'Older people are not sex, art and culture-free zones'
‘I’m old and Peggy’s old and we want our peer group around us at this moment to have these questions addressed’ – Lois Weaver is looking forward to causing an explosion with their Bealtaine show Unexploded Ordnances
‘You play a better tune on an old guitar because you know where your fingers go.’ Tammy WhyNot (Lois Weaver)
Sometimes, it seems like a new generation is doing new things. They are probably not. They are certainly not if they think that being a cultural renegade, shaking things up and being revolting is new.
Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw have been shaking, rattling and rolling US culture and politics since the 1970s. After bursting like the nasty women they are on to New York’s counterculture scene, the Split Britches, as they call their company, have been sticking it to the man. For decades.
Weaver and Shaw have always challenged the status quo; taking on politics, culture and sexuality. As they move on and stare ageing in the face, the pair head to Bealtaine, Ireland’s national festival celebrating the arts and creativity as we age, and Dublin’s Live Collision festival, with a new performance, Unexploded Ordnances.
Despite popular belief, older people are not sex, art and culture-free zones, says Weaver, stringently . She uses her alter-ego, Tammy WhyNot, to lubricate entry to conversations with older people about sex, so giving the floor to Tammy at this stage is probably a good idea. “You play a better tune on an old guitar because you know where your fingers go,” Tammy sings. It’s a good idea to listen to some older guitars , she reminds us. This is exactly what the show does.
Weaver has no problem shattering ancient taboos about never asking a woman her age, either. “I’m 68, going on 69 in October,” she says.
Peggy is 73. She’ll be 74 in July. In January 2011, Shaw had a stroke but rather than lament what disappeared, she decided to create new dramatic performances. If Unexploded Ordnances is anything to go by, Shaw is still shooting from the hip.
Weaver is taking a break from the conference she is attending and is taking in some fresh air. The new show is not just for those at the upper end of the human demographic, she says. Unexploded Ordnances uses the untapped potential of older people to explode myths and ignite discussion, she says. It is a discussion we all need to have, she adds, along with the hope that people of all ages will come to the show.
They got the idea for the play “when we were doing a residency on an island in New York harbour and the person giving us a tour said ‘whatever you do, don’t go digging on the island because it’s full of unexploded ordnances’. He said that in this case they were cannonballs from the US Civil War and the Revolutionary War (the American War of Independence). Peggy and I both said wow what a great metaphor for getting into people getting older – to talk about people’s unexplored potential, the things we bury, the things many of us grew up with that we never had the opportunity to enact. We thought that doing this could also be extraordinarily risky – like an unexploded bomb.”
Weaver and Shaw like risk. In Unexploded Ordnances they collaborate with a “council of elders” who answer random questions to explore ideas about untapped potential in older people. But don’t worry about being singled out for your maturity to join the council. Weaver and Shaw do their choosing with stealth, identifying people they are interested in through their answers to a lot of questions. The council then join the “situation room”.
The questions will not intimidate, she says. “I ask the Council of Elders relatively simple questions about their own life – such as ‘what are you most worried about at the moment?’ That could be a very local anxiety to do with ageing or their children. Or it could be global – global warming for example.”
In the US, Trump and nuclear proliferation came up a lot, says Weaver. They wait to see what Ireland’s more senior cohort come up with. There might be mention of a forthcoming constitutional referendum, we suggest. Weaver will be waiting, ready to listen.
“The personal, the political, the global and the local. Bringing up anxieties in public is an important part of the show,” she says.
Age does not necessarily mean wisdom these days, we suggest. After all, Donald Trump is 71. “I don’t think anyone has made that actual point, that they share a generation with Trump,” says Weaver. “What they do say is that we have reached this age and we thought things were going to be better but they are getting worse. The audiences expected advances in terms of social and economic equality, but things are getting further apart. They are seeing rights disappear and they are starting to worry again – about nuclear war, for example. That is something we grew up worrying about, but we thought we had stopped worrying about it.”
Has there ever been any intergenerational conflict, we ask? Callow-faced youths tackling baby boomers about growing fat from the land of cheap houses and better wages?
“We hear from older people worrying about the lives their grandchildren lead, but we have also heard older people lay the culpability for where we are now at the feet of younger people – the culpability of not voting for instance – and that’s a particularly evident in the UK when it comes to Brexit.
“People always ask me the question why do you always have old people come to the table? And my answer to that is I’m old and Peggy’s old and we want our peer group around us at this moment to have these questions addressed. It is also a question about visibility – when you go to the theatre you are going to see young people on stage and this is our opportunity to populate the stage with some older faces and some older experiences so it’s our choice and that’s why we’ve done it.” Weaver has never been an apologist and she’s not starting now.
Is there wisdom to impart? “I believe that wisdom is mundane as well as extraordinary and so we ask people to identify themselves and say one thing about themselves. Towards the end of the performance we return to the idea of the unexploded ordnance.” She doesn’t want to give too much away but before the performance people are invited to write down something they would like to do or be and the little pieces of paper fly out when the bomb drops.
What did Weaver want to be? “I think I always wanted to be an opera singer. At least to sing like that.”
Luckily Weaver got to sing. She calls country singer Tammy WhyNot her “public service announcement for sexually transmitted infections”.
“Peggy and I have always used performance to manage the challenges we are facing in our own lives – as women, as lesbians, as aging lesbians.” Weaver is now looking at ways to use performance to engage the public around issues of health and well being. She has found that performance improves health. “We work a lot with elders and when people have to get up, dress up and show up they feel a lot better.”
A final word about the many talents of Tammy. “She is treating older people as sexual beings. I started a project called ‘What Tammy needs to know about getting old and having sex’. That was because I was starting to lose my sexual desire a little bit and I didn’t understand that and no one had ever talked to me about whether it was an emotional thing or a physical thing. I wanted to talk about it with people so I started performing as Tammy and would go to senior groups and get people to talk to me about sex. It was interesting.” she says.
The answers mainly came from women, she says. As men die younger so women are left alone. “Women say ‘Sex? I’m finished with that and I’m happy to be finished with that’. Then when I’ve dug down into that a bit getting to have sex meant they ended up back in a relationship with a man who they have to take care of. I’d ask again then why don’t you want to have sex and they’d say ‘well I’m finished with the ironing’. They think that you’re going to have a sexual relationship with a man you are going to end up ironing their shirts.”
And on that bombshell, Weaver departs. “We need to talk to each other more. We need to talk about ageing though that’s for sure . . .”