An Interview with Lois Weaver

ANN PELLEGRINI: I am Ann Pellegrini and I am here for emisférica with Lois Weaver, performance artist, author, director, and all-round legend. As you may know Lois, so this conversation is part of a special issue on States of Devotion, and we’re actually thinking about the relations among religion and politics and embodiment. One of the things in particular is how does religion do things in the world and how does performance do things in the world, and how might they do interesting things together, and I think that perhaps, though your body of work doesn't directly address religion, religion, Christianity have actually played an important work in your development as an artist, and I am hoping we can talk about that a little bit and just sort of see where the conversation goes.

LOIS WEAVER: That’s great, sounds great. Well, when you say Christianity, I think Baptist, ‘cause I was a Southern Baptist. And I grew up in rural South, rural, working class, Southwest Virginia, and there wasn't much to do, and to be honest, my first sort of foray into the church was about wanting to have something to do. I didn’t come from a particularly religious family. They were decent, they did not have anything against religion, but they weren't very fervent. I got seduced by some ladies in the neighborhood who, I suspect, were worried about my sort of spiritual welfare and invited me to come to Sunbeams.

PELLEGRINI: What’s Sunbeams?

WEAVER: Sunbeams, it was a kind of extracurricular church activity for little ones.

PELLEGRINI: Ok.

WEAVER: There was a series of these, and you sort of graduated through them. You first were a Sunbeam, then you were in the girls’ auxiliary, and then I think you just graduated to being a grown up in the church, at some point. I don't even know what the intermediary part was. So I was a Sunbeam and I was dragged along to Sunbeams, which happened outside of regular church hours, but we got to make things and do things alongside having Bible stories. And of course I loved that. So that was sort of my first entree into the church, was in a kind of playgroup, really, and a social group. But then, pretty quickly after that my parents started themselves going to church, and I remember fervently trying to convert my father to Christianity ‘cause I wanted him to be baptized. I was baptized at the age of 11, and he still hadn't been baptized, and that was a big concern to me.

PELLEGRINI: Was your main concern because you at that point believed that if he didn’t get baptized it was going to go very badly for him in the next life?

WEAVER: Well, I think I did, you know what I mean… I think I did believe that, I worried about that, although I know that I thought this can't be possible. I used to think as a small child, I used to think it cannot be possible that all the Chinese who are Buddhists, and all the people who are Hindu, and all these other people all around the world… that those people are going to go to hell and just us are going to go heaven? I had a hard time actually believing that, and I had a hard time sort of believing that Jesus was the main man, somehow, but that's what they told me, and so that's what I sort of spouted back to them in a certain way. And I think I loved the performance. That’s what it was. I loved every aspect of the performance, and I showed up to perform, I showed up to do things, and I showed up to be a leader. The church is where I learned all of my leadership skills. It’s where I learned to hold the room, to talk about the things I’ve believed in, even though I wasn't quite sure how I believed in them, it’s where I learned to be on stage with the girls’ auxiliary. I got to be a queen, so it was where I learned to be femme, I think, in lots of ways. It was so much about, for me, so much about the social and the performance, more than it was a deep, deep kind of spiritual belief.

PELLEGRINI: And was it more of a women's world, as well, with girls moving in terms of the participation and these extracurricular, theater and performance groups?

WEAVER: It was… Well, I mean we were separated out because there were the boys’ auxiliary and the girls’ auxiliary, so we were separated out, but my memory is most of the things were run by the women in the church. And we used to have Bible school, so we had Bible school. For the first seven days after school finished, you had to go to church to Bible school, and that was totally run by the women.

PELLEGRINI: And was that boys and girls in the same class?

WEAVER: Boys and girls in the same class, yeah. So it was definitely a woman's world. But it felt like my whole life in the South was run by women.

PELLEGRINI: How does this… Did it give you an early picture of…I don't know, did you think of yourself… I don't know, were a feminist as a little girl? Or did it maybe shape the kind of feminist you would become later?

WEAVER: Well, I believed that I could do anything I wanted to do, and that was reinforced by my mother and her three sisters, or four sisters. I was in this sort of informal matriarchy, and my mother often said she didn't quite know what to do with me, so she did nothing, so that allowed me the opportunity to be independent and do the things I wanted to do. Church gave me the platform for that, and church made me feel special. So I got sort of pointed out as a person who was a leader so I got support for that, so I didn't feel like because I was a girl I couldn't do that; it never occurred to me. I, you know, much later on, when I was in college, I became the first female state president of the Baptist Student Union, so I had sort of grown up in these positions in the church, and I never gave it a second thought, so I definitely think that was the basis of my feminism because it didn’t occur to me. I couldn’t do anything until I got involved in the peace movement, and had actually almost left the church.

PELLEGRINI: So, say more about that…. So, the peace movement gave you a sense that somehow there was a limit, because women weren’t supposed to be leaders?

WEAVER: Well, because I ran into the actual…for the first time, ‘cause when I left college, I stayed with the Baptist Church through college.

PELLEGRINI: And was it a Baptist college that you went to?

WEAVER: No, it was a state school, but I associated with the Baptist Student Union because my sister had associated with the Baptist Student Union. It felt comfortable. I could go there. So one of the first touring theater companies…I toured the state with this little Baptist group in a VW van in 1969. It was the first place where I could hold public office, and it was also the first place where I was able to make certain statements about how I felt about what was going on in the world. I was invited to speak for the Southern Baptist Convention. This is a yearly meeting, and it’s, you know, anywhere from 13,000 to 20,000 Baptist preachers…and their wives, I like to say. And I spoke, I stood up in front of them, this was 1968, and I said, you know, “We have to stop worrying about saving souls and start feeding people, and we have to divest from the war and the military industrial complex.” So this was my opportunity to say those things. I wasn’t involved in any other kind of political groups, but that was my political platform. It seemed like the right place to say those things, ‘cause that's how I had been taught. So I had come to these feelings and these ideas based on what I felt like I had learned from the church.

PELLEGRINI: So how was that received?

WEAVER: Well, it was okay for a little while until the Jesus Freak movement took over, ‘cause there was a moment when you know all institutions were interested in this student voice, so that was like ‘69, ‘70, maybe ‘71. So they were really interested in what students had to say, and they thought, “Okay, we probably ought to be more socially engaged, as Christians that should be part of our theology,” and part of our practice, but then suddenly the Jesus freaks came in, and it just completely obliterated all that and then they became much more focused on, “no, we just need to save souls here.” Do you remember the Jesus freaks?

PELLEGRINI: Yeah.

WEAVER: Then it all became about Jesus, and all about salvation, and not about social responsibility.

PELLEGRINI: And so salvation, in a way, thinking about next worldly salvation…?

WEAVER: Yeah.

PELLEGRINI: … and not as focused on what to do in this world?

WEAVER: It was a way to pull back into those conservative values, and not sort of have to talk about poverty or the war in Vietnam or racism or any of those things that, not just me, but a lot of other student Christians of the sixties were trying to get the church to talk about. I think it's also where I learned a little bit about power and political power, ‘cause I realized…this is before I actually spoke to the Southern Baptist Convention…I was told that the Southern Baptist Church used the Federal Post Office second only to the IRS. So I understood the reach, and I understood that power base in a way and I thought, “Oh my god… if you want to make a difference, this is a way into making a difference.” And I think by then, you know, any faith I had had begun to slip away from, you know, theology and more into social activism within the context of my understanding of Christianity.

PELLEGRINI: So some of the values of commitment to the poor, social justice…

WEAVER: Yeah… that’s it.

PELLEGRINI: …were formed out of Christianity but could no longer be held in that institutional structure?

WEAVER: I mean as a kid… I was growing up and going to church when churches were being fire bombed in the South. So the issue of segregation and integration was really hot and painful and violent, and I had massive fights with my family about this and with people in the church. And people in my generation, we didn't understand. They had taught us these songs: “Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight.” And yet no one was acting on that, and I think we had taken it to heart, and were acting on it, and it didn't make sense that the church itself wasn't. I think that was my first sort of understanding of how we can be taught one thing, and everybody else could be acting on something else.

PELLEGRINI: So when did you start to move into, maybe, more secular, or less church focused kinds of activism? You mentioned having to confront, when you were involved in the peace movement, sexism in a different way and actually had limits placed on you… or attempted to be placed on you… by virtue of being a woman. Was this happening post-college?

WEAVER: Well, I had stayed relatively faithful to the church throughout college, and so it was in that final year of college that I was the president and had a national profile as a student spokesperson for the church, and so I’d stuck with the church, but I’d also stuck with theater, and had intended to go to graduate school. But it was 1972, it was the end of the Vietnam War, it was the beginning of feminism, it was the beginning of gay rights, and everything sort of collapsed in that last year for me, and none of it made sense. I didn't want to go into the theater because it felt like it did not serve any of the values that I had started to develop around social activism, and I didn't know quite how to confront that. But I didn't think I wanted to go off and be a famous actress in Hollywood. I knew I didn't want to do that. At the same time I felt like I was disillusioned with the church, and really had lost my faith and had also lost the belief that it was the platform that I thought it could be, because it had been a fairly comfortable platform for my politics and my development as a leader. And I was, like, lost, and was invited to come and live in the in intercity Baltimore in a halfway house that was sponsored by a Baptist Church, an intercity Baptist Church, in a liberal one, and they said, “Come here, live in this house, help us fix up this house, get involved in some social action.” Like, you know, setting up a soup kitchen for recovering alcoholics, working in a halfway house for restored mental patients, doing daycare, all those things. So I went there to do that, but also got involved in an ecumenical peace and justice group who were working with the Berrigans, because this was Baltimore, and the Catonsville Nine, so it was a real sort of hub of activism, so I got really excited by that. That pulled me away from the Baptist Church into an ecumenical…. And that felt a bit more comfortable, but it was extremely male-dominated. And, suddenly, I felt I wasn't able to succeed in ways I had always succeeded, like I would start up a project and I just couldn't quite get it off the ground and I couldn't understand why I was alone, first of all, or why I didn’t have the support, or why it wasn't happening. And then I remember once that I had organized a slide show to raise money for a hospital in North Vietnam, and it came off really well, because I knew how to do these things. I remember the two or three main men who ran this were, like, shocked that it had gone so well, and I when I saw the shock on their face… I went: “Oh. I get it. I am not expected to succeed.” And I was in that position of being the coffee-getter and the young graduate around them, and I wasn't expected to be a leader in that context. So that… and then I got really involved in the experimental theater because the experimental theater…What was is it called…? The Free Theater of Baltimore. It was part of Antioch and it started that year, and they brought in some old Open Theater folks and some Grotowski folks, and they were giving free workshops, so I started just drifting back in that direction, and that's where I learned that I could, you know, combine theater with what I wanted to say, but it also took me down that sort of very decadent secular theater-people kind of route. I would you show up from having slept overnight at someone's house to go to church on Sunday mornings and things were starting to get a little askew in terms of what their moral expectations was of my behavior.

PELLEGRINI: I'm curious about… I mean, it seems like what kept you compelled were the opportunities for leadership, also the performances, the play you actually got to do in this religious structure. Are there similarities at the level of feeling between what you had when you were, I don't know, “devotionally active” say, and what you’ve experienced in performance and in theatre? Does it feel similar in terms of the kinds of joy, the imagination you get to participate in?

WEAVER: Absolutely. I mean I think more than anything it’s the same kind of connectivity to other people. I think that when theater started moving into its “touchy feely” phase in the 70s, and that’s when I started doing some sort of like Open Theater-type workshops and started to move into that kind of thing. It was extremely, really, recognizable because that's how some of the church things had functioned in terms of interpersonal relationships. And I think that the way that the theater that I make, and long for, and spend time doing, is based on that quality of interpersonal relationships: how we relate to each other and how we make things together. And I think making things together is something I started doing really early on, and I think there is a really deep spiritual sense for me when I'm making the work that I make. And it is like church. I mean it is, it is … I just had like 14 thoughts at that one moment but I have told the same story before when we took our first play for Split Britches down to Virginia for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and it’s a long story so I won't go into the whole story.

PELLEGRINI: Oh… just among friends.

WEAVER: Ok.

PELLEGRINI: (laughs)

WEAVER: Well, Peggy and I went to a kind of conference for producers of women’s culture and I ran into these two women who were from Roanoke, Virginia, which is where I came from, and they were producing women's culture in Roanoke, Virginia. So I said, “What are you doing?” And they said, “Well, we produce these closeted events. We do first Fridays of every month, and we have a mailing list, and lesbians come, and everyone is in the closet, but it’s only us, and it’s all fine.” And I said, “That's great!” And I said, “Well I’ve got this play. I really want to bring it down for my parents. My parents have seen it, they are ok with it, it’s called Split Britches. It’s about people who grew up down there, and they were all people who worked in television and the newspaper and they had very fairly high-powered media jobs.” So they said, “We’ll produce it, and this will be our kind of public producing moment, but we’ll market it to the lesbians.” So when they organized the show, they organized it in a church. It was chapel at Roanoke College, but nonetheless, it was a church. So when it came time to do the show, we had all of these lesbians on their mailing list who had filtered down out of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we had all the church people that I had grown up with, and that was great because they knew how to get there ‘cause it was at church and they knew how to dress and they knew where to park. And then we had people who were interested in folk theater because it was Split Britches, and it had been advertised as a kind of oral history project, so we had every possible kind of person in the church. And that, for me, was like heaven, that was like the most… it was an epiphany really, because everything in my life had come together in that moment, you know, my creative performance work, my lesbian identity, my commitment to community and my understanding of what that means, you know, to people who come to church every Sunday. So that's what made me laugh. I thought of that because it is like church.

PELLEGRINI: I’m curious with that performance… was there any talk back with the audience afterwards? Did you have any sense of what happened, I mean, what a diverse group people in the audience…for you, you suddenly have all these aspects of your life coming together, but what's happening out in the audience with folks who would not ordinarily be seated next to each other?

WEAVER: Well, I mean, lots of funny little things happened. Like right before we started, all the power went out in this church because we put the lights on, and so the preacher, or whoever runs the church, the preacher stood up and said, “Does there happen to be an electrician in the house?”

PELLEGRINI: How many lesbians stood up?

WEAVER: Five women stood up, and so everybody went, “Oh, that’s funny.” And then there were all these ladies who knew the characters that we had made the piece about. And they were kind of stomping their canes at various points, and the lesbians were clapping their hands at other points. And then my niece came up to me afterwards—who, I wasn't out to her, at the time, I don't think anyway—at the reception afterwards, and loads of people were talking to each other, but she came up to me, and she said, “Lois, I don't know how you got all these different people to come here together, but my gym teacher is here.” So there was a kind unacknowledged sort of understanding that loads of people came together that wouldn't ordinarily.

PELLEGRINI: I'm thinking of the old expression, and, of course, Tim Miller and David Román have written about this so beautifully, like “preaching to the converted.”

WEAVER: Yeah.

PELLEGRINI: So, this is really interesting, because in some sense you had so many different kinds of the converted in that church at that moment, such that they weren’t the converted, right?

WEAVER: No…

PELLEGRINI: They were not converted to each other?

WEAVER: They weren’t. And I didn't think any of them really were going to be converted to the form, because Split Britches is non-narrative and, you know, it's a bit wacky and it’s postmodern in the sense that it doesn't really stay true to time, it kind of jumps back and forth. And I was almost as nervous about that as I was about any other aspects of it, and I just thought, “It's not The Waltons.” But as we were doing, and to go back to the church actually, I realized that it was like an order of service, you know, that there is not necessarily a kind of linear logic in an order of service. You do a little of this, and then people stand up, and then they sit down, and then you do a little of that, and then you pray, and it felt like…oh yeah, the piece is a kind of model on that kind of shape.

PELLEGRINI: That’s very interesting. So actually, in some sense, the rhythms of movement, the rhythms of affect, of how you feel during a particular hour-long service, or however long it is, that it’s not about even the words necessarily, it’s also about knowing what to do with your body next to your neighbor in the pew…

WEAVER: Yeah… because it’s filled with ritual…and unspoken ritual, too. Even that kind of, that terrifying moment when everything goes wrong, and that sense that we are all in that moment together, and then we all kind of know how to behave until we can get out of it and get to the next moment. I also think that, you know, the title of the book, The Only Way Home Is Through the Show…. There is that moment when you stand backstage and you know that this particular period of time is going to be spent in this altered state, really, and that there's no way to get out the back door, to get out the front door, to get it into the cab, or go to the bar until that period is over. Which is a lot like church for me. You know that it’s an hour long, and at the end of the hour, you get to go out and play. That was my experience as a kid. But there's that kind of altered space.

LP: Like a bounded time within which something different is happening.

WEAVER: Yeah… and there is expansion in those times. It is not just sitting and waiting for a bus for an hour or waiting on the line at the bank, but your brain, something expands in you when you're in that period of time. And that's what happens to me in performance. I love performing. It feels like a spiritual opening for me when I’m in performance, and so it feels like a delicious time in the same way that a good meditation feels like a delicious time.

PELLEGRINI: As you were sort of, in some sense, moving from one religious movement to another, going into a pretty secular theater world, did you… do you feel like you had to leave things behind? How did your particular…one sometimes hears some secular worlds say rather stereotype things about people who have religious beliefs or religious histories. Was there any cognitive dissonance as you were moving between worlds?

WEAVER: I don't think so ‘cause I think I already had a critical eye on what that was, and an almost satirical eye on what it was. By the time I made that move, I felt like I could be pretty critical…and I was critical within it, certainly around big issues like race and poverty and responsibility, but in terms of that kind of Moral Majority kind of stance that grew up…as I grew up, I began to see that more clearly and had already started to critique it, and then I started to put it into my work. Because Beauty and the Beast, which was one of the first, it was the second pieces we did with Split Britches, I played a Salvation Army sergeant who was based on my favorite preacher’s wife, my favorite Baptist preacher’s wife. So while I critiqued her conservatism and her bigotry, I was still in love with her. And we then began to talk about that, and I think that's where my religion…and Peggy also grew up in a religious family and was a missionary at a certain point, has infused our work, because we talk about if we are going to critique and create a character that we are critiquing and satirize their character, that we're going to do it with love, and that we're going to choose a certain aspect of those characters that we love, but we are going to play the contradiction. And I think that's definitely influenced by my not having completely let those characters go and let that experience go. I can see it, I can critique it, but I still have a kind of love for those people as people.


Ann Pellegrini is Professor of Performance Studies and Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, where she also directs the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. Her books include: Performance Anxieties: Staging Psychoanalysis, Staging RaceLove the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance, coauthored with Janet R. Jakobsen; and Secularisms, coedited with Jakobsen.

Essays

Dossier

Book Reviews

Review Essays