An Interview with ‘Shocked and Amazed Presents: Strange for Hires’ Producers Alex Doll and James Taylor

Sideshow is one of the oldest and most intriguing forms of performance. Think it’s a 19th century relic? Think again. On Saturday, January 31, 2015, Shocked & Amazed Presents: Strange For Hire will play for one night only at the Artisphere, in Rossyln. Check out my interview with producers and purveyors of the consummate sideshow site, Shocked and Amazed, Alex Doll and James Taylor.

James Taylor and Alex Doll. Photo by Maze Studio.
James Taylor and Alex Doll. Photo by Maze Studio.

Michael: Please introduce yourself to our readers, and tell us a bit about your publication.

James: I’ve lived a lot of lives in the entertainment biz – a lot of it high-end literary, both writing and publishing c/o Dolphin-sMoon Press, a publishing house I helped found in the early 1970s. For the past couple decades, though, I’ve put almost all my time and effort into my true love: the novelty & variety exhibition business, sideshows and “weirdness as entertainment” specifically. It led me to publish the world’s only journal devoted to such entertainment, “James Taylor’s SHOCKED AND AMAZED! On & Off the Midway.”

The terms “sideshow” and “freakshow” are often misunderstood, even within the performing arts community. Can you explain the distinction between the two, if there is one?

The misunderstanding, I think, comes from those terms changing over time, and I’m not sure it’s “misunderstanding” so much as the evolution of the terms as the business changes. “Sideshow” used to apply to any exhibition that appeared on a circus midway between the entrance to the circus lot and the big top itself; the “freakshow,” specifically, was just another term that applied to the 10-in-1, so called as there were ten acts in the show. And those terms really only applied to the outdoor end of the business – circuses and carnivals. Nowadays, both terms get tossed around pretty freely to cover any novelty & variety turn, be it sword swallowing or fire breathing or even juggling and aerial work.  Of course, the bottom line for most talent is and has always been, “Call me whatever you want, just make sure the check clears”.

What might a typical sideshow performance have looked like in its golden age?

In the mid-to-late 19th century – a true golden age for such acts – most of the talent performed in dime museums (which cost 10 cents to get in: think natural history museums crossed with art museums crossed with Ripley’s, with live acts tossed into the mix). And if they weren’t in dime museums they were on circus midways, where such tented attractions were called “museum shows” in the early days. Specific acts might also rent halls or other venues if their act “played big” enough as stand-alone entertainment. All your “typical” sideshow acts might be represented: sword swallowing, magic, fire breathing, an assortment of “strong man” and “pain-proof man” acts, maybe a human prodigy (a “freak act,” truly) if the show could afford one, as true freak talent was paid more than working acts, such as the sword swallower or the magician.

Now, the golden age of carnival – and what most people think of as the era of “real” sideshows – was between the World Wars in the 20th century. There really wasn’t a huge amount of difference in the acts – you’d have seen, essentially, the same sort of talent as in the dime museums and circus midways – but carnival really shown a massive, brilliant light on the shows as, in that era, carnival truly was “the outdoor show business.” You wouldn’t have just had the 10-in-1 shows; you’d also have had big tented illusion shows, wax museums under canvas, monkey speedways (monkeys “racing” tiny racecars), assorted girl shows (everything from burlesque “reviews” – the higher class end of those shows – to the down & dirty hoochie kootchie shows where, in the later days, almost anything went as long as the show could get away with it), a pile of single-o attractions (single performers/attractions as opposed to the 10-in-1 shows; usually they were “special” acts, say, a pair of Siamese twins, or illusion shows such as the snake girl or Spidora). You name it: If it was any act, attraction or celebrity who could be made to seem as exotic as possible – the better to get you to part with your money to see it/them – it was on a carnival midway.

James, you’ve been involved in the sideshow community for several decades. How have you seen it change over the years?

When I started reporting on and business back in the very early ‘90s, I could say that I probably knew or knew of virtually everybody working in the sideshow business. In retrospect, that may sound a bit arrogant, but that’s sure the way it felt. Nowadays, I couldn’t keep up with all the business out there if my life depended on it. I don’t think anyone can keep up with it all. Probably the biggest change has been the near-total melding of so much of the novelty & variety modes. I’m not saying that there aren’t differences between the resurging “arms” of the business, but you see so much blending of new burlesque into new sideshow into new vaudeville into, well, whatever we’ll be calling it tomorrow. The generation that’s coming into all this now seems to be recognizing that if they all hang together, they can all make out better than they can alone. In a weird way, it’s an era like that when carnival itself was invented, at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, when all the showmen at that world’s fair’s Midway Plaisance (the entertainment zone at the fair) came together and all made the money, making them realize that competition was fine but unity could move the business to an entirely new level. And though we haven’t seen it yet, we’re starting to hear and see the rumblings among show people that, in my opinion, are going to move the business toward even more codified organization, be it unions or guilds, the better to protect the rights of the talent and ensure that the money happens in a more expected way. That is, if anything can ever operate in an “expected way” in the show business.

Sideshow has seen a resurgence of attention in the past year, with a slew of reality shows, the current season of American Horror Story, and the musical Side Show, which played at The Kennedy Center last year before moving on to Broadway. Is sideshow “back”?  

Of course, sideshow (in all its varied forms, as the presentation of the exotic) never really ever goes away: novelty & variety entertainment is THE oldest form of entertainment, so it’s going nowhere like “away.” As far as its visibility, that has changed a great deal over the past couple decades, and I’d agree that my prediction from last century – that sideshow would be the metaphor for the 21st century – seems to be coming into its own. The only “back” I want to see for ALL the novelty & variety arts, though, is back in the money. Granted, except for exceptional (and exceptionally lucky) talent, there’s never been enormous money in this end of the show biz. And I don’t think any of the performers who pursue this work expect that. It’d be great to see more of them making livings at it – truly independent of other employment – though. And if that’s what “back” means, well, let’s just say I remain hopeful. And I’m not normally a very hopeful guy.

Alex, your show series, ‘Shocked and Amazed Presents,’ has proven wildly successful with theater audiences.  Tell us a bit about the events.

The Shocked and Amazed show series was my brainchild, born of the burgeoning stagnation of the DMV scene at the time, and the limited availability of ideal venues for the variety arts.  The series’ namesake (taken from “Shocked and Amazed: On and Off the Midway”) was a natural choice as my partnership with the journal’s founder, James Taylor, was a driving force in the creation of these events.

The series was conceived of in 2012 and with the support of Artisphere’s Program Director, Josh Stoltzfus, and the first event was an instant hit and an immediate sell out, creating the demand for future installments.

Alex: Each subsequent event, along with the first, has followed a particular model, which is curated with incredible specificity towards re-charging the local variety scene and introducing patrons to new performers from around the globe.  The shows feature everything stemming from sideshow to magic, vaudeville, circus and burlesque. The acts range from sword swallowing, to firebreathing, glass eating, glass walking, rope escapes, juggling, unicycling, ventriloquism… the list goes on.

Since its inception, every event we have hosted at Artisphere (with due credit to the setting and out-of-this-world casts) has sold out in advance and has always been incredibly well-received by our audiences, who range from ages 18-80, some new to the variety arts, and others, seasoned patrons. The success of each program is my litmus test for how to evolve the series, this time around to include further elements of atmosphere and art prior to the performance. Every time I can think of something that will make the experience more enjoyable as well as more authentic to the craft, I excitedly pitch it to Josh [Stoltzfus] and once he has talked me down from the clouds, we figure out how to make it a reality for our audience.

Your upcoming sideshow performance, Strange For Hire, kicks off on Saturday, January 31st at the Artisphere in Rosslyn. Tell us a bit about this particular show. 

I am beyond excited about this installment of the show series as it brings my two sideshow “allegiances” (so to speak) together in support of the event. This go around, Shocked and Amazed will partner with Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (Baltimore) for an expansion of our prior show models.

The last (and largest) of the Shocked and Amazed show series at Artisphere will include a pop-up gallery art show from 7-9 PM, featuring artist exhibits from Stephen Blickenstaff, Isaac Bidwell, Todd Gardner and John Detrich in Artisphere’s Town Hall.  While everyone is taking in the art exhibits (and hopefully purchasing pieces like they are hoarding art for the apocalypse) they can revel in the musical atmosphere, provided by the infamous DJ Steve EP (FYM Productions). Palate-pleasing promo goodies will be available from DC’s own Jerkface Jerky (vendor of carefully curated artisanal meat snacks) accompanied by a DC Brau happy hour, courtesy of the venue.

Around 9 PM, we will begin ushering patrons into the Black Box theater, where they will be greeted by their host, Mr. Donny V, the Gentleman Oddity (known to others as Donny Vomit, formerly of Coney Island) and later joined by Frankie Sin, the Bad Girl of Broadway (burlesque and variety talent, hailing from Los Angeles), and Insectavora the Fiery Femme Fatale (most recently with the World of Wonders tour, and an absolutely legendary fire performer).

James Taylor and Alex Doll. Photo by StereoVision.
James Taylor and Alex Doll. Photo by StereoVision.

Why, in the age of Netflix and other quick-streaming entertainment, should people take the time to see a live sideshow?

In most theater shows, the audience are silent observers and novelty critics. In the Shocked and Amazed events, the audience is fully engaged, constantly on the edge of their seats and even encouraged to take part. Sitting still and remaining silent is actually considered more of an insult in these shows than it is polite. I want everyone in attendance to feel like they were an essential piece of the larger production, that without their involvement, the show would not be possible. Kind of like Tinker-Bell, without belief.

My favorite part of the evening is observing the faces of the audience as they are filing out after the conclusion of the show- it’s like everyone is in this euphoric daze and those who are speaking are re-living their highlights of the event, “Wasn’t it amazing when…..?!” You don’t get that kind of involvement or experience sitting at home watching your television. And you certainly don’t get the jackpots people walk away with from our events from being glued to your couch.  For instance, I have personally been locked in a blade box, watched an audience member pull a sword out of a sword swallower, and had a friend (picked completely at random) light a torch with her tongue through the wonders of electricity!  It’s an absolutely wild time for everyone involved.

I was told recently that my shows are a bit like walking into Narnia, and I would say that’s a pretty accurate description of what you’re in for…

The theatre scene in the DMV has exploded in the past decade. What place do you think sideshow can occupy in this expanding galaxy of performance?

A lot of people tend to think of the word “sideshow” and equate it with low culture, and thus, not an art form worthy of a respectable venue. The biggest reward, for me, in producing this show series, has been the ability to host sideshow and variety events that provide a polished and professional peek into this industry. When I started out, I would constantly run into the argument from individuals who had “seen sideshow before, and it was terrible.” Unfortunately, not every performer holds themselves to a particular standard, and even when they do, and the quality is fantastic (of the performer or the event) the venue is not ideal, and thus, the experience may not be pleasant for the audience (or the performers, for that matter). It was a particular point of motivation for me to prove that the sideshow and variety arts are a force to be reckoned with- a thing to respect and admire equally alongside high-budget productions at other high-end theaters.

While I understand that, historically, sideshow takes root in environments and conditions that are generally hostile, unpredictable and not ideal, that does not mean that it is a throw-away form of entertainment.  Sideshow is an incredible part of American history, with influences that can be seen in nearly every walk of life. I wanted to prove to this regions’ audience (at least for starters) that I could change their minds about how they viewed the industry;  That I could pique their interest and engage them in a way that only sideshow and variety are capable of.

As the variety arts provide the basis for nearly all entertainment, sideshow will always have a place in the scene. However it evolves and defines itself in the years to come, it will continue to remain entwined with the ever-changing environment of theater in this area.

Alex Doll with S&A founder, James Taylor.
Alex Doll with S&A founder, James Taylor.

I understand this is the last Shocked and Amazed installment at the Artisphere before the venue closes permanently in June of this year, correct?

Correct. Unfortunately, due to a myriad of politics, the venue, which offered an incomparable setting and unmatched level of support to the Sideshow community, will be shutting its doors forever, some time within the next several months. The beyond wonderful staff, from their technical support crew (lead by George Hommowun) to the program management and directorial staff, will all be looking for new homes in the theater community (and beyond), so I do hope your readership will take note of this and extend any golden tickets they may have available to find places for these fine folks.

I have been blessed to be able to work with Artisphere over the last few years, and to be able to attend exhibits at the venue prior to that, and even to eat at the (now defunct) restaurant, HERE, while it still existed. The space and I go way back and to see it close its doors feels a little like losing an old friend. It should go without saying that I do not agree with the decision to shutter the space, particularly since Arlington County, who founded and funded the cultural center, never provided the opportunity for its residents to have a vote or a voice in that decision.

While none of us may be able to change the fate of Artisphere, in the interim, the best way to support the venue is to attend as many programs and exhibits as possible and to really explore the variety of incredible events on their calendar before they are gone for good.

Where can folks go to learn more about sideshow?

Some of my favorite resources are as follows:
http://showhistory.com/
http://www.shockedandamazed.com/
http://www.ripleys.com/baltimore/
http://www.sideshowworld.com/Alex-Doll/Inside-Box.html

Poster for Strange For Hire, playing for one night only on Saturday, January 31. Photo by Isaac Bidwell, who is a featured artist for the Jan 31st show
Poster for ‘Strange For Hire,’ playing for one night only on Saturday, January 31., 2015 at Artisphere. Photo by Isaac Bidwell, who is a featured artist for the Jan 31st show.

Shocked & Amazed Presents: Strange For Hire will play for one night only on Saturday, January 31, at the Artisphere in Rosslyn – 1101 Wilson Boulevard, in Arlington, Virginia. Tickets are running out fast, and may be purchased online.