Koo Koo The Bird Girl Sarah Houbolt:
The Wardrobe Theatre
Saturday 19 October 2019
When I first read the line up for this year’s Bristol Circus City, I instantly knew Koo Koo The Bird Girl, was the performance I most wanted to see.
Circus performer Sarah Houbolt, has created a one-woman-show about the career of Minnie Woolsley. Minnie was a freakshow performer. Freak is a word Sarah does not shy away from and in fact, urges those within the circus profession to embrace as part of its history.
Woolsley – born in 1880 though nobody is quite sure when she died – made a career from sideshow circus. She had Virchow-Seckel Syndrome, a mild intellectual disability and was blind. Her act involved dressing in a bodysuit of feathers and wearing a single large feather on top of her head.
There’s a dissonance hearing Houbolt talk about Minnie’s life. Rescued from an asylum, ironically she found the safest place to be was performing as a circus freak. She had a job, a social life, food, a routine, community and money. She even had the opportunity to perform in a film – although she was never credited in her real name.
It’s a jarring thought that a disabled person had the best chance of life by horrifying and entertaining crowds of onlookers. But Sarah juxtaposes this with the joy of performance. The opportunity for entertaining. Being with people like you and loving the unique body with which you are born and using that body to shimmy.
Minnie was most well known from her performance in Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, with the stage performance and original movie being intrinsically linked.
The film was so controversial, it was banned for thirty years. The post production of the movie also has a fascinating story, with extensive cuts bringing its run time from 90 minutes to just one hour and with three different endings.
The film is contentious. This is particularly for its supposed penultimate horror scene, when the side show performers are seen moving through the dark stormy night to exact revenge upon a murderous trapeze artist.
Having tracked it down on YouTube to watch the night before Houbolt’s performance at The Wardrobe Theatre, I found it problematic and disagreed with some of the outrage reserved for the ending. What I took away from the film was that it was actually a beautifully crafted movie that suffered from the extremely heavy handed cuts that had been inflicted on it.
In many ways, it was decades ahead of its time. The ‘freaks’ themselves were shot very naturalistically. There was no scary music, no gross exaggeration, the horror of the piece was clearly reserved for the disablist and offensive attitudes from some of society at the time – that’s not to take away from the fact it is still problematic now, with hate crime against disabled people on the rise in Bristol.
Having people with obvious disabilities both in main roles as well as just in the background doing things as simple as rolling a fag or eating food is something that is still completely lacking from theatre, TV and movies today. Disability is often washed out unless its at the centre of a ‘cripping up’ debate, yet here is disability in all its glory way back in 1932.
It’s the penultimate scene which the internet most laments, believing it to show the actors as frightening beings, but I didn’t see it that way. As an autistic person, I have always seen the world differently to others. The ‘freaks’ exacting their mob revenge at the end simply felt like the logical conclusion to a community that had been very wronged. I didn’t see them as the frightening monsters others said they were portrayed as.
I was pleased to hear Sarah talk about her love of the film in her show. Having a disabled child myself, too often the abled community are quick to take things away from the disabled community. Things that belong to them. Words that describe them. All the things that add up to an identity. “Offend one and you offend them all,” is one of the film’s opening lines and it still stands nearly ninety years later.
Koo Koo the Bird Girl as a performance from this context is a deeply profound and at times very moving piece of theatre. We don’t get enough disabled performers creating theatre anyway and for a disabled performer to embrace the life of another disabled person is a rarity. It’s shocking to watch Sarah as Minnie have to go through the sometimes degrading experiences she had.
Disability history is hard and Sarah does not shy away from this. Using music giving a dreamy circus feel, physical performance, dance, projections and circus skills against the occasional backdrop of scenes from Freaks, we learn that there was a time people with physical disabilities were not allowed to be seen in public. They were not allow to marry until the age of 45.
As YouTube algorithms kicked in after watching Freaks, I disappeared down an internet rabbit hole of associated movies about the film, about the performers and found a rich and interesting history about the place of disabled people in entertainment.
I read about the lives of the freaks. I read about performers such as Harry and Daisy Earles, Daisy and Violet Hilton, Schlitze, Olga Roderick, Prince Randian, Jenny Lee and Elvira Snow and Angelo Rossitto. I read about their lives and wanted to know more about them, who they were. Some of them had surprisingly long and successful lives whilst others were short and ended tragically.
During the performance, Sarah brought them all back to life. The banning of the film meant that they never fairly had their moment for it. With the movie filling the backdrop of the stage, it was like Minnie had stepped out of the screen. Sarah has found a connection both literally and figuratively with Minnie. She has fun with the character on stage, inspiring warmth alongside quiet and reflective moments. And, she also entertains with freaky tricks with nails, angle grinders and spinning hoops.
Koo Koo the Bird Girl, is an inspired piece. It’s a great tribute to Minnie Woolsley, to Freaks and the historical aspects of circus which many appear to shy away from. It’s thought provoking and challenging. Sometimes it’s hard to look at, to listen to. But it’s also warm, funny and inspiring. You don’t get many evenings at the theatre like that.
The one-hour show is show is suitable for audience members aged 12 years upwards.
Bristol Circus City continues until Saturday 02 November 2019: www.bristolcircuscity.com
For more information about Sarah Houbolt, visit: www.sarahhoubolt.com