Burlesque, circus, comedy, cabaret and vaudeville have all been used to describe the shows of New Yorkers Adrienne Truscott and Tanya Gagne – AKA The Wau Wau Sisters. Neil McEwan takes some time to find out more from the ladies themselves.
First things first – Where does the name The Wau Wau Sisters come from?
Actually it’s pronounced “Vow Vow” and it was a name bequeathed to us by a friend. But it’s originally a reference to a Bertolt Brecht play and we consider our work to be very Brechtian. In the play there’s a character called Mr Wau who’s a circus strongman followed around by a band of freaks, so we think of ourselves as his bastard, freakish children. It was after the name was bequeathed to us that we found out all these other meanings. It’s onomatopoeic for woof woof in German and Czech and Nina Hagen has that great song about it and it also means baby doll in Mandarin Chinese. It’s also the name of Merle Haggard’s dog, and we sing country and we’re rough around the edges like Merle.
The press and reviewers seem to have some difficulty in defining your act. So how would you describe what you do?
We try really hard not to fit in to any category because then you’re just burlesque or circus. We’re the only two-girl circus in the world and we’ve developed the exciting genre ‘Acroband’ – which means we turn tricks whilst we play songs. We do as many tricks as we can whilst playing as few chords as possible and yet we’ve made a decade long career out of it. We’re kind of performance art burlesque – we think of ourselves as the great clowns of burlesque. We’re not so much about feather and suchlike, we’re the goofballs of the scene and we don’t do so much of the throwback that you see so much of these days. Burlesque back in the day, the true meaning, was a show in three or four acts which included skills, music, comedy and politics, and I think the politics has been lost in a lot of what they call burlesque these days. Our work has that in it and in that way you could call it ‘neo’, but it’s a classic double vaudeville act. We do a bit of everything – sing, dance, strip, tell jokes and get political.
Your work is often described as reacting against either current ideas of burlesque or circus. Is that how you see yourselves?
The chaos and energy that we approach our show and audience with makes a show where literally anything can happen. We’re in charge, but we want to keep it really surprising because with a lot of shows, even though they’re billed as “edgy” you know what you’re going to get. We like people to walk in to the tent and think; “Oh god it’s The Wau Waus, what the hell is going to happen tonight.” We’re not against anything, we’re just challenging some conventions of circus and of burlesque. We’re very skilled acrobats and trapeze artists, but often we don’t do that until the end and so people are probably sitting there thinking; “What the fuck is going on here?” or “Are they really any good?” A lot of the work we do involves audience participation and when you bring these people up on stage you don’t know what they’re going to do, or who they are or how they’re going to react. I think we’re anti-niche. We don’t want to get bored so we just keep pushing each other and pushing forward so the genre doesn’t fall flat for us.
Do you know what type of audiences you attract? Is it mainly guys who’ve gone through the guide highlighting everything with the word nude in it?
You would think that would be the bulk or we would attract a lot of younger people, but our audiences really run the gamut. A lot of times the fifty-plus crowd are loving it because they’re less uptight, they have a life of experience and perhaps the older people relate more to this kind of throwback, vaudeville experience. Our audience also reflects us. They’re older and younger, straight and gay and that’s not just gay men who like it because it’s campy, we get a lot of gay women as well. I think that’s part of what makes our show really fun. There’s something for everyone
Your last show was entitled The Last Supper and this one is As Naked As The Day They Were Born Again. Have you chosen to try and annoy the Christian fundamentalists?
We just like to talk about things that are on our mind and say our own thing about it. We not making our work because we’re annoyed and we’re not setting out to annoy anyone. There’s also a lot of really messed up stuff going on in the states with politics and religion mixing up so we’re just riffing on that and we’ve got every right to. That said we do piss those people off. We’ve also had plenty of religious people come to our show and love it, it just depends if you’re really uptight or not. We never make fun of spirituality, but we make fun of certain expressions of idiotic religion.
You’ve toured your shows around the world, do you get a different reaction from different countries?
There are different reactions. This country isn’t nearly as maniacal about mixing religion and politics as the States is. But then, when we’ve performed in Christchurch, New Zealand we’ve had to deliver our jokes sometimes in a slightly different route. And then there’s Brisbane… Australia feels like our second home, their audiences have embraced us so beautifully and we’ve toured there non-stop for the last five years, but oddly that’s where we got our most extreme reaction. Everybody always asks “how do you do this work in the States?” because it’s more uptight there, but oddly in Australia, a country we find really intelligent about religious stuff, we got our most extreme reaction…we got full on death threats. It could have been the last Wau Wau show ever.
You’ve been performing together now for fourteen years. Do you find it easy to come up with fresh ideas and have you set yourselves a timeframe for how long you’ll continue?
We’re going on forever. We have these characters called The Gin Ladies and we created those characters in the first couple of years we were performing. We’ve already got songs that are dirty for old ladies to sing. It does always stay fresh, we’re not people who are easily contented or happy sitting around bored. Partly that’s why we make the kind of shows we do, so that even if it’s a show we’ve been touring for two years there’s always room in it to stay fun and fresh and bring new stuff in here and there, and we keep doing stuff that interest us and taking risks. When we’re rehearsing, having that little bit of “what are we doing?” keeps us psyched about stuff.