Queer artist Aliza Shapiro pushes past obstacles
For Aliza Shapiro, the show will always go on. It may just take a little more time, effort, and work to make it happen.
Shapiro has been an integral part of Boston’s queer arts and activism scene for years; if you somehow don’t know her, you’ll know her drag king alter ego, mustachioed Heywood Wakefield. Her Truth Serum Productions has pushed boundaries, opened minds, and served as a breeding ground of local LGBT talent. And on Friday, July 26 at Oberon in Cambridge, Shapiro will present TraniWreck: Old + Now, the latest installment of her long-running shows devoted to debauchery-reveling performance art and gender-effing cabaret. (Doors open at 7 p.m. and tickets, starting at $15, are available at americanrepertorytheater.org.)
This show, though, took a little more time to put together. In the bedroom of her adorable Dorchester home (now filled with slightly less bric-a-brac than it used to be, she says), Shapiro has pinned a series of handwritten note cards to the wall. Each is assigned a category representing a different sphere of life: Art, Health, House, etc. And under each heading is a series of bulleted to-do’s that help keep her organized. Writing the endless emails required to produce a show is a bit more of a chore than it used to be, and as she sits at her kitchen table to describe her latest event, her words alternate between perfectly fluid and halting. She occasionally struggles to recall a name, or must pause to consciously articulate the next thought – sometimes creatively circumventing a word that just won’t come.
It can be frustrating for her at home, and more so out and about, running errands at the grocery store or navigating the bureaucracy of airport security. Those unfamiliar with her situation often don’t understand. So she shows me the laminated card she keeps in her pocket for just such occasions.
It reads: “I have aphasia due to a brain injury. This makes it hard to say the words I want to say.” Below this is a timeline of her recent medical history, beginning with a stroke on July 25, 2011. The dates listed to present show subsequent seizures and surgeries, and the backside of the card lists contact information for Shapiro’s father and a friend; a few times she has passed out without realizing.
It has been a long road of recovery since Shapiro’s stroke in 2011, a devastation that inspired the creation of Aliza’s Brain Trust, a collective of galvanized friends, fans, and fellow artists who donated money to support her immediate medical bills and rehabilitation. (Her next investment, if all goes well, will be speech recognition software to help her compose emails and computer documents.) There have been ups and downs since. After the initial cranioplasty to replace a missing piece of her skull, Shapiro had a dramatic level of recovery. But a second stroke in May 2012 set her speech skills back a bit. She’s pressing ahead, though, attending speech therapy and she’s researching the opportunities of a special, aphasia-focused resource center at Boston University.
All that means creating the latest TraniWreck show has been harder than in years past, requiring Shapiro to spend a few months accomplishing what she might once have been able to do within weeks.
“I can create these ideas [for a show]. I know the things I want to do,” explains Shapiro. “But I don’t have the words, and that’s the hardest thing. Knowing everything I want to say in my head is going to be so hard.”
Yet Shapiro takes it day by day, undaunted and optimistic that the trajectory of her recovery will be positive. She was determined to commemorate the two-year anniversary of her stroke, and nothing seemed more appropriate than a show that proved nothing could stand in her way. The lineup of performers is robust as ever, and includes “usual suspects” like Madge of Honor, Johnny Blazes, Katya and Aquanette Jones. There will be aerial performances by Kate Law and Stephanie Jones, pointed but peppy political cheerleading by Boston Sass Attack, and medleys of retro ad jingles by the unpredictable yet predictably awesome duo Cotton Candy. The show will also include a special appearance by the always-outrageous Rainbow Frite, who starred in Shapiro’s very first TraniWreck. And afterwards, DJ Brian Halligan will spin party people into sonic oblivion.
As for Shapiro? She knows it will be a challenge to keep up her speech with the fast-moving cast, but it’s one she knows she can handle. (Plus she’s invited as guests other folks from her speech therapy sessions.) And she knows that soon, TraniWreck may need to take a backseat to more personal art projects – the kind that don’t involve pulling together large teams. That, actually, is something she’s looking forward to. In fact, Shapiro was willing to share with Bay Windows a long-held secret: hers is the identity behind Xray Aims, a heretofore mostly anonymous, Boston-based artist behind challenging live performance art installations and short films that involve temporary body piercing. Shapiro wasn’t sure if she wanted to divulge that, but she’s learned that life can change suddenly, be fraught with joy and challenge, and that as an artist she’ll always be ready for the next act.
However her work changes, she’s not shying from the spotlight anytime soon.
“I’m in a show with people who are very fast, but I’m going to let people hear me: let them hear the structure of my words. And just say, ‘This is what I’ve got.’”
And trust us, Aliza, it’s more than enough.
For more info on TraniWreck and other Truth Serum Productions events, visit truthserum.org.