Dame Nature is indeed a bearded lady. She has been looking after her facial furniture for as long as she can remember. Once the star of the show, she now spends her days in the depths of her dressing room contemplating the fading roar of the crowd, lost love and the merits of Phil Collins’ solo work.
Hello Tim! So to start off – can I ask what made you choose the bearded lady as your show’s subject? It seems like a very interesting topic, little explored!
You’re absolutely right; it’s a fascinating subject, but surprisingly little of it has found it’s way onstage. I was first attracted to the idea of what it might feel like to be judged solely by one aspect of your appearance, and, taking that further, what that might feel like to a performer who has been doing if for as long as she can remember. I love the idea of examining modern gender stereotypes through the world of Victorian music hall. And I love the stories of the inspiring woman that often strode onstage in the face of great adversity. Combining them, fingers crossed, weaves a very rich backdrop to the show.
In your research for the show it sounds like you came across quite a few sad stories. Without spoiling Dame Nature does this come across in the storyline?
I certainly hope so. Perhaps the most famous bearded lady is Julia Pastrana. Pastrana, like most performing bearded women, was rarely allowed beyond the confines of her own dressing room. Instead, she filled her time with study; she was praised for her piano-playing and learned to speak 3 languages. Of course, the idea of someone learning how to interact with society through magazines (and whatever other influences she can get her hands on) threw up many brilliant opportunities when creating Dame Nature, both funny, sad and terrifying. The play tracks a journey of self-realisation.
How did you react when your research showed how poorly treated and exploited these women were?
There are many shocking, surprising, and often heart-breaking stories. Pastrana was a Mexican ‘ape-human hybrid’ who became a famous 19th century carnival side-show artist. She was ‘purchased’ by Theodore Lent, her future husband, and exhibited as the ‘Bearded and Hairy Lady’. When Pastrana died on tour in Mexico in 1860, after giving birth to a baby who also died, Lent had the two of them mummified and continued to exhibit their remains. Following public outcry, Pastrana was finally granted a Catholic burial in 2013.
Notably, for bearded women, their facial hair has often been considered their most unremarkable feature. Josephine Clofullia (another Victorian side-show performer) was described in 1854 by a reviewer as ‘a perfect lady in every aspect’ – arguably a greater straitjacket than any circus existence.
Would you say the show explores gender identity? The bearded lady was a popular attraction at circuses during the Victorian Age, if I understood correctly. In Britain today do you feel the lines between masculinity and femininity are more blurred and society more accepting?
Gender identity is very much in the spotlight with ‘Dame Nature’. The first thing you see when you walk in is a man, playing a woman, with a beard, in a dress, with a hairy chest. So there’s a lot to think about. As the show progresses, I hope you begin to ask yourself if you judge people by the way they look, if you yourself are judged by the way you look, and what effect our labeling of people’s appearance might have on them. Dame Nature longs to be a ‘normal’ person. But that, in itself, is a trap. What does being normal mean?
In Britain today, I’m often filled with optimistic hope that the lines between masculinity and femininity are getting more and more blurred. But, disappointingly, I’m often filled with despair too. There’s a long way still to go. Will we ever stop judging people by the way they look? Treating everyone equally would be a very good place to start.
I’ve had a look at the Havoc Theatre Company’s website, founded by yourself, to promote and celebrate ‘innovative, surprising and entertaining theatre made accessible for all’. Dame Nature is the company’s first project and seems to be following that premise with an array of tour dates behind the production. What encouraged you to found Havoc Theatre – did you feel there was a gap in the industry?
There are plenty of companies making innovative, surprising and entertaining theatre – the important part of Havoc is that it has a particular emphasis on promoting theatre-makers producing work in East Anglia. I grew up in North Norfolk, but have had to leave the region in order to make my work. So yes, I do feel there is a lack of opportunities for theatre-makers in East Anglia. And once that work is made, it can tour across the region and beyond. I feel tremendously lucky to be supported by Bristol Old Vic in the development of my show through Bristol Ferment. Ferment, curated by Emma Bettridge, has given me the support, guidance and freedom to make work, and then the platform from which to tour it later.
One of the aims of the company is to ‘close the gap between artistic excellence and commercially popular entertainment’. Dame Nature follows a woman who relies on Heat Magazine and TOWIE in order to imagine a normal life. Do you think the show has been influenced by these new types of popular media, thriving on these slightly unnerving in-depth looks into the lifestyles of celebrities? Was this move to bring Dame Nature to the modern world away from the Victorian era difficult or surprisingly easy?
It was remarkably easy, and yes, Dame Nature is certainly influenced by Heat, Reveal, Take A Break – the lot. I think it’s important to say that we’re not targeting readers of those magazines (or the publications themselves) – we’re showing what a person might look like if she’s ONLY read those magazines. It’s important to keep everything in perspective. Your culture diet should be a balanced one!
I think the theatre-world has to wise up to the fact that what it deems as being artistically excellent – and what the rest of the country sees as popular entertainment – are massively different. And that gap has only got wider. I hope, in whatever small (minuscule) way I can, to try to bring the two closer together. We use stand-up, storytelling and theatre to tackle quite difficult subjects. Oh, and there are a lot of Phil Collins references. Because he’s still popular, right?
Finally you have a fantastic beard. Do you follow your show’s instructions? Moisturise. Oil. Comb. Repeat. Or is your beard slightly less high maintenance?
Thanks! It attracts itself a lot of attention (here’s a tip; if you’re in a pub and you’ve had a couple too many, try to ignore the sudden urge to grab the beard of a passing stranger. Or at least ask first. After that, it might be time to call it a night). One of the great beard myths (there are many) is that it’s something that just happens. There’s a constant process of shaping, trimming (and yes shaving!) that takes place. If only it was easy. Moisturise oil, comb, repeat is just the start…
Dame Nature: The Magnificent Bearded Lady is at Assembly George Square Omnitorium from Tuesday 16th – Monday 29th August 2016.