9 p.m. Fri., Feb. 6
What, exactly, constitutes a freak? 999 Eyes, an Austin, Texas-based troupe touring with the tag line "last genuine traveling freak show" (it's illegal in three states, says co-founder Samantha X), has a second raison d'etre: reclaiming the term as a nexus of performance art and social acceptance.
"It means to dance with nature," X says of the etymology. "Not only accepting your own nature, but dancing with it as well."
From that simple inspiration, the four-year-old, 13-member vaudeville-style variety show derived an updated definition: "A human oddity that has chosen to share, celebrate and exploit his/her own genetic anomaly through performance." Asked about the seeming tension between celebration and exploitation, X, a musical performer who has no such anomalies herself, points out another nuance to the language.
"All types of entertainment are exploitation," she says. "When I get onstage and play music, I'm exploiting my music. We've generally tended to use the word 'exploitation' as a negative thing. But we are exploiting our talents when we play onstage versus around a campfire."
Addressing the issue upfront, X adds, preempts the argument, one that contributed to the demise of natural freak shows and a co-opting of the title by self-mutilators and fetishists. With a five-piece klezmer band and a sideshow of sword-swallowing cowboys and fire-eating clowns, 999 Eyes is out to revive the carnival tradition.
The company started in 2005 as an accompaniment to a circus organized by a fellow musician, Dylan Blackthorn. After the first tour, the addendum outgrew the main act. "Originally it was just Lobster Girl, Elephant Man and the Dancing Dwarf," X says. "Human Tripod Girl heard us on the radio and showed up with bags packed."
Lobster Girl, aka "h.e.a" Burns, whose right hand has only two digits due to the congenital disorder ectrodactyly, was the troupe's founding freak. "We started putting it together, and freaks started coming out of the woodwork," Burns says. "We still weren't sure what we were going to do. Were we going to come out of cages? Sit and perform menial tasks that people might not think we'd be able to do?"
Eventually, she says, it came back to the original question: "What is a freak show? We decided we could make it whatever we wanted to be."
An unlikely source — Hollywood producer Jerry Goldstein, who attended one early show — suggested the company adopt a narrative structure to streamline its production. With help from an acting coach, Rudy Ramirez, the storyline became a history of freaks and freak shows, X says, "[beginning] in ancient civilizations, when freaks were gods and goddesses, and [ending] with the show being reinvented, with us."
There's a significant sense of empowerment to the all-ages show, she admits, but with a twist: "We think it empowers the audience. ... To be allowed to notice people that are different and to ask questions, to be allowed to question their preconceptions of beauty and normalcy and individuality."