Laura Hershey's Weekly Web Column

Column from July 22, 1999

Actors with Disabilities Perform Side Show with Powerful Authenticity

Copyright 1999 by Laura Hershey

I had a marvelous cultural and, yes, political experience this last Sunday, thanks to PHAMALy, Denver's own troupe of musical theater performers with disabilities.

I have criticized this group in the past for squandering its considerable talents and unique perspectives on bland, standard musical theater fare. I've always enjoyed their productions, but felt they could be doing so much more. I wanted no less than an artistic exploration of the disability experience.

This summer, in its tenth season, PHAMALy 0has finally begun to fulfill its potential as a participant in the growing phenomenon called "disability culture." The group is currently performing the regional premiere of Side Show, a Tony Award-nominated musical created by Bill Russell. The play focuses on Daisy and Violet Hilton, a pair of conjoined twins who began their careers as a circus "oddity." Their lives change when they are discovered by a show-biz promoter who recognizes both their talents, and their cash potential. Under his management, the Hilton sisters begin touring on the vaudeville circuit.

Choosing this material, PHAMALy took a bold step into new territory. On one level, Side Show is a beguiling musical about a quest for fame and romance, and a wistful story about the profound bond between two sisters.

But on another level, Side Show probes what it meant in Depression-era America - and what it means today - to be a "freak." Once upon a time, it was common for people with disabilities and other physical anomalies to perform as "freaks" on carnival midways and in circus side shows. They weren't paid well, and their working conditions left a lot to be desired. But unlike many disabled people at the time, the side show performers were able to earn a living, support themselves, and avoid confinement in asylums and other institutions.

Freak show workers probably reasoned that they were going to attract curious stares no matter where they went or what they did - so they might as well get paid for enduring the public's voyeuristic attention.

Recently, the growing academic field of disability studies has generated some important scholarship focusing on freak shows. Simultaneously, the disability-rights community is seeking and sharing historical information, both to understand our current political/economic/sociocultural predicament, and as an avenue to pride.

Apparently, some people were offended by PHAMALy's decision to perform Side Show. Perhaps they feel that this part of our history was demeaning to people with disabilities, and should be forgotten. But as historian Robert Bogdan notes in his book Freak Show, the "freak" stigma was not created by disabled people themselves, but by society. "How we view people who are different has less to do with what they are physiologically than with who we are culturally," Bogdan writes. "'Freak' is a way of thinking, of presenting, a set of practices, an institution - not a characteristic of an individual."

Some might also have been put off by Side Show's bone-deep honesty in dealing with disability prejudice, both blatant and subtle. Two numbers in the show confront these subjects - and the audience - in uncompromising ways. In the first song, "Come Look at the Freaks," the actors (in the guise of side show performers) face the audience and demand their unblinking, unabashed gaze. The music in this number is harsh, the words insistent:

Come look at the freaks

Come gape at the geeks

Come examine these aberrations

Their malformations

Grotesque physiques

Only pennies for peeks

Come look at the freaks

I couldn't help wondering whether some audience members felt uncomfortable having their secret feelings of fascination and revulsion stated so openly, particularly by people who are the objects of those feelings.

Another song, later in the play, asks "Who Will Love Me As I Am?" The sisters ponder the barriers which keep them apart from other people: "Like an odd exotic creature / On display inside a zoo / Hearing children asking questions / Makes me ask some questions too." The play unflinchingly, no doubt uncomfortably for some, addresses the socially-imposed barriers to intimacy which face Daisy and Violet. "Who could see beyond this surface?" they ask themselves. "Who will love me as I am?"

They each do develop a love interest as the play unfolds. Daisy desires Terry Conner, the vaudeville promoter who manages her career. Violet loves Buddy Foster, their singing teacher. Terry and Buddy think of themselves as much more enlightened than the "lowbrow" masses who visit the freak show. And yet, these two nondisabled characters eventually have to admit that they are unable (or unwilling) to respond to the women's emotional needs and sexual yearning, because of their own discomfort with the physical differences.

It's hard to imagine any other company of actors staging this play. The PHAMALy performers lend their not just talent and energy, but also a powerful authenticity. The realism is not specific or literal: The actresses who portray the Hiltons are not conjoined twins; they both have mobility impairments. Rather, their genuineness comes from being members of the same broad minority group as the characters they're playing - i.e., the disability community.

Members of PHAMALy should be congratulated, not only for their fine performances, but also for their decision to bring Side Show to life. It couldn't have been easy to listen to critics who were accustomed to more traditional musicals. And it must have been somewhat disconcerting for the actors, at times, to strike an in-your-face stance and belt out "Come look at the freaks!" - although I imagine that was quite satisfying, too.

Side Show was obviously an emotional and musical challenge; but in my view, it was a stunning artistic success. The big question now is: What will PHAMALy do next summer?

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