An interview with performer Sarah Houbolt, whose new show explores the dark history of circus through the mysterious life of character from Tod Browning’s Freaks.
For its depictions of disabled bodies in major roles, warts and all, Tod Browning’s seminal 1932 film Freaks remains controversial to this day, posing uncomfortable questions to modern day audiences with its freak show setting and escalating violence. But more recent re-evaluation has allowed critics and viewers to see past the surface of so-called exploitation through to an underrated classic now acknowledged for more than just its original shock value.
Taking the film as inspiration, local circus performer Sarah Houbolt has created a one-woman show, KooKoo the Birdgirl, based on the life of one of the minor characters. The show has been developed over the last year, with shorter versions performed in various venues across Australasia. The full-length version premiered at The Body Festival in Christchurch and will be making its debut in Auckland this week at TAPAC.
* * *
NATHAN JOE: Tell me about your first experience with Tod Browning’s Freaks.
SARAH HOUBOLT: I was having a red wine with a good friend one cloudy Auckland afternoon in 2011, talking about creative ideas, funding applications, and my plans to make a piece of work. He was instrumental in opening my eyes with creative resources and he stuck the movie under my nose and said, “You must watch this.” And so I did. I was blown away by this film with all sorts of diverse people with disabilities in it. I was sad that I hadn’t seen it earlier and that it wasn’t that well known. I recalled an Australian female sideshow performer once telling me randomly that there was a bird-girl character in history that I should look into one day. So I put two and two together and began researching freak shows. It just took me a little while to get the courage—and funding—to make a one woman show.
NJ: It’s interesting we can look at Freaks now and see the casting of disabled people as groundbreaking, despite the initial controversy the film received back in 1932. And, no doubt, there are still people who are uncomfortable with the subject matter. What do you make of its reputation?
SH: I think Freaks is both groundbreaking then and now. Back then, there were laws that fined and arrested people for being ugly in public and the sideshows had to pay fees to city governments to include disabled people in their shows. So, for Tod Browning to make a film that countered all of that was revolutionary within that time itself, and it remains groundbreaking. The reason there was controversy was because the film countered the social norms of the time. The contemporary reputation of Freaks is really positive and people from all walks of life know and love that movie. You’re missing out if you haven’t seen it.
NJ: How necessary is watching the film to your show?
SH: Watching the film before seeing the show is not necessary at all. I hope that by seeing the show, people are then interested in seeking out and watching the film. My show is about themes and the physical language of one female cast member of Freaks, but there are other amazing characters in the film too that are so intriguing to watch, which makes the film worthwhile. One of my other favourites is Prince Randian, the human torso from South America, who could light a cigarette with his lips. He was married and had five children, and toured the circuit.
NJ: What was it about Minnie Woolsey’s life as KooKoo the Birdgirl that appealed to you?
SH: Minnie had both an extraordinary life and actually a typical life for those times. It’s a period of history that we haven’t spoken about much from the perspective of a disabled person telling the story. So for me it was important to honour her life, as mysterious as it was. There is not much known about Minnie. The appeal for me was to tell a unique woman’s story and to offer a new perspective on the freak shows.
NJ: How much additional research did you do?
SH: I did a lot of research on Minnie Woolsey, and I also did a lot of research on freak shows in general. I’ve been doing side show performance for over seven years and so my show examines Minnie’s life, and the performative character of KooKoo, but also goes beyond biography on a conceptual level to treat broader and more universal themes. One of the reasons for this also is that not much is known about Minnie Woolsey. She is a bit of an enigma, like Schiltze. KooKoo is actually the influence for Meep in American Horror Story: Freakshows. There’s been a bit of cultural product over the years that has referenced very mysterious performers. Maybe the mystery is the appeal.
NJ: How much has the show developed since you first performed it at Splore and in Christchurch?
SH: Splore was the premiere of KooKoo as a character, in a five-minute act with a bed of nails and some eggs. I was testing her comedy and absurdness in a contemporary context. I then took that act to Adelaide Fringe Festival to slot into Sideshow Wonderland’s freak show cabaret for a few weeks. It was a grind show and I got great feedback, which gave me the confidence to make a full length show. It’s rare to see a female freak show narrative on stage, and the only other performer I know honouring our history through performance is Mat Fraser (American Horror Story: Freakshow). With KooKoo I explore her dance qualities, so I was really proud to world premiere the show at the Body Festival because the festival ethos is about showcasing unique bodies. I’m always wanting to improve, so there are some small developments, but really the Auckland season is to bring my show to a town that has been home for me for seven years.
NJ: Is it ever a concern of yours that audiences will either be too confronted by the character or watch it for the wrong reasons?
SH: No. I make work that is interesting to me and to express an idea creatively. I can’t control how the audience responds, nor do I want to. The diversity of opinion is important. I understand that people may feel uncomfortable with the ideas but I hope that doesn’t prevent people from coming to watch my show, because what I’m doing is role modeling and creatively expressing an interesting story, not showcasing a freak show as they may think it looks like. I hope that audiences come and see the work with curiosity and an open mind before making conclusions about it. This performance is engaging and I’m open to discussing it afterwards.
NJ: The show is described as combining your skills in circus, theatre, and dance to bring the character to life. What should audiences expect?
SH: KooKoo is quite a quirky character, so its a bit of a quirky show. It’s movement theatre essentially. I use physical theatre and dialogue to tell an engaging story, and circus to give it texture. Including dance was a really important element for me for this show because on the surface, freak show performers were told to sit still and be exhibited. Yet, in Freaks, KooKoo does an amazing shimmy on top of a wedding table. What a rebel of the times!
So I wanted to create her as a mover, as a dancer, and bring her to life that way. This sets her free. And for me, I have had a lot of barriers and assumptions around my capabilities as a physical performer, in addition to the usual competitive nature of the industry. Yet, I have been a physical performer since I was five years old, first in elite, competitive, international swimming (reaching the Paralympics in Sydney 2000), then with Vulcana Women’s Circus in Australia, and then with The Dust Palace and freelance creative gigs. KooKoo is quite quirky, and my physicality (and sense of humour) is a bit quirky, so the skills match! The language of the body is so interesting and physical theatre was just the right medium for KooKoo, it’s what the story needed.
NJ: Aside from obviously drawing from Freaks and Woolsey’s life, are there any other influences your performance draws from?
SH: Broadly speaking, I was interested in the idea of the Other, exoticism, and when is someone a freak and when are they human. I’ve done a lot of research on the freak shows and I was influenced by the freedom within the fringe space. For example, Prince Randion, the human torso, was married and had five children at a time when this was prohibited. I learned my skills in a women’s circus, so I’m interested in the breadth of female stories, and stories about belonging. The choreography is informed by partial sight as I am partially sighted. Minnie was also partially sighted, so it is a relevant and logical influence. And my great grandfather was a dove magician at the time of the freak shows, so I also feel like it is part of my ancestry to tell this bird story!
NJ: Are you planning to take KooKoo the Birdgirl anywhere else after the Auckland season?
SH: Yes, I have just registered for Adelaide Fringe Festival, performing in a circus tent. I would also love to take the show to Wellington and around New Zealand if anyone is interested. It’s a great story of diversity.