Vp Issue 3: “Peggy Shaw: Taking Risks,” by Lindsey L. Hundley (2002)

What a unique opportunity it would be to witness a professional actor perform newly written and unpolished works.

What a unique opportunity it would be to witness a professional actor perform newly written and unpolished works. Peggy Shaw, performer, playwright, and educator, allowed her audience to do just that on November 5th 2002 at a USC-sponsored event in the Village Gates Theatre of Los Angeles.

Shaw, originally from Belmont, Mass., moved in 1967 to New York City, where she was a social worker. Her interest in performance was sparked after seeing various “acts” by the comedy group Hot Peaches. After joining them, Peggy wrote and performed her first monologue, with only minutes to prepare. She was left in a room to herself, with not a clue where to begin. So, she started screaming “dyke, dyke,” and from there the journey really began, transforming into a performance-based career with experience in several theater groups, including Hot Peaches, and her own co-founded lesbian theater company, Split Britches, both of which still exist. Peggy’s most recent activities include a solo tour of her show “Menopausal Gentleman,” which follows the life of a “53-year-old grandmother who passes for a 35-year-old guy who likes the ladies.” This pieces meshes fact, “creative truth,” and humor into a must-see production.

Shaw’s performance selection at USC was entitled “Queer Cabaret.” It was definitely “queer” from her usual style of performance since it blended a casual workshop setting with a showcase of her work. “Queer Cabaret” began with a comical address to the audience, informing them of the many mistakes she might make on the new material. Shaw then narrated her growing up in Massachusetts and her later stumbling upon the art of performance through acting. This was not rehearsed, rather a dialogue about her life, loaded with humor and grains of serious matter, shedding light on the lack of knowledge and ill-acceptance of queer persons in the late sixties. She continued with scenes from “You’re Just Like My Father” and “To My Chagrin” and ended with a question-and-answer session.

“You’re Just Like My Father,” originally performed at Hampshire College in 1994, is about how Peggy’s mother raised her. What stands out most from this piece are her descriptions of the crisp white shirts her father used to wear. She treasured  her crisp white shirt, neatly tucked, and freshly starched. She treasured the moments when she could wear her crisp white shirt. In a way this is symbolic of how she treasures her work as a performer. Like the neatly tucked, crisp shirt, Peggy puts great care into putting together a show, and like the freshly starched shirt, she tries to maintain a constant newnes and excitement with each performance.

Along with this freshness, Shaw retains a sense of consistency with each show by always venturing into the audience, as well as incorporating popular music into her performance, eitehr a a contribution to a monologue or as an actual feature that she sings. “To My Chagrin,” a newly written illustration of who she is and what it means to be white, uses a version of the famous James Brown song “I Feel Good.” This traditionally upbeat, groovy tune was reworked into a solemn, almost classical piece. Shaw says, “I use pop music to communicate [and disrupt] things that people know.”

Another communicatory device Peggy uses each time on the stage is her love of the character. According to Shaw, many female characters aren’t portrayed with love, with does not send a loving message to the audience. Shaw explains, “No matter what character I do, I do it with great love.” This is quite evident, and gives the viewer compassion for the character.

What was so striking about Peggy Shaw’s performance entiteld “Queer Cabaret” at USC? One word comes to mind: generosity. Generosity in giving of herself, in her acceptance of an audience, and in her receptiveness towards that audience. She doesn’t necessarily expect anything from an audience. Shaw comments, “I am trying to tell a true story. I like that the audience can feel that they are important, and that their stories are important.”

In addition to the direct communication she uses onstage, passes on her experiences by teaching students and working with female prisoners. One of her goals in the prisons, she explains, is to “make prisons expose human rights violations.” On a personal level, she teaches female prisoners how to “imagine,” which gets them out of their cells, at least mentally. A true educator, Peggy also shares her knowledge of theater and performance with college students nationwide, as a way of expressing herself and showing others how they might do this.

Regardless of their situation or the varied audience she’s presented with, communication is the apparent theme with Shaw. “I think of myself as an independent artist who has something she wants to share,” Shaw says. “People ask me what I am going to do in five years, as if your life is a progression. I feel that I am privileged to be an artist. I hope that in five years I will still be an artist.”

Chances are, no matter what changes may take place in her life, Peggy will always be an artist. Beginning as a social worker and continuing that work through the medium of theater, she is able to communicate to the human spirit. She does this on many different levels, with a range of audiences, but the premise is essentially the same.


Velvetpark Magazine, Issue 3 (Nov/Dec 2002), 42.