw for Dress Suits to Hire
1985: The Villager Award for best ensemble
Unexploded Ordnances (UXO), 2016-present
What Tammy Found Out, 2012–present
Lost Lounge, 2009–2011
Miss America, 2008–2009
Diary of a Domestic Terrorist, 2005
What Tammy Needs to Know, 2004
To My Chagrin, 2003
Miss Risque, 2001
It's a Small House and We Lived in It Always, 1999
Little Women, 1998
Little Women, The Tragedy, 1998
Salad of the Bad Cafe, 1998
Valley of the Dolls, 1997
Faith and Dancing, 1996
Menopausal Gentleman, 1996
Lust and Comfort, 1994
You're Just Like My Father, 1993
Lesbians Who Kill, 1992
Anniversary Waltz, 1990
Of All The Nerve, 1990
Belle Reprieve, 1990
Little Women, The Tragedy, 1988
Dress Suits for Hire, 1987
Patience and Sarah, 1987
Upwardly Mobile Home, 1984
Beauty and the Beast, 1982
Split Britches, The True Story, 1980
- Split Britches: Lesbian Practice/Feminist Performance, edited by Sue-Ellen Case, Routledge, 1997.
- Harris, Geraldine (February 2011). "Double Acts, Theatrical Couples, and Split Britches' 'Double Agency'" (PDF). Split Britches: 211–221. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
- "Split Britches website". Splitbritches.wordpress.com. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
- Freeman, Sandra (2006). Chambers, Colin, ed. Lesbian theatre. The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre. London: Continuum. p. 441. doi:10.1093/acref/9780199754724.001.0001. ISBN 9780199754724.
- Patraka, Vivian M. (2008). "Split britches in split britches: Performing history, vaudeville, and the everyday". Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory. 4:2: 58–67.
- Donkin, Ellen; Clement, Susan (1993-01-01). Upstaging Big Daddy: Directing Theater as If Gender and Race Matter. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472065033.
- "Deb Margolin by Lynne Tillman - BOMB Magazine". bombmagazine.org. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
- Memories of the revolution : the first ten years of the WOW Cafe Theater. Dolan, Jill, 1957-, Tropicana, Carmelita,, Hughes, Holly, 1955 March 10-. [Place of publication not identified]: [publisher not identified]. 2015. ISBN 9780472121496. OCLC 933515943.
- Isherwood, Charles (January 13, 2013). "A Deadpan Look at Life Before and After a Stroke". The New York Times.
- Weaver, Lois. "What Tammy Found Out, Performing the Issue, Public Address Systems". Lois Weaver. Retrieved 25 April 2014.
- "Professor Lois Weaver, BA (Radford University, Virginia USA)". Queen Mary, University of London. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
- Wray, B.J. (2002-12-11). "Split Britches". glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Retrieved 2014-02-02.
- Shoemaker, Deanna Beth. "Queers, monsters, drag queens, and whiteness: unruly femininities in women's staged performances." (2004).
- Davis, Gill "Goodnight Ladies: on the Explicit Body in Performance", New Theatre Quarterly, XV, No.58 (1999), p.187.
- Dolan, Jill (1988). The Feminist Spectator as Critic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472035193.
- Case, Sue-Ellen (1989). ‘Toward A Butch-Femme Aesthetic’ in Lynda Hart, ed., Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women’s Theater. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. pp. 282–99. ISBN 978-0-472-09389-2.
- Solomon, Alisa (1985). "'The WOW Cafe'". TDR: The Drama Review. 29 (1): 92–101.
- Davy, Kate (2011). Lady Dicks and Lesbian Brothers: Staging the Unimaginable at the WOW Café Theatre. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-05122-9.
- "Peggy Shaw by Craig Lucas - BOMB Magazine". bombmagazine.org. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
- Mythic women/real women : plays and performance pieces by women. Goodman, Lizbeth, 1964-. London: Faber and Faber. 2000. ISBN 0571191401. OCLC 43341587.
- The applied theatre reader. Prentki, Tim., Preston, Sheila, 1968-. New York: Routledge. 2009. ISBN 9780415428873. OCLC 192042277.
- "Split Britches Wants You to Unearth Your Potential". Senior Planet. 2016-09-01. Retrieved 2018-03-26.
- Ferris, Lesley (2005-08-15). Crossing the Stage: Controversies on Cross-Dressing. Routledge. ISBN 9781134924530.
- "Split Britches, Discography". Split Britches. Retrieved 25 April 2014.
- Split Britches: Lesbian Practice/Feminist Performance, edited by Sue-Ellen Case, Routledge, 1997. ISBN 9780415127653