Artists Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw thought of a performance idea after visiting Governors Island in upstate New York. They were warned not to dig into the ground because cannonballs from the Civil War could detonate on contact.
The two women realized the underground remains of New York Harbor, called unexploded ordnances, are representative of the aspects of people’s lives that go unrecognized, Shaw said.
“Every person has beautiful details inside of them that they don’t even know are important, perhaps.” Shaw said. “We used unexploded ordnances as a metaphor for unexplored potential.”
Weaver and Shaw, founders of New York/London-based theater company Split Britches, will tap into the unexplored subterranean elements of people’s personalities in their upcoming work in progress, “Unexploded Ordnances,” in Los Angeles.
The group will visit UCLA on Wednesday to conduct a workshop as research for its interactive performance project “Unexploded Ordnances.”
Split Britches focuses on public engagement with social issues using satire, gender-nonconforming identities and narratives in performance. The two founders identify as lesbians.
“Unexploded Ordnances” is a conversation between people of different generations fused together with a performance. The piece explores participants’ unfulfilled dreams and desires, and attitudes towards an uncertain future in light of current political turmoil, Weaver said.
Students, faculty and staff from different departments will walk into Wednesday’s workshop unprepared. Some participants will eventually take part in the staging of the piece Friday and Saturday at the Skirball Cultural Center after some preparation, alongside audiences who show up there with no prior background, and Weaver and Shaw themselves.
The on-campus workshop will take place at Kaufman Hall and include guided exercises and conversation between participants from different ages and backgrounds as a form of preparation for “Unexploded Ordnances.”
Sylvan Oswald, assistant professor of theater, organized the event in collaboration with the Skirball Cultural Center, and the departments of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, Theater and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Studies. He has long idolized the way they represented gender-nonconforming roles, so he said he jumped at the opportunity to organize the workshop.
Before Split Britches’ formative influence on his artistic development, the possibility of gender-bending roles on a public stage seemed impossible to him, Oswald said.
“Discovering the work of these two queer artists allowed me to envision putting gender-nonconforming bodies on stage, which allowed me to feel like the work that I want to do in the world is possible,” Oswald said.
For “Unexploded Ordnances,” Weaver and Shaw will lead activities centered around holding discussions about conflict, as well as combining public engagement and artistic expression, Weaver said. The activities include structured conversation in a dinner-table simulation, as well as conversation that is more free in an exercise called “porch sitting.”
Weaver said these accessible ways of public debate allow everybody to have a voice, rather than just those who are considered experts on the issue.
“I’ve been working very hard at democratizing conversation,” Weaver said. “One of the things we need to do is figure out how to talk to each other even if we don’t agree with each other.”
UCLA is one of the many sites in Los Angeles that Weaver and Shaw will use for creative research, since they want to interact with a young audience, Weaver said.
Oswald said the diversity of students at UCLA could provide Split Britches some perspectives they may not have encountered yet and that the workshop could pose benefits to the participants by teaching them new forms of performance.
“UCLA students that are interested in bridging art with activism could get a lot out of exploring these alternative forms of public conversation,” Oswald said.
Arushi Singh, a doctoral student in culture and performance, has been following the work of Split Britches for a few years, she said. As a performer, she looks forward to meeting them at the workshop Wednesday and watching them devise a production based on exchanging stories between people.
“What I would gain from the workshop is seeing how the development of their piece is based on collaboration,” Singh said.
Melissa Melpignano, a doctoral student in culture and performance, believes working with Split Britches will give participants new ways to discuss social concerns, like safety for minority communities.
“Something that I think I will learn from (Split Britches) is how to keep being politically engaged and active with a positive attitude,” Melpignano said, referring to their use of humor in socially relevant pieces. “Keeping our energies up is something that’s incredibly important.”
The blend of individuals they will interact with at UCLA is a beautiful one, Shaw said. She and Weaver try to find diversity, she said, because generations can learn from one another for the better.
“We need each other,” Shaw said.