Ever been called a ‘freak’? Ever want to be a ‘freak’?
I think everyone should be a freak. In fact, I am working on a book that I think will re-define what it means to be a freak. To me, a freak is someone who embraces their individuality by engaging in an ongoing process of self-realization and self-definition.
However, that is not what this article is about.
This column is about being a professional freak. It is about making your living through a certain style of performance art. Perhaps it could have been more accurately titled ‘So you want to join the sideshow’, but that just doesn’t have the ‘grab factor’ you get from ‘So you want to be a freak’.
There are very few professional freaks in the world today. I have counted myself among their ranks for over a decade now and have made my living solely from touring and performing sideshow acts for about three years — prior to this I supplemented my performers’ income with part-time bartending, teaching, and other jobs. And while I am not using this space to attempt to add contortion to my repertoire by bending over backwards and kissing my own ass, I do think it is fair and reasonable to say that I am one of the better known and more successful of the modern sideshow performers.
The following are things I have learned or come to find common to those who have succeeded in this specialized subset of the entertainment industry. They are not absolutes or guarantees, but I do think that anyone considering a career as a professional freak could benefit from them. To supplement this, in future columns I will be interviewing a number of notable modern sideshow personalities and readers can compare and contrast what they have to say with what I offer here.
Consider and Re-consider your decision:
As cool as it may seem, make sure you aren’t just falling prey to ‘The grass is always greener’ syndrome. Being a professional freak is a big risk and takes a great deal of work. Becoming a children’s birthday party clown or even a mime would likely be a more sound business move with greater range and future potential. It is very unlikely you will ever become even moderately wealthy or famous. It takes a lot from you and gives back very little — unless, you truly love it. The only thing that will make it a worthwhile decision is if it means you will be getting to do what you love.
Get Your Life in Order:
The first thing you should consider doing is making sure that the rest of your affairs are as stabilized as possible. Embarking on a career as a performer is not an answer or a fix to any problems you may be experiencing. This is especially true if part of your plan is heavy public modification (like facial tattooing). If anything, it will be a de-stabilizing force as you deal with a host of new issues and find yourself in many uncertain positions. As a performer, you will very likely not be making much money to begin to with and it will come in spurts — not regular and consistent paychecks.
Before starting out, it is a good idea to get some savings in the bank to carry you through the inevitable thin times and to get secondary jobs that will allow you to perform and travel as needed — I found part time bar work to be ideal for this. Also, remember that there is much more to be done than just the onstage show. You are essentially starting a business here and you will need to take care of all the usual business drudgery — taxes, accounting, advertising, insurance, and so on and so on. Take some courses if possible and study other small businesses. You are attempting to build a career — getting things in order first is the equivalent of laying the foundation. Do it right.
Be Prepared to Work Long and Hard:
Most people who own and run their own businesses will tell you that a nine-to-five schedule would be like a luxury vacation to them. Well, as a performer, you will not only put in the extra hours associated with the business aspects of your show but you will also have the additional responsibility of developing and performing your show. In this respect, sideshow is much like starting your own band. After everything else is done (promotion, booking, and so on) you still have to write, rehearse, and perform. It’s like having two businesses. The difference being that in sideshow you will never score the record deal that means someone else will step in and do some of that other work.
At this point, hopefully, you begin to see how much effort this all takes. Maybe you are wondering how or why anyone would ever want to do this? Simple — because working at something you love isn’t working in the way that digging a ditch or clocking in at the factory is working. And while that is great for those of us who love sideshow and performing it also means another potential drawback: Don’t expect many people to appreciate that you actually work longer and harder than they do. People don’t tend to appreciate the work aspect of doing things that may be enjoyable. They miss they important difference between just doing something fun and doing it as your job. An analogy, playing the guitar can be fun but a professional musician devotes much of their life to practice, composition, and performance — and that is work, even though the musician enjoys it. You can expect people, even friends and family, to poke some fun at you for ‘not having a real job’, but in the end, even though you likely invest a great deal more of your life working than they ever will you have to learn to just shrug it off rather than let it anger or consume you. This gets easier if you realize the joke is on them for spending so much time doing things they don’t want to, while you get rewarded for doing things you do enjoy.
Do It Everyday:
This was once revealed as the greatest secret of the Illuminati and various magick orders. Repetition is indeed the key element to many things. If you are working on a new stunt or act there is no substitute for actually doing it. Stage presence is something that needs to be developed and only comes with time and a show is never at its best until it has been stage tested and refined. Great ideas often suffer and even fail because of a lack of proper rehearsal and development before being brought to the audience. I often tell myself that ‘every moment I am not onstage is a moment I don’t exist’. I use this to sum up the attitude I have seen in many successful performers — you have to live to be on stage and working. Any moment you are not performing must be justified. Whether it is rehearsing and practicing in your living room for your pets, hitting the local open mike, working a street corner, or whatever — you have to do it everyday and love to do it to get good.
Make it Your Own:
Sideshow acts go back centuries in their current form and history here in the West. Beyond that, many of the acts reach back to the earliest history and even pre-history of human civilization. Sword swallowing dates back to 2000 BC in India. So, even though you may be performing incredible acts — they are not new. Part of the challenge you will face as a performer is how to make these acts worth watching for your audience. Do not use other people’s material — stealing material is obviously wrong, but even if you have their permission, you will ultimately be better served by developing your own act. If you want to be memorable and successful, you have to make the act your own by putting your own twist to it. If you do this well enough, it will also make it impossible for others to steal from you. A great example of this from the world of magic is Penn & Teller. The tricks that they do are, for the most part, very basic, and known to the majority of stage magicians. However, they make the tricks their own through their unique characters, presentation style, and interpretations of them.
Respect Sideshow and Your Audience:
Another way to put this might be act professionally. It should be obvious, but for some people its not. Sideshow as an art form and industry are what will be providing you with a living and your audience is how it will do so — respect that. This means not only recognizing the long history and tradition of sideshow along with your place in that tradition but also extending a certain respect to others in that tradition. Be nice. It is a small community and it helps those who help it. Even if only out of enlightened self-interest, you should act respectful. I have gotten work and gotten several others work through referrals. Support the efforts of other performers — in most cases, if one person wins, you all win. Good press for someone else is good press for freaks in general and will create more for everyone to enjoy.
Run your show properly. Treat venues and their staff well and be sure to keep up on things like the local ordinances, necessary permits, and, of course, insurance. In many cases you are going to be seen as representing all of sideshow — if you open a door by doing a good job, others may benefit from your success but if you burn that bridge you are affecting others as well. Bad shows and poor attitudes affect everyone negatively. There are venues that will or won’t book you based on others previous actions and you will have an affect on future acts chances as well.
Also, when it comes to discussing or presenting acts and perhaps the inner workings or details always remember that you cannot expect anyone you are talking to or performing for to show any more respect for the act than you do. If you denigrate or dismiss the power and wonder of the sideshow, you denigrate and dismiss yourself.
You are always ‘on’:
This goes double or even triple if part of what you do involves public modification (facial tattooing) or displaying modifications (in my case, my split tongue even before my facial tattoos and implants). As many people with public mods already know, the general public will treat you as being on display for them. As a sideshow performer you face an added element; while most people don’t pester comedians off stage to tell jokes or ask illusionists to make their car levitate or disappear they will pester freaks to do something for them. Keeping in mind the above section, I often try to carry a few small things with me for suitable occasions. Also, remember that each such instance is a potential opportunity to win a new fan and perhaps more — you never know who the person you take the time to do something for might be or know. For those situations when it simply is not appropriate, do try and bow out gracefully.
You see the same people on the way down that you saw on the way up:
This is a classic from show business in general. Remember, clichés are true for a reason. This one goes hand in hand with what I mentioned above about respecting sideshow in general and other performers. The person you mistreat today could be the one you need the most tomorrow.
I have had the opportunity to work with a great number of people. The ones who have fallen from the peaks of their success are usually those who have forgotten this rule. They have little hope of ever succeeding again.
It wouldn’t take much tweaking to apply many of these concepts to any major decision or aspect of life. But, in the end, I simply hope that those of you who may have been contemplating the road of the freak as a profession found this to be helpful and that perhaps the rest of you have gained a new perspective or even appreciation for it.