'I know what you people are looking at! You're looking at his flippers! Yes folks, it's all alive on the inside, and you'll be able to see exactly what he can do with those freaky flippers. You'll be shocked and amazed, folks! Hurry, hurry, only $5 to see the Sealboy!"
Not the intro I'm used to I must admit, but it heralded one of the most intense, powerful onstage experiences I've ever had. At "Sideshows by the Seashore", part of the famous fairground at Coney Island, New York, I became a professional freak for the weekend.
My name is Mat Fraser, I'm a short-armed actor with an interest in the heritage of disabled performers at freakshows. My play Sealboy: Freak, which I'm taking to the Edinburgh Fringe in August, explores some of the themes, contrasts and parallels between old and current disabled performers' experiences. There is comedy, song, tears, and during it I actually repeat the act of my cultural predecessor, "Sealo the Sealboy", who also had short arms and did the show for 40-odd years.
I've always wondered what it was like for a freakshow performer, how it felt to be up on stage just for people to look at your different body, to enjoy their schadenfreude. And then I met Jennifer Miller, the famous New York lesbian Woman with a Beard, who told me about this place in Coney Island that ran the only live "10-in-1" sideshow left in America ("10 acts for one price, folks!"). "You gotta go and get into the belly of the beast, Mat," said Miller, who had worked in the show for five years.
So while I was in New York last year to film my programme Freak Out for Channel 4, I met Dick Z Zigun, the owner of "Sideshows by the Seashore". I also visited the place at Coney Island (Sealo had worked there in the Forties) and organised my three-day "freakfest". The first night, it was agreed, I'd do scenes from my play to an informed, interested audience, then the weekend would be regular "10-in-1" work. I would be billed as "Sealboy Superfreak", the first proper "born freak" that's worked there for years. Now I was going to find out for real about the freakshow experience – hardcore style.
On Friday, 13 July I performed scenes from my play to a full house. The show went well, I got loads of contacts, suggestions for where I might stage the play in Manhattan, even (admittedly quite stoned) folks calling me a genius! I was on a post-show high. I'd performed on the same stage as Sealo with the backdrop of the freakshow banners. It was a theatrical triumph! Yeah, right Mat, just wait till tomorrow...
The next two days were a different story. I don't think PC ever arrived in Coney Island and Dick's place is one of the classiest there. Here's how it works: the show rotates permanently for 10 hours, starting at 1pm, with one show per hour. You pay and enter and when you've seen an act twice you know it's finished. Then you either leave or go through the "blow off", an eleventh act not advertised on the "bally" platform outside. You have to pay a little extra for this and if you want to know what it is, you'll have to go yourself.
The line up was fixed in the following order: Tyler doing the intro as MC; Tadine the contortionist and electricity conductress (the teenager who arrived for work experience, and joined the show); Tyler's blockhead show; Eek the Geek, tattooed all over his body and face, doing bed of nails; then comes Coco the killer clown, aka Tony the local short guy (massive spliff before work, tattoos, looks real tough and is); then Serpentina the snake woman, with her enormous albino pythons, doing a rather phallic dance (she feeds them live rabbits, waters and cleans them as if they were her own babies); then it's my spot; then Tyler does a fire act, before enticing the crowd to spend dollars on the "blow off".
Each act finishes by introducing the next one. While all this is happening, Tanya does the talking outside on the "bally" (the "talker" gets people in off the street with exaggerated promises and does the old "special" discount scam – ie: the sign says $5 but it's always three to get in). Most of us have to be on the platform with her – and this was the tough bit.
You see inside, onstage, I found an amazing dichotomy: to be the most powerful person in the room – lights are on me, audience is attentive, I control their attention, indeed, I was the headline act. But simultaneously they're only there to look at my arms, rendering me the least powerful person there, the objectified.
Reactively, I consoled myself by taunting their lack of intelligence with a really piss-taking act. I took off my socks, shoes and shirt – every time to applause. Even when I asked for quiet as my act required "immense concentration", they still didn't get the joke, and clapped more enthusiastically. So in a way there was an equal trade-off of power.
But on the "bally" platform, it's just people staring. Sorry, but it's true – staring, laughing, pointing, grimacing, telling their children to look at the freaks, and all with that intrigued/revolted-yet-thrilled look in their dim, or harsh eyes. Trash of every ethnicity stood open-mouthed as Tanya cajoled them with promises of impossible tricks inside. I quickly developed the protective glazed look of my co-workers, while being scrutinised. I have to say the urge to leap off and drive my knee into some big man's face was scintillatingly real. But I remained the waving, smiling Sealboy all weekend, three "ballys" an hour, one full show, on my feet most of the day – a working freak. I remembered thinking, "Sealo did this all his adult life, for 40 years, surely I can handle a weekend".
I enjoyed the heightened feeling of camaraderie, more so than in a play, and I really imagined what it might've been like for the old "greats". You do feel like you're in it together and, maybe because I'm so confrontational, I did honestly enjoy the stage act (even when the drunken evening crowds came in, making the day-timers seem like veritable professors of theatrical deconstruction). After three years of researching this world, and Sealo in particular, I felt it proper to have a commemorative tattoo. Tattooist Cecille did this for me in the legendary Spider Web's parlour, directly upstairs from Dick's, in the Coney Island museum. I smile every time I look at it.
My best moment: facing off an aggressive guy with Tony and Eek, baseball bats in hands (there are six behind the counter; Tony led me to them when it all seemed like it was gonna kick off). Talk about camaraderie!
My worst moment: watching some of the adults infect their innocent children with their gloating hatred of us, while having to smile and wave. Maybe I was just tired by then, or maybe they're real wankers. I don't know.
When it was over, Dick and I reflected over a beer...
Me: "That was weird, man."
Dick: "We had a record weekend, you should come back!"
And with that he handed me $220, which for a weekend's work shouldn't be sniffed at. I'm planning my return as I'm writing this. So if you see a man in Edinburgh with short arms arfing like a seal and shaving in the street, don't freak out; it's only me being post-modern. And I don't mind if you stare, as long as you pay. Take a flyer and come to my play. "Come and see the Sealboy! Roll up, roll up!"
Sealboy: Freak: Theatre Workshop, 34 Hamilton Place, Edinburgh (0131 225 7942), 9 to 25 Aug. www.matfraser.comReuse content