KooKoo the Birdgirl

TAPAC Theatre, Western Springs, Auckland

11/11/2015 - 13/11/2015

Production Details


“She’s wild! She’s wacky! She is KooKoo the Birdgirl!” 

Daring circus performer Sarah Houbolt will bring a historical freak show character to life in her one-woman show KooKoo the Birdgirl at TAPAC on 11- 13 November. Described as intelligent, brilliant and witty, this bold full length show will offer a rare glimpse into the darker side of circus life.

In KooKoo the Birdgirl Sarah Houbolt (Shortland St, Worlds Away), a founding member of The Dust Palace and cast member of Cirque du Soleil’s Worlds Away, will combine her circus, theatre and dance talents to develop a new physical language for her quirky character KooKoo.

Starting out as a shorter piece, KooKoo the Birdgirl received stellar feedback from audiences at Splore 2015 and the Adelaide Fringe Festival 2015. Winner of the Best Female Performer Award at Auckland’s Short & Sweet Festival for Dance in 2012 and the Artistic Achievement Award from Arts Access Aotearoa in 2012, Sarah’s full length version premiered at The Body Festival in Christchurch to rave reviews.

“A performance that explores, beautifully, the capacities of the body… wonderfully satisfying” – Theatreview

“Sarah’s KooKoo the Birdgirl has been a huge success in our sideshow!…Her act is brilliant… the crowds are loving her!” – The Space Cowboy, Adelaide Fringe Festival

“Her act is fun and funny… she came in at full speed and blew us away!!” – The Lizardman, Adelaide Fringe Festival 

KooKoo aka Minnie Woolsey, who lived with the rare congenital growth skeletal disorder Virchow-Seckel syndrome, lived an extraordinary life due to her abnormal birth and unusual attraction. Minnie featured Tod Browning’s film ‘Freaks’ (1932), which was banned for 30 years for being too controversial. Sarah Houbolt, who was born with Hallerman Streiff Syndrome and lives with partial sight, is able to bring KooKoo to the stage in a deeply engaging and heartfelt way.

Houbolt challenges and provokes audiences by delving into the lineage of her craft as a circus performer and the history of disability; combining 2-3 years research with over 20 years experience. Her connection with circus deepened by the story of her Great-Grandfather; a dove magician at the time of the early 20th Century freak shows. He shovelled coal on a boat from Amsterdam to New York to pay his way to perform magic in New York at the same time as KooKoo was around.

With Celia White (Vulcana Women’s Circus, Club Swing, The Party Line) on board as director, Kelly Nash (Signed, Ahau) co-choreographing, and visual design by Kellie O’Dempsey, KooKoo the Birdgirl is set to be an edgy and engaging production.

KooKoo the Birdgirl plays:
11- 13 November 2015
TAPAC, 100 Motions Road, Western Springs.
7pm each night and a 12.30pm Matinee 13 Nov (Q&A after show)

Tickets: General Admission $20, Concession (Student, Senior, Equity, DANZ) $15, Total Mobility cardholders $10. Bookings through TAPAC – www.tapac.org.nz or 09 845 0295 ext 2  


NB THis show was also presented in Christchuch as dangerous Bodies in The Body festival 2015.

Theatre , Dance-theatre , Dance ,

Endearingly weird

Review by Nik Smythe 14th Nov 2015

Minnie Woolsey, aka Minnie HaHa, aka KooKoo the Bird-Girl lived in America over a hundred years ago.  A circus sideshow ‘freak’, notably short with extreme facial features due to a rare congenital disorder, she’s best known for her appearance in the controversial classic 1932 Todd Browning film Freaks, when in her fifties. 

A deep, dark empty black stage precedes the action, creating a clear space through which we are to be transported back a century for this intriguing dance-theatre biography. Assisted by able practitioners from New Zealand and Australia, the work incorporates accomplished stage and screen circus performer Sarah Houbolt’s consummate skills in dance and acrobatics, to present the portrait of a remarkable woman who “lived a life [she] wasn’t meant to”. 

Sarah describes her telling of Minnie’s story as a calling, drawn as she is to her plight in a time of prejudicial laws that seriously restricted the freedoms of anyone considered of abnormal or grotesque appearance. Although her own medical condition is a different, even rarer one, in her furry bird-girl outfit, tall single feather headdress, large funny glasses and webbed leather bird-shoes, Houbolt strikes an impressive resemblance. 

There’s an eerily wistful ambience to the production, with its excellent, passionate, quirky recorded soundtrack (uncredited), Stephen Bain’s esoteric lighting design emphasising darkness and shadow to great effect, and Kellie O’Dempsey’s projected cryptic imagery of a display jar, and later a cage, signifying Minnie’s internal strife as much as any of the doubtless many material struggles she may have suffered. 

Directed by Celia White, the action is primarily physical, the joys and sorrows of a unique life expressed largely through abstract moves that utilise Houbolt’s gymnastic skills and natural sense of rhythm, with input from choreographic collaborators Kelly Nash and Kate Harmen.  Verbal exposition is minimal; rather than providing direct narrative, a judicious handful of monologues serve the innate poeticism of this endearingly weird piece of physical theatre. 

The exemplary feature of Lil Crump’s costume design is of course the bird-girl costume, a worthy approximation KooKoo’s original, that proves to be a versatile device for humour as she first struggles to inhabit it correctly, and later interacts with it like a furry alien puppet. 

In the concluding act Sarah drops character to introduce herself directly, and exhibit her own graceful artistry with the hula-hoop, to the enthusiastic applause of the properly entertained audience. 

It’s a revelation to learn, only from her passing comment in the programme, that Houbolt is legally blind, as was Woolsey herself it turns out.  It’s clear that neither have allowed such a significant limitation to define them or inhibit their freedom any more than necessary.  Overall, their physical aberrations are effectively transcended to demonstrate that quality of life is a responsibility of attitude; instead of being victims of a cruel and voyeuristic society, they take the cards they’ve been dealt and maximise their value with splendid careers in show business. 


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Intriguing, moving, playful, honest, challenging

Review by Camelle Pink 12th Nov 2015

It is intriguing. It is moving. It is playful, and honest. As the sole performer, Sarah Houbolt gives strength and life to this story of Minnie Woolsey. In this ode to freak shows, Houbolt successfully guides us through her explorations of the present and past stories of the people and characters who are a part of these worlds. She is an emotionally captivating performer whose commitment to the work carries us straight into KooKoo The Bird Girl.

Entering the dark cavern-like space, we find ourselves backlit in the auditorium. The mood of the music pulls at the audience, eliciting a circus-like scene. Stripped back, the performance space throws back to a more basic theatre setting. The opening scene proffers a gorgeous somatic feel. Fluid and dreamy, we are transported into KooKoo’s world guided by spoken word.

This work moves through a series of states and offerings of both KooKoo The Bird Girl, and Sarah Houbolt herself. She morphs through the different iterations of Minnie Woolsey, Minnie HaHa,  ‘Bird Girl’, and Houbolt. Seamless costume changes are weaved throughout the performance, and are amplified by the lighting (Stephen Bain) and projection design (Kellie O’Dempsey).

Treading lightly across the floor we see the balance shift within each choreographed step. Shifting the tone and weight of the performance, we watch as the characters of Minnie are revealed.  Houbolt’s experience of legal blindness is present within the movement score, there is an underlying nuance to suggest being in sight, but not always seeing us gaze back.

Chuckles whisper through the auditorium throughout the show. Houbolt’s expressivity enables us to to watch with glee as she becomes ‘Bird Girl’. The choreography itself cunningly twists familiar classical steps, giving flight to the movement in a way that Swan Lake will never achieve.  We experience discomfort, a nervous fidgety energy courses through the theatre.  We wonder what this bird-like character is suggesting about the ways women perform in these contexts?  And what is asked of these women? 

Houbolt juxtaposes the stories of Minnie performing in the freak shows against her own experiences of working internationally as a professional circus and physical theatre performer. I believe that Sarah has found a way to bring our attention to the story of the freak shows that is not only historic, but is current, fetishised and popular. She invites us to this incredibly personal place that demonstrates the enjoyment she takes from it while inviting us to consider the prejudice towards ‘different’ bodies performance that remains today.

You really get a sense that Houbolt opens herself to us, provoking thought around bodies, performance, bringing attention to the showcasing of the ‘freak show’. She also demands we pay attention to her experience as performer, and plies us with questions such as “What do you think of me?”

To put it simply, the standing ovation combined with the tears welling in my eyes at the concluding moments of KooKoo Bird Girl are testament to the evocative nature of this performance.



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