Words: Philip Cummins
Laying claim to be of the last surviving female sword swallowers in the world, Londoner and Fringe veteran Miss Behave’s quirky mix of dare devilment and cabaret has seen her gain popularity with audiences the world the over. We caught up with one of the main attractions of this year’s Laya Healthcare Street Performance Championships to talk sword swallowing, women in theatre and how mobile phones and social media have impacted on her craft.
You’ve claimed to be one of the last female sword swallowers in the craft. Why is this type of dare devilment always associated with men?
I think one reason is that audiences perceive men and women differently, so I think women have to find different routes and I think it depends on where you are. I have always used the non- feminine environment. On the street, I’ve found that it’s worked to my advantage and I find that the other women that I’ve worked alongside on the street probably also feel the same. Sword swallowing used to be a dime a dozen, in its heyday and the competition is very fierce and one reason is because people sometimes die and they are finding more and more ridiculous stunts to do, so there’s a very high profile for female sword swallowers back then. Also, I think that the sexual connotations would have been way more extreme, back then; that’s my read on it. The reality is, though, that I very rarely get heckled with doing that routine and seems to intimidate guys, so there’s an almost a catch-22 to it. So it’s there, it’s something that has more innuendo than it would for a male sword swallower because it’s not off-putting: it’s funny. For women, it’s seen as crude, which I’m fine with, but crude isn’t funny; so it makes subtlety crude humor.
So who do you see as your predecessors in your craft?
Eddie Izzard is definitely an influence in that he used the street as a playground and because I’m not money-driven, I tend to go for what I feel is innovative and different rather than what I think will bring me into arenas. The street is a great playground for that and I think there’s less and less of that, unfortunately. It’s festivals like the Street Championships, the Fringe in Edinburgh and Christchurch in New Zealand that facilitate that kind of creativity. They’ve really cultured it and in Edinburgh, you’re reaching an arty audience on their way to another show; in London, they’re on their way to buy a computer. So it’s a really fertile ground for new, creative work. My crossover has been from the stage to the street; I started off doing freak shows, cabaret. I felt the possibilities on the stage were limited so I turned to the street and I found that there was infinitely more interesting work going there and it forces you to up your games. An audience from the street can walk away and so the line between rehearsal and performance is thin; you can’t rehearse on stage and take risks in front of an audience that is paying £30 to see you, so you can learn to learn and play. One of the best street performers I’ve ever seen, who I just adore, is Dublin’s very own Dave McSavage, who is very much missed in Edinburgh. Constantly driven, constantly funny, constantly creative and not money-driven. And I think the work he’s doing, now, is great and he’s doing it very much his way and no one else's.
Do you find that performers in theatre and TV become sidetracked and eventually, controlled by producers and management in a way that street performers aren’t? Do street performers embrace the liberties and lack of constraints?
I think that used to be the case, but I think what’s happening across the board in every medium of entertainment is that regulation is coming in via the means of people desiring money and fame. When some idiot comic from Mock The Week is offered their own show, they’ll say anything that people want them to say and they’ll toe the line, which is to the detriment of their comedy, whereas when you’re grinding it out in Covent Garden, there comes a point where you have to go it alone and you’re going to have to put in x, y and z lines. That said, the rules and regulations, as such, still allow that the street is wonderfully anarchic, comparatively, but there’s almost an economic bass line that performers have to play to, more and more. You can still be anarchic and innovative, but if you want to make money you almost have to make concessions.
How has new media changed or impacted on street performance?
It’s a very interesting question. The show I’m bringing to Dublin is actually a game show based on phones that I’ll be playing on the street. I’ve previously performed it in an indoor venue Australia and London, but what I find fascinating is that with live performance there is no fourth wall. So with cabaret, theatre, stand up comedy... anything where the performer can and always acknowledge that the audience is there... we’ve just accepted that the audience have mobile phones and that phones and audience members are one and the same thing, across the board. I have stand ups grabbing phones off audience members and talking into the phone, which is just not funny enough. And I find that with now, people on phones are not fully engaging; they’re tweeting, they’re on Facebook, texting... and I think we have tried to change that and we have tried to catch up, so for me it is a massive elephant in the room, but not just on the street, across the board. And think that the reaction has been strongest in theatre where, for example, some months ago some guy told an audience member, repeatedly, to get off his phone and, eventually, he got up mid-play grabbed the phone and smashed it. That, for me, is a reaction, though it’s inappropriate to have it at a play, whereas stand-ups, cabaret performers, street performers haven’t yet caught up with the possibilities and found a way to play with it more. And I accidentally ended up with this joke where you absolutely play with it and the reaction that I’ve got has been insane. One of the games we play is ‘Smash a Phone’ and you should see the reaction we get! Gleeful, naughty, irreverent anger. We need to talk about it, but in a way that’s fun instead of being earnest and serious about it. We need to acknowledge it and play with it. In my head, it feels like we’re all walking around with three arms and nobody’s mentioned it.
How important are events like the Laya Healthcare Street Performance World Championship to those who do what you do?
Well it’s a relatively new festival and I have, unfortunately, seen festivals come and go and fold easily. That said, I’ve only ever heard great things about the Street Performance World Championship. There’s brilliant, big crowds, great shows and it’s really well organized, which is what you really want.
The Laya Healthcare Street Performance World Championships 2013 takes place in Dublin (Merrion Square, 12th - 14th July) and Cork (St. Patrick’s Street, 20th - 21st July). For more information go to www.spwc.ie