(CW: Discussion & description, and pictures, of painful sideshow feats, including ones that pierce the skin. employ care & caution)
3 years ago this week, I found myself – 31, clumsy, and shy – behind the Stables Stage at Georgetown Carnival. Still new to northwest, The Czar was the only person I then knew with any intimacy. But there I was surrounded by tall, foreboding men with oddly cut and styled hair, kohl smudged eyes, skull-encrusted hats, spike-studded spray painted denim, and torn fishnet. They were so cool. And i was nobody.
Just two weeks prior they found me at a Beard Competition, asked me if I was The Real Deal, and asked me – knowing full well I hadn’t a taste of sideshow experience outside of my physical anomaly – if I’d like try guest performing with them that month.
They handed me a card following my situationally appropriate “SQUEE.” It read, Wreckless Freeks.
Keeping that honor in mind, I heard myself being announced, ignored my fear, climbed up onto that stage, one small bear, with one small mouse trap, and snapped it on my tongue. The Freeks smiled. The audience cheered. I was transformed.
That evening we left earlier than the others due to The Czar’s boredom (which sadly became a pattern before he just stopped accompanying me altogether), and while he got drunk, puked red wine all over the Uber and passed out on the couch, I was far away, in my mind, back onstage. Still in face, still in costume, still barefoot in a pile of broken glass. Even after I did eventually lie down for a nap, I was a million miles off the earth. There was, to be woo for a sec, A Cosmic Shift.
Something in me woke up.
And the catalyst was pain.
“Pain don’t hurt.” – Road House
So let’s talk about pain. TO elaborate, let’s talk about what Wreckless Freeks actually DO onstage. I’m not gonna give away everything, but what we do *does* include tossing steel tipped darts into each others’ flesh, breaking cinder blocks on each other while on nails or tacks or glass, having money stapled to our bodies, and bending & bracing rebar and pitchforks, respectively, on our throats. We don’t fake any of it. All of it, while rehearsed, is authentic with no illusion or sleight of hand. It’s never not dangerous. Grizzly shit. But then, as it turns out, I’m a grizzly bear.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” or the more specific, “how does that not hurt?” are the two most oft-asked questions to us (for me, personally, it comes second after, “is that real?“). I think this is because our brains are wired to read pain = bad. Or at least, pain without a pointed physical benefit (for example, exercise, or even BDSM) is bad. And therefore, if it really hurt, clearly, we wouldn’t do it.
This, admittedly, pre-Georgetown-cosmic-shift is likely something I would have asked as well. More so, I would have been shaking my head with an “I would never” (if perhaps with not as much huffy-puffing the pearl-clutching Chads and Muffy’s), as a High Pain Threshold is not something I’d EVER imagined I secretly bore. In reality, it’d simply never been tested.
I joke that anxiety can be a great motivator. When Freeks gave me a new feat to practice and perform, my understanding was that “no” was a non-option (I must make it explicitly clear that they would never MAKE me do something I couldn’t; I was simply obsessed with not disappointing). As I graduated from mouse trap to rat trap to raccoon trap, so did my exuberance to see what I could handle. By the time we did a tug-o-war onstage with me pulling a rope with two meat hooks in my back vs. two giant men with meat hooks in their throats to the swell of a gobsmacked audience, “getting used to the pain” was no longer in it.
I relished it. I embraced it. I liked it.
And every time a new photo would surface online of my bloodied, victorious face and my doting Jewtalian parents would call me up fretting and confused, I found myself discovering the very psychology of it at the same time I consoled them:
“it’s not *succumbing* to pain. It’s not defeating me. Or weakening me. I am STRONGER than that pain with every feat I do. I defeat IT. Every scar is simply the story of what attempted to best me and could not. Every wound is a reminder that I WON.”
Fast forward to yesterday.
3 years after my Georgetown debut, The Mighty Lurch (the very strongman who held out his business card with a giant gentle hand) and I are back at the very same venue. A little girl watches as a man staples a $20 bill to my forehead.
“How does that not hurt?” she asks.
I smile. “It does.”
This time the answer of questions is reversed. “How do you have a beard?”
“That’s how God made me.”
I guess you can say the same for my processing of pain.
But if pain was the proverbial alarm clock to wake the sleeping theatrical beast, something must have planted the seed of its actual existence. Or someone. Or some ones.
Again, rewind a bit. It’s important to reiterate that pre-Georgetown, I had literally no sideshow experience. I had some performance under my belt being a choir geek in high school, and hosting some rinky-dink backyard rituals some years prior.
This sudden chapter of my life was very tuck-and-roll. I didn’t spend my youth training for sideshow. My in wasn’t a skill (but a physical anomaly). I didn’t grow up in a circus.
I grew up a painfully shy, gifted child with the dismal combination of the expectations to do great, intellectual things, but with no money to see it realized. I tiredly sank into my 20s like a worn-in sofa, only to couch surf into into my thirties until the Freeks came along.
But what I lacked in tumbling & barking, I carried inspirational ammo in something quite else: A Lifelong Love Of Musical Theatre and Silent Film.
Now, on paper, those two mediums could not be further apart, but they have something very crucial in common: the ability to narrate a tale, a reaction, or a pivotal moment without speaking a word.
And when you’re onstage, and *not* the emcee, under harsh lighting against a dark bar, sometimes several feet above and away from audience, you have two options –
1) blur into the background until you’re the one center stage
2) Tell the Audience a Fuckin’ Story.
And as I became more confident onstage in being a somebody, and not a nobody, my faces became more expressive, my hands more fluid as I sang on broken glass, my comedic timing & audience interaction somehow sharper. So sprung forth the Theatrical Animal in me, long lay dormant after years of watching my idols of silent film and musicals on tv (and picking up some new idols in my adulthood, such as a very theatrical character of Stefan Karl’s).
Suddenly, in a way, they were onstage with me:
Michael Crawford taught me how to emote with my hands and word paint with the timbre of my voice.
Lon Chaney taught me just how much you can manipulate a performance (and audience) with costume and makeup.
Klaus Nomi taught me that the world of opera and classical could still be as avant garde and counter-culture as FUCK.
Theda Bara taught me that even the most bookish suburbanite can become the vampiest seductress with one piercing look.
Charlie Chaplin taught me how to tell entire stories and convey complex feelings without having to speak.
Stefan Karl Stefansson taught me that even the most physically animated performance can be made relatable when used to convey vulnerable emotions.
Puddles taught me how to shell shock your audience, countering physical & anti-humor with the raw power of a booming singing voice.
Josephine Baker taught me that the sexiest burlesquer can be a sharp comedienne.
Fanny Brice taught me that even the kookiest comedienne can be unexpectedly sexy.
(if it sounds like I’m short-changing Bara, Baker & Brice, keep in mind that historically, media has given women the option either to be funny & matronly or sexy vixens. For women in the 1910s-1930s to give successful performances that were rounded and dimensional was a form of activism in itself.)
To see me onstage is to see them: The way i move my hands. The faces I make. My reactions. My body language. Everything i do is from the masters I’ll never meet (well, other than Puddles – see photo below).
And I’ve gotten good. Instinctively good. The animal is fed and sated.
I am what happens when a little theatrical girl hibernates and reawakens as a resolutely masochistic woman. The beauty is the beast.
This sounds paltry right?
But 24 year old Renée Nicole Schwarz couldn’t have done this.
But 34 year old Little Bear “The Bearded Lady” Schwarz can, and does.
And that, to me, is immense. My “schtick” as it were, isn’t something that is compensating for a lack of confidence.
It grew FROM my confidence.
And that started 3 years ago exactly, with one big step onto the stage, and one small mouse trap in my hand.
I am so proud to be the beast, the beauty, and artist, and the Freek I have become