“I guess I was praying, ’cause I was already down on my knees.”
So begins Peggy Shaw’s Ruff, an unflinching look at the 2011 stroke that nearly claimed the celebrated queer performer’s life. For Shaw, who is one half of theatre duo Split Britches, along with collaborator Lois Weaver, life’s most challenging moments have often been fertile ground for her art. Her previous solo, Menopausal Gentleman, discussed being a butch dyke at the end of her fertility. Lust and Comfort delved into the longtime couple’s process of redefining their romantic and creative partnerships.
“We’ve always worked from our own experiences and drawn from the crises in our lives,” Weaver says. “When she first had the stroke, everyone thought, Here comes another show. That’s how we’ve always worked, so it felt natural to move that experience into performed material.”
Shaw began recounting stories of the stroke to friends shortly after it happened. But it was less the gesture of an ambitious creator developing new material than a person piecing together a series of painful and confusing memories. She shared tales of being in the hospital, her persistent vertigo and projectile vomiting, and the odd and unpredictable behaviour she surprised even herself with.
But when it came time to put words on the page, things went in an odd direction.
“It was all volcanoes and oceans and beautiful trippy images,” Shaw says, laughing. “It was discouragingly boring and not very theatrical. It took a while to actually write funny, interesting stories and get away from the way I was writing at the beginning. When you have a near-death experience, you get corny, talking about the miracle of rainbows and flowers. Luckily, that got left out of the show.”
Audiences will find neither sunshine nor fluffy kittens in Ruff. The corniness of the early writing has been replaced with a trenchant recounting of Shaw’s experience, shot through with her trademark sardonic wit.
“I went into the hospital as a woman who gets mistaken for a man,” she jokes in the script. “But it seems I came out of the hospital as a straight white man, because half my brain was missing.”
Three years since that fateful day, Shaw, a spry 69 this year, is still going at full tilt. The occasional setback can even provide a laugh.
“Last month, a friend told a really bad joke while I was drinking a cup of tea,” she says. “I was uncontrollably laughing and choking, so I stood up fast, went unconscious, fell flat on my face and cracked my neck. But here I am, neck brace and all. I’m just not going to be a quitter or let things get in my way.”