Cast of Showwomen

“What is exotic? What is it to be British? What is it to be an older performer?” Extraordinary new stage show SHOWWOMEN coming to Salford in March

An amazing new show is coming to the Lowry this month, featuring a spectacular selection of showwomen inspired by circus history. MM interviewed the show’s creator Marisa Carnesky.

What’s the difference between a showgirl and a showwoman?

The first tends to conjure up images of sequins and feather boas. But the showwoman is a much less familiar concept.

Unjustly so, according to Marisa Carnesky, live artist and self-proclaimed showwoman. 

Marisa said: “There are so many women who come from the tradition of being exotic, interesting, trained performers in dance or circus who want to re-define the term showgirl.

“Because they’re often their own boss. They create extraordinary things. Sometimes they’re the boss of other people. They run big shows.

“They defy this categorization of age – that women don’t have to be young and beautiful.

“And so if we had showwomen, how would they be different from showmen?” 

Four women using a telephone
Marisa Carnesky’s Showwomen, by Rosie Powell

Marisa’s new stage show, SHOWWOMEN, brings the untold stories of female British working-class entertainers to light, from immigrant, queer and occult perspectives.

During a period of research at the National Fairground and Circus Archive, Marisa discovered many women who dazzled earlier generations of showgoers – many of whose stories were lost around the time of the Second World War.

Marisa said: “In the late 30s, when war was breaking out in Britain, there were some amazing women performers. But in those times the theatres and the circuses went dark. They shut down. So we lost their stories.

“There are so many stories that we will never know, about aerialists and jugglers and these amazing lost stories of circus people and show communities.

“So I am trying to piece together these lost stories, channel their ghosts and bring them back to life. And say thank you, we’ll take your story, and we’ll make a new story.”

Marisa’s recovered stories include 1880s teeth-hanging aerialist Miss La La, body-magic star Koringa, and 1930s sharp-shooter Florence Shufflebottom.

Marisa said: “We found an extraordinary woman called Koringa. There is a controversy about what her identity was. Was she a woman of colour? Was she a white woman, pretending to be a woman of colour? 

“We can never know what her heritage was, but she presented as a non-white woman, and she climbed a ladder of swords, she had crocodiles [in her shows] – she was a huge star in Britain, who we don’t know about. 

“We celebrate the fact that Koringa said she was a spy – she wore the symbol of the French Resistance on her forehead. So she had this kind of activist role.

“Annie Oakley of Leeds, Florence Shufflebottom, was a sharpshooter, a whip cracker and a snake handler.”

Edgar Degas painted Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, which depicts a black performer hanging onto a rope by clamping down with only her teeth – she supposedly performed from a young age.

Featuring women from different heritages, both in her research and in her show, Marisa’s work shows that out of our differences comes a shared experience.

“What we show for women is solidarity. We all come from performer backgrounds. We come from a working-class background, an asian background, a black background. We show solidarity on stage through shared stories and shared experiences.

“We reflect on the idea of the exotic woman, or the pain-proof woman, and why we are interested in that. And what the problems are with that.”

Marisa Carnesky's Showwomen
Marisa Carnesky’s Showwomen by Sarah Hickson

For her next project, Marisa is looking forward to some witchy research.

She said: “I will be looking at the history of British witches from the 50s and 60s who’s stories haven’t been told. I’m interested in the relationship between witches and the media, and witches in showbusiness.”

Marisa also has a street show in Brighton in May, Carnesky’s Showwomxn Sideshow Spectacular, which looks at more lesser-known showwomen, including drag king Annie Hindle and Talma the first magician.

SHOWWOMEN has been devised collaboratively with iconic hair hanger and comedienne Fancy Chance, sword and spoken-word artist Livia Kojo Alour, and fire performer Lucifire.

It contains live-action stunts, interwoven with in-depth interviews with former performers, as well as archival footage.

SHOWWOMEN is at the Lowry, Salford on 16 March and the tour will also reach Lancaster and Great Yarmouth. Tickets can be found for the Lowry here.

Feature image copyright Sarah Hickson

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