For the last thirty some years Split Britches’ work has been primarily collaborative, devised, text centred, theatre-based work. It has focused on issues of gender and gender representation and relied on the appropriation of and intervention into popular culture. The work originates from a desire to challenge the conventions not only of traditional theatre and dominant culture, but the conventions of political, social and aesthetic sub-cultures. Our purpose has been to keep a sense of humor, to remain the outlaw, to question ‘normal,’ and to work within the margins of the margins.
Our process was born out of the experimental theatre of the 60’s and 70’s and the accompanying political movements (e.g. anti-war, feminism, queer). Through the work of groups like the Open Theatre, the Performance Group, and Living Theatre, we realized that we could abandon theatre as an interpretive art form and appropriate theatrical conventions to make original work that reflected our political and social views. Later we were involved in mid 70’s feminism (Spiderwoman Theater) and our process focused on the collective devising and use of personal story as political text, embracing the principles of feminism but resisting the dogma. In the late 1970’s, when we formed our own company, our work was rooted in the lesbian and gay movement, but was less about a ‘coming out’ narrative and more about dressing up and questioning roles and relationships.
Our early role models were theatrical drag queens (Hot Peaches) and we developed work that relied on a ‘butch-femme aesthetic’ that subverted notions of gender through appropriation of popular culture. This process developed alongside the New York Downtown performance art scene in the 70’s and 80’s and was influenced by a growing number of cross-disciplinary practitioners in visual art and dance theatre. The effects of Reaganomics pushed us out of the theatre and into living rooms, galleries and storefronts -we started WOW Café Theater in a storefront in 1980. It is at this juncture that we began to include solo and site-specific performance, as well as teaching, working in prisons and colleges and focusing on human rights work in particular.
We define ourselves, singly and collectively, as Independent Performance Artists who use live presence, multiple art disciplines, popular culture and any means imagined or necessary to communicate complicated ideas, to skew long-held beliefs, to challenge social and racial norms (for example, in To My Chagrin) and more often than not provide a political commentary. Now, in the new millennium, our work as well as our bodies is in a state of change. We have a huge repertory of work and NYU has cataloged and preserved our archives.
We want to make work that is more immediate, more ephemeral, more visual-art based and more communicable in other cultures, hence our residencies in Taiwan, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Brazil. In It’s a Small House, Long Table, and In The House Laundry Project in prisons, we have again begun to experiment with concepts of venue. We want to make work that is not so reliant on text but which focuses on visual elements, using score as structure and creating a sense of event.