On Being an Independent Solo Artist (No Such Thing)

This is a manifesto written in 2010, originally published in Peggy’s book ‘A Menopausal Gentleman: The Solo Performances of Peggy Shaw’ edited by Jill Dolan.

My name is Peggy Shaw

I am a solo artist and, by virtue of that, a collaborator-

“I would be nothing without you.”

Well, I would be something, but not all that I could be.

I write thousands of words, but I need others to edit them.

I move my body, but I need others to show me what it looks like and light it in a space.

I sing and dance because I ask someone to make music and I have my own company, so I can do anything I want.

There’s another word for collaboration in the dictionary.

It means to be in cahoots with another country: a spy.

I could be defined in that way.

I travel from country to country

Slipping through borders to work.

I am a migrant worker.

With all due respect, I travel to where the work is.

You never know what’s gonna happen in this process.

Because sometimes it works out great, and sometimes it’s just plain hard to figure out why you did it at all. As hard as I try, it’s because I believe in the artist in everyone, in the beauty of every person’s stories, that I have to eventually come back to believing in myself. My work always starts with my own dreams and desires and tries to tell a truth, rather than having a message or a product. “I believe in new truths, not old lies.” I feel privileged to be an artist, to be able to write what I call the creative truth. Creative truth is when you take a basic impulse or a fact and try and make it poetic.

I arrange my shows the way I paint a painting; this feels right, this seems like it goes there, this looks good. I like this color. I try not to question any of it. I just work on impulse.

And with an editor and a director, usually the same person.

And I work from love because in the end that is the question I ask myself; have I made this with love?

I make comedy by telling the truth - there is nothing funnier than the truth.

As a woman I never felt that I understood what was funny. I have devoted myself for forty years to making that discovery with an audience, whether it was learning from a regular theater or performance audience, or from women in prison, or people in college, or women in a domestic violence safe house, or creating a new show with eighteen Taiwanese women who didn’t speak English.

What I really mean to say is that until I enter the room with people, whether it’s a prison or a college (I often wish they were interchangeable, since I feel like it’s a monetary situation), I have no idea what we will all come up with together as a collaboration. Pretty scary awesome way to live.

What you do see here is a solo show.

What you can’t see here are all the details and all the weeks and hours that fill all the spaces in between with other people. In a way these images are not products but placeholders; these are moments that try to show you the thrill of making something that wasn’t there before or the pain in trying to work in an honest way.

In my humble opinion, imagination, circumstance, and determination are what make everything happen.

In my art, I have been trying to describe the world that I have created while creating it. Never accepting the confines of the “normal” North American world, I make performance and theater, for those interested in hearing the poetry or point of view of a sixty-plus-year-old, second-generation Irish, working-class, grand-butch-mother.

I have been described as masculine. Actually I am a new kind of femininity. I am interested in testing masculine-feminine and butch-femme as markers. I want to go way beyond the boundaries of the girls’ room and the boys’ room. I see endless horizons and new ways of creating and defining ourselves on this difficult, greedy planet, which is weighted and distributed so heavily toward the white heterosexual masculine. It has seemed, at some points in my time here, that this planet wants to tip off its axis and spill all that bullshit into the black hole and start again. This particular political time is even darker than usual, with few visionaries to alter the course.

To me being an artist is paying very close attention to our surroundings and having the privilege of twisting the mirror in order to reflect new images back on the culture. I get up every day and do the best I can to create and teach new visions, not old ideas.

Peggy Shaw

New York

September 2010