Split Britches

ARTS & CULTURE

The feminists making art about older women having sex

Split Britches

Legendary New York theatre troupe Split Britches are in the UK, drawing attention to the fact that sex doesn’t stop at 60. Matilda Battersby meets them

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By Matilda Battersby on

“A lot of elders are having sex. It is not what you think,” confides Lois Weaver.

The actor, 66, who along with Peggy Shaw, 71, makes up legendary New York theatre troupe Split Britches, has produced groundbreaking theatre around feminism, lesbian and gender-fluid identities for more than 30 years.

The duo have always riffed on subjects related to their own personal experience. So, it follows that as they hit 60-plus, they are pushing sacrosanct boundaries related to older people and nooky for a new theatre show called What Tammy Needs To Know About Getting Old and Having Sex, which hits Theatre Royal Margate and then the Wellcome Collection, London this month. 

To find material for What Tammy Needs To Know the pair have been asking old people around the world about their sex lives.

What they heard in retirement centres in the US, UK and Croatia were tales of derring-doing it: copulation in public areas, missionary-style with the help of hoists and healthcare workers – and bed-hopping in residential homes. Most importantly, they found out that, regardless of whether they are doing it or not, the elderly really want to talk about sex (baby).

“I did a residency in a retirement home in Croatia. I found out they were all having sex. They all shared rooms, so I asked how they managed to get privacy,” Lois says. “They said they do it in the elevator!”

“They can also change roommates to share with their lovers – but, get this, they need their children’s permission,” she continues. 

“And they’re getting STDs,” Peggy adds, nodding seriously.

“They still think about sex a lot and have high expectations. An 84-year-old I know wants someone with a 34-inch waist and blue eyes,” Lois says.

Peggy has been touring a show called Ruff, most recently at Barbican, which meditates comically and through song on her experience of losing a chunk of her faculties as the result of a stroke in 2011. It charts the way she “performed her way out” of the effects of the stroke using old shows as physical and mental rehab. “We call it Doctor Footlights: the lights come up and the pain goes away,” she says.

Both are concerned by the fact that a lot of the strides made toward equality in the theatre now appear to ‘going backwards’ with Broadway and the West End dominated by male directors, male actors and plays about men

They met while working with feminist theatre companies Spiderwoman and Hot Peaches in the 1970s and formed Split Britches in 1981. “Both the companies we’d been with were bold, burlesque (not in that sense), political and in your face. We wanted to do something more subtle, less shouty, but taking bold issues and women’s forgotten histories,” Lois says.

Peggy explains: “We wanted to be very theatrical. To wear costumes and be fabulous.

“This was the 1980s so it was a time of ‘performances’. We were rehearsed, whereas performances were someone getting up and bleeding. Off the cuff, straight from the vein. We’ve always been into writing scripts and getting the timing perfect.”

Lois adds: “We never made plays about being lesbians. But it was a given. This isn’t about being old, but it’s a given because we are older.”

Peggy remembers a review written by a critic in Baltimore (a man!) in the late ’80s, with a headline that read: “Even Shakespeare wouldn’t put three women alone on stage and expect people to pay attention.” She and Lois “still laugh about that” but both are concerned by the fact that a lot of the strides made toward equality in the theatre now appear to “going backwards” with Broadway and the West End dominated by male directors, male actors and plays about men.

They both write solo shows with supporting performances by the company and others. For instance, Peggy became well known for 1997 piece Menopausal Gentlemen in which she explored her changing body and hot flashes while dressed in drag (in her father’s suit, no less).

For some time now, Lois has performed as her alter ego Tammy WhyNot, a blonde, bewigged country and western singer with a big personality and it is as Tammy that she will deliver inside information on the coitus of septuagenarians in What Tammy Needs To Know.

“I turned 60 and noticed changes in myself. My sexual desire shifted, my body changed. I had questions about things nobody was talking about. I wanted to have conversations in public. I started saying to people: ‘Do you have sex? How often? What’s your sex life like? Has it changed?’” Lois says.

“I started asking people if they feel desire at all. And if they do, how they find partners. I spoke to widows who wouldn’t countenance the idea of sex again. I spoke to others who did have sex and found out about what they do. The main thing I discovered is that a lot of elders are having sex.”

I wanted to have conversations in public. I started saying to people: ‘Do you have sex? How often? What’s your sex life like? Has it changed?’

What Tammy Needs to Know is a musical – do check out Vimeo for her brilliant, drawling, slightly hobbling county and western cover of Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” — and it features several “elders”, nicknamed the WhyNets. When I arrive to interview Peggy and Lois, at their rehearsal space at the Barbican, London one of them is talking worriedly on the phone as an elder flown in from New York failed to show up today: they are unsure what, or perhaps who, she is doing. 

As well as spending six weeks touring the UK and having a “Retro(per)spective” at Colchester Arts Centre the duo are looking for new ways to reach audiences. They’ve settled on the idea of Public Service Broadcasts via the internet – plus Tammy is keen to be the next YouTube sensation.

“They aren’t wearing condoms so they’re getting STDs,” Peggy warns.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily that they’re having multiple partners. These elders are mostly aware that they are postmenopausal and so can’t get pregnant and so they think ‘Why not?’,” says Lois.

Peggy adds: “The Public Service Announcements will warn them about STDs, sex, strokes, mental health. It’s a new way for older people to be entertained and informed.”

While the older folk they chatted to for What Tammy Needs to Know were happy to lay their sex lives bare, the people looking after them weren’t always keen on what Peggy and Lois had to say.

“I asked a group of seniors in Manchester ‘Do you think about sex?’ But then I got called into the office and asked by a couple of fortysomething managers ‘How dare I ask the OAPs about sex?!’,” Lois says. “They were outraged. What they didn’t know was the elders had just told me they were all reading Fifty Shades of Grey.”

What Tammy Needs To Know About Getting Old and Having Sex is at Theatre Royal, Margate on May 12, and the Wellcome Collection, London on May 21, 22 and 23

@matildbattersby

Split Britches
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