Communication Currents

Sideshow: A Forum Discussion

April 1, 2016
Theater & Performance

Sideshow is the script for a full-length, one-woman performance written and performed by Nico Wood. It tells the tale of the strange, wonderful, and conflicted family history of a performance scholar descending from a tradition of sideshow performers. Sideshow narrates the life of a trapeze artist (Wood’s great-great-grandmother), a burlesque girl (Wood’s great-grandmother), a dancer (Wood’s grandmother) and a traveling sideshow performer (Wood’s mother).

Through autobiographical storytelling, historical investigation, and cultural analysis, Sideshow presents a journey of research and discovery as Wood rescues scraps from the dustbin of history and quilts together a story of her own. She reconstructs the history of these four women and embodies their aesthetic performances—the circus, burlesque, dance, and sideshow.  In the first scene, she writes:

These women were not Hollywood starlets, oh no, their stories are far more interesting than that, for interest is pricked by obscurity. No, these women ran in strange circles and danced on stages to the side. They were always a side show.

After a brief introduction, Wood tells the story of her great-great-grandmother, a trapeze artist and an adventurous woman who worked with the Ringling circus. She then continues with the story of an important family photo album that identifies mysterious foremothers whose names she had never known before. She then relates what is known about her great-grandmother, who like the other women in her family was “pressed between the rock of class and the hard place of gender,” and chose to become a burlesque dancer. She moves on to the story of her grandmother who, after dancing as a young woman, became a waitress and raised Wood’s mother. Then, Wood tells the story of how her mother became a sideshow performer. Finally, Wood explains how she came to accept her social class and overcome her shame while on her own adventure rafting in the Grand Canyon

The Archive  

A.B., a graduate assistant who offered to photograph Wood’s traveling performance, drove nearly 400 miles to attend the show at the 2013 Petit Jean Performance Festival. In her discussion of Sideshow, A.B. focuses on the materials used in the show and the way that Wood creates what A.B. calls a “handcrafted” onstage archive. Wood’s onstage movement is precise, yet fluid, sharp but sultry, making it easy for A.B. to know when to press the camera shutter. The essay also captures the materials Wood uses—and the visual texture they create. In the early scenes, A.B. explains, Wood interacts with a projection of her hand-written family tree, animating it to explain the way it changes and morphs over time through the processes of birth, death, marriage, and divorce. A.B. asserts that Wood uses every sensory opportunity available to enthrall the audience. From light to sound to blocking, music, projections, set, and her handcrafted archive, every element creates a sensory snapshot. The materiality of Sideshow performs alongside Wood to bring her foremothers to life.

The Language 

Rebecca A. Walker’s review of Sideshow focuses specifically on the scripting, storytelling, and language choices of Wood’s performance. Through her performance, Walker argues, Wood is able to create the very thing that she missed growing up: an archival record of her family history. Wood’s use of double-voiced discourse, a type of language that carries two voices or a double meaning, allows her to create a dialogue between the voices, giving the show its magic. In Wood's show, Walker discusses how she uses double-voiced discourse to accomplish the dual goal of telling her family history while also commenting on and critiquing the social structures (such as gender politics, the objectification of female bodies, and notions of feminist empowerment) that shape those stories.

The Labor 

Tracy Stephenson Shaffer adds her voice to the discussion of Sideshow in identifying two types of labor in the performance: the labor taken on by the five generations of women represented in the stories, and the labor entailed in developing a performance like Sideshow. The two-hour performance depicts 100 years of women laboring not only as performers but also as mothers, wives to (sometimes difficult) husbands and partners, and making ends meet. Wood’s depictions of her foremothers also serve as a sharp class and gender critique. But Shaffer also notes the intense labor that went into preparing the show: researching histories, writing a script, shaping ideas, rehearsing scenes, directing movement, building sets, sewing costumes, collecting props, editing film, incorporating music, hanging lights, providing feedback, designing posters, and printing programs. According to Shaffer, every act of labor expended toward creating Sideshow was well worth the effort.

About the author (s)

Nicole Wood

Independent artist-scholar

A. B.

Southern Illinois University

Graduate Assistant

Tracy Stephenson Shaffer

Louisiana State University

Associate Professor

Rebecca Walker

Southern Illinois University

Assistant Professor