Reclaiming the stories of our greatest showwomen

Marisa Carnesky brings her latest show Show Women to Jacksons Lane Theatre in Highgate

Marisa Carnesky brings Showwomen to Jacksons Lane Theatre in Highgate - Credit: Sarah Hickson

As someone who ran an interactive ghost train for a decade, Marisa Carnesky knows something about putting on a show.

The visual artist's latest production is a feminist rewriting of forgotten "showwomen" - with modern day performers telling their stories though a blend of stunts, live action, archive footage and interviews.

A teeth-hanger, a clown, a sharpshooter, and a body magic artist are among the lost performers whose legacies Carnesky has reclaimed from the National Fairground and Circus Archive.

In a show which highlights the diversity of the circus world, she felt "the right people should represent the right stories", so alongside her narration, hair hanger Fancy Chance, sword and spoken word artist Livia Kojo Alour, and performer Lucifire who works with whips and fire, take up the women's stories.

The cast of Show Women at Jacksons Lane Highgate

The cast of Showwomen at Jacksons Lane Highgate - Credit: Sarah Hickson

"While I was researching ghost trains I became friends with Professor Vanessa Toulmin who introduced me to these characters and started talking about the idea of showwomen as opposed to showgirls," she says.

"The archive is a goldmine of amazing and forgotten performers of the '30s and '40s. I thought 'I have to do something with these stories'. There isn't any solid published research on these women, who were big in their day, but slipped through the net of time. They were women, people didn't think they were important and their stories were lost."

Mandatory Credit: Photo by ANL/Shutterstock (5766149a)Koringa The Only Female Fakir In The World W

Koringa 'the only female Fakir in the world' whose act was inspired by the magic power of Yogis and Yoginis of India.The circus performer whose real name was Renee Bernard was a leading act for The Mills Brothers Circus in the 1930s. - Credit: ANL/Shutterstock

They include Koringa (1913-1976). Billed as a "fakir" she would dance barefoot on a ladder of sword blades and walk on the heads of live crocodiles. During WWII she became a member of the French resistance, and like other show women of the era, she answered a craving for the exotic.

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"She was a huge star of the Bertram Mills Circus famed for exotic skills and body magic," says Carnesky. "We don't really know her heritage, perhaps French Moroccan, but she presented with exotic heritage as a woman of colour."

Notions of the exotic recur with Degas' 1879 painting Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. Born in what is now Poland to mixed race parents, Miss La La is depicted hanging by her teeth from the big top, but she also performed a human cannonball and trapeze act including at the Folies Bergere. Her story is told by hair hanger Fancy Chance who reflects on "decolonising the exotic".

"All of us as performers are really interested in being exotic but don't want to be objectified as exotic colonialist caricatures," says Carnesky.

"How do we reclaim the exotic on our own terms as feminist performers in 2022? By finding an ownership and turning it on its head."

Other stories include pioneering clown Lulu Adams who was born into the circus, her father was an acrobat and clown, and her mother a high wire performer, 1920s daredevil Marjorie Dare who rode "the wall of death", and sharpshooter and snake charmer Florence Shufflebottom. Known as the "Annie Oakley of the North", she also hailed from a family of fairground performers - her grand father was a Buffalo Bill impersonator -  and as a girl she was a target for her father's knife throwing act.

Lulu Adams was a pioneering female clown who came from a family of circus performers

Lulu Adams in 1939, she was a pioneering female clown who came from a family of circus performers - Credit: Supplied

"It's how we embody and explore the issues around telling these stories while reflecting on our own lives and experience," says Carnesky, who grew up in a north London Jewish family.

"One talks about how as a black woman artist she felt she had to do something really extraordinary, and reflects on why she needed to learn these incredible stunts. My great great grandparents changed their name because they didn't want to be othered, and I changed it back because it sounded more exciting and exotic."

Carnesky's past projects have included the Ghost Train, an installation which blended a fairground ride with magic and live performance; staging a burlesque show in Raymond's Revue Bar; and a piece exploring women's bodies, fertility and menstruation.

"I trained as a dancer and was always a daredevil who wanted to do things I wasn't supposed to," she says.

"I was drawn to visionary theatre, to the Queer and the camp and new Variety which is a cross between circus and live art."

She hopes Showwomen will connect the past with the present.

"We have forgotten our own entertainment heritage. Circus was a popular working class entertainment in the 30s and 40s and it has always been really diverse with lots of European entertainers - but it wasn't documented and has disappeared. I'm interested in how these cultural traditions continue to live unconsciously. When we embody these people from the past we realise we have more in common than we think."

Showwomen runs at Jacksons Lane from June 16-18. Tickets at www.jacksonslane.org.uk/events/showwomen/