For Immediate Release March 5, 2015

Backstage Secrets of Creating ‘Curiosities’ at Theatre Erindale

[Mississauga ON, March 2015] The final production of Theatre Erindale’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” season is Mary Vingoe’s LIVING CURIOSITIES or What You Will. It’s the extraordinary tale of Anna Swan, the Nova Scotia giantess who defied P. T. Barnum, and it places demands on producers that the company had never encountered before.

The show is set in Barnum’s American Museum in New York City during the Civil War. Aside from a menagerie of exotic animals both live and stuffed, the museum contained an actual human zoo – filled with unusual-looking unfortunates that Barnum called his ‘freaks’ – which the Victorian public eagerly paid to see. Aside from Barnum himself and some spectators and guards, these ‘freaks’ are the central characters in the play. All of them were once real people. The overt theatricality of the script means that photographic realism was never expected; in fact the actors dress and get into character onstage. Nevertheless, the costume and properties departments were in for some taxing challenges!

For starters, how do you create a giantess nearly eight feet tall from a regular home-and-garden-sized actress? How about Chang and Eng, the famous “Siamese” twins, who were inseparably joined at the chest? Mme. Clofullia, the bearded lady, was among the simplest problems to solve, but there was also the “Woolly Horse”, a Beluga whale, the “Albino Negresses” -- and what about Henry Jackson, a “pinhead” billed as the “Missing Link”, half man, half ape?

Henry, played by Jovan Kocic, had to be supplied with both a hairy ape-suit and a tailcoat. But those were easy compared with his pinhead – a rare skull deformity of which Barnum displayed many examples over the years. Costumer Joanne Massingham came up with a tight-fitting padded helmet that gives the actor the approximate silhouette.

For the Woolly Horse, Property Mistress Sarah Scroggie started with a store-bought Hallowe’en mask and worked wonders. Lighting Designer Jim Smagata came up with a way to suggest the whale.

Aaron Schaefer and Anthony Yu, who play Chang and Eng, are different sizes, shapes, and even ethnicities. But the real Chang and Eng never got along anyway. So put these two actors in identical outfits, supply them with a harness under their costumes that joins them at the chest, and voila!

Picture of Aaron Schaefer and Anthony Yu, who play Chang and Eng in Living Curiosities

And to create a giantess, start with a brave actress! That’s Hannah Vanden Boomen in a nutshell. Find the perfect pair of drywaller’s stilts. Bring in expert circus entertainer Paul Babiak of Main Event to train her in using them safely. Rebuild one set of stairs so that she can get up them wearing her stilts. Plan a giant-sized version of an 1860s-style hoop skirt to keep them partially out of sight. Add some padding. And then when the actress has mastered the basics and tells you she wants to go higher, go higher!

None of these devices are hidden in the show: audiences will see them and then forget them in the magic of the theatre, as our young cast brings to life a group of extraordinary individuals who fought to be recognized and treated as human beings, and even to be seen as artists.

Living Curiosities runs March 12-14 and 19-22 at the Erindale Studio Theatre on the UTM campus, with evening performances Thursday through Saturday and matinées on Saturdays and on Sunday March 22. Single tickets are $12 or $18; Parking in Lot 1 or the CCT Garage is $6.00, and Mississauga Transit Routes 44 and 110 will take you to the campus (though not inside it while the Teaching Assistant Strike is on). For further information, call the Box Office at 905-569-4369 (re-dial the last seven digits to get to Voice Mail) or visit Image indicates that adjacent link to the right opens a new window .