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Inside the World Sideshow Festival

Things are set to get weird, wild and wonderful in Ballarat as the second-ever World Sideshow Festival rolls back into town. Festival founder and sideshow super star  Shep Huntly conceived of the idea for the biannual festival as a way to bring circus’s kookier cousin out of the shadows. “Sideshow’s always been on the periphery a little bit, so I went, ‘right, let’s just get this somewhere and make it accessible to a whole heap of people’,” Huntly says. “It doesn’t deserve to be on the outskirts anymore. It’s such a beautiful, well-formed art form that it should be centre stage.” 

While TV very nearly killed sideshow, over the years it’s enjoyed resurgences, including during the ’90s with Jim Rose’s Circus Sideshow. That said, what Huntly and his cohorts do is a world away from the testosterone and brashness of Jim Rose’s outfit. Sure, Huntly has made a virtue of slamming his elbow into a dingo trap and suspending a car battery from his nipples, but if you manage to catch him in a performance of the Dark Party (sadly not part of this year’s schedule) you’re in for an eye-popping version of sideshow that’s poignant and beautiful.
 
Tigerlil, part of this year’s Wild Women of Sideshow lineup in the Festival, is also testament to the fact that sideshow isn't always about grossing people out. With a background in circus, Tigerlil found herself travelling and in love with a contortionist in the ’90s and hit upon the idea of showering herself in sparks while angle grinding in footy shorts. “It was pretty punk,” she says. In subsequent years, Tigerlil toured with Kiss and Machine Gun Fellatio (scaring the shit out of Kiss’s crew with flurries of sparks near so many pyrotechnics).
 
“It all came about because I needed an act quickly, but I’m not a natural thrill seeker,” she explains. “I just wasn’t predisposed to do a lot of the acts that would be traditionally done, like a human pin cushion act or a hair hang. Angle grinding had a really good effect, it’s visually very impressive and so I ran with it, out of necessity. My background prior to circus was rhythmic gymnastics and object manipulation. They’re not traditionally very sideshow, but I brought them with me. It’s good to have some lighter elements to contrast with some of the more hardcore, extreme acts. It almost gives the audience an opportunity to take a breath.”                
 
Professor Burnaby Q. Orbax, a Canadian university physics lecturer by day and sideshow extraordinaire by night, is another example of the different flavours of sideshow. Orbax, who performs with his faux twin bro Sweet Pepper Klopek (lead singer of punk band the Legendary Klopeks in his spare time, also famed for barbed-wire wrestling matches), has made a living as a human blockhead (ie. he’s one of those cats who can hammer a nail up his nose). Combined, Klopek and Orbax are the Monsters of Schlock. Drawing on a childhood fuelled by the insanity of the Muppets, the Three Stooges, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and Looney Tunes, the pair make a point of making their freak flag fly in a way that’s also funny. “Comedy goes a long way in terms of connecting with people,” Orbax says. “The purpose of many sideshows is to freak people out, right, but you can freak people out way more if they identify with you and can put themselves in your place: you get that way more with comedy as opposed to spooky, gothic sideshow. Plus, I’m too much of an arsehole to be able to do it with a straight face. I can’t do it without turning it into a giant, living cartoon.”  
 
However, at the end of the day sideshow’s drawcard is the fact that it’s so damn exciting. “When we go to the theatre to see a play we all enter into this complicit agreement that we’re going to pretend,” Huntly muses. “In contrast, the world of sideshow is 100 percent real. I suppose it’s similar to those extreme motorbike guys who do backflips. The risks they’re taking are real as well. It’s heart in your mouth stuff, but ours in wrapped in a theatricality that their’s isn’t. The risks are so tangible that when people complete a trick or routine the relief is palpable.”
 
By Meg Crawford. 
 
 

World Sideshow Festival goes down at the Ballarat Mechanics Institute from Thursday May 11 – Saturday May 13. Tickets are available at www.worldsideshowfestival.com. Festival passes or individual tickets are available from $22 - $145