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Marisa Carnesky: honouring the herstory of show

Marisa Carnesky, creator of Carnesky’s Ghost Train, the live ride that enjoyed a five-year run on the Blackpool Promenade, is currently touring Showwomen. A feminist rewrite of British working-class entertainment it tells stories from immigrant, queer and occult perspectives. Here she writes about how a chance encounter at the Winter Gardens in 2007 inspired it.

I found myself in Blackpool at an event called Admissions All Classes at the famous Winter Gardens in 2007 because of the esteemed Professor Vanessa Toulmin – founder of the National Fairground Archive (which is housed at the University of Sheffield) that she had curated me into. A grand instillation of sideshows was presented, and a series of stage shows and guided tours uniting the glory days of past Blackpool entertainers through the eyes of contemporary performers of today.

I was performing a levitation piece in a specially created booth with a painted façade. I was at the event with many performers including friend and collaborator and co Showwoman Fancy Chance. The Whoopie Club who curated much of the live performance with Prof Vanessa – Lara Clifton and Tamara Tyrer – had brought us all together.

Fancy Chance is a hair hanger and comedienne. Photos: Sarah Hickson

When I met Fancy I had a strong sense of déjà vu, of a warm-hearted familiarity. We immediately struck up a friendship – an instant rapport – as if we had known each other for many years. We were both drawn to Blackpool and felt passionate about the town’s entertainment heritage. We felt like we had been there together – before. Not in a gig we had forgotten about but in a different lifetime.

Koringa would hypnotise crocodiles, had concrete blocks broken on her stomach and climbed a ladder of swords.

We were both haunted and obsessed by entertainment heritage – particularly around unusual and unique showwomen of the past. Vanessa had shown us material about Koringa who was a British star in was the 1930s and ‘40s. She would hypnotise crocodiles, had concrete blocks broken on her stomach and climbed a ladder of swords. She was billed as ‘the world’s only female fakir’ and wore her hair in an afro and claimed to be from India, but by all accounts was most likely of French Moroccan heritage.

There we were in a dressing room somewhere deep in the recesses of the Winters Gardens, where Koringa, Charile Chaplin and so many performers who appeared there will have prepared themselves for the stage or the circus. And I felt them. It wasn’t a shadow or a visual or a gust of air. It was a feeling of the uncanny – like I had been there before with Fancy in a different lifetime. It was all so familiar, and it felt so right.

An image crept into my head, of a haunted dressing room, that was hidden inside the Winter Gardens behind a false wall or an obscured door. It was a portal through which entertainers communicated across time. They could only see each other in the reflection of the lightbulb adorned dressing room mirrors. The mirrors that held the secrets, the emotion and the magic trapped in its layers the way a crystal is said to hold energy.

In this dressing room we sat and we saw and we spoke with Koringa, her hair became our hair, her black kohl eyeliner appeared around our eyes. She didn’t come to deliver a specific message – she was there in acknowledgement – just watching, perhaps guiding, happy that we existed – happy that what she did meant something to us, happy that she had not been forgotten.

Showwomen is at The Dukes theatre in Lancaster on 14th March. Devised in collaboration with hair hanger/comedienne Fancy Chance, sword and spoken word artist Livia Kojo Alour and physical and fire performer Lucifire, it interweaves live action, in-depth interviews and archival footage to create a dreamlike landscape mixing death defying stunts, strange and emotive acts, political resistance and secret backstage rituals. Showwomen asks why and how women perform dangerous and taboo acts and explores the legacy of forgotten and marginalised diverse British entertainers. For more information visit: carnesky.com/project/on-tour

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