Jennifer Miller is a performer, professor, playwright, political and social activist, writer and the founder and director of Circus Amok. She’s also a “woman with a beard,” and was part of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow for seven years. Miller will be giving a lecture and performing at Utah Valley University in the library auditorium Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m.
What is Circus Amok?
Circus Amok is a theater company I’ve been directing for the past bazillion years. We’re a one-ring, no-animal, political circus-theater extravaganza that tours the parks of New York City, primarily. We do an annual tour of free shows; we usually do a tour of 12 parks in the month of September. I took a few years off to write and direct some plays, which is in the similar school of theater, but now we’re heading back into the parks this September.
What do you teach at the Pratt Institute?
I teach in the realm of performance there, so I’m teaching a class on gender and performance this semester, and I’m also directing a show with the students. I teach a class about making big outdoor political spectacle in theory and practice.
How did you feel about your beard when it first came in?
It started growing when I was in my early 20s, and it didn’t pop in one morning as a beard. It popped in as a hair or two, so I probably felt like most other people when they get an unexpected hair. And then it came in slowly, so I adapted. And then I thought, “All right, I’ll keep it.”
Did you ever fight with it?
I did shave for a couple of jobs along the way, mostly circus jobs and theater jobs that I wanted, but that was years and years and years ago. I haven’t done that in a gazillion years. It came up once a couple years ago; I said I would [shave] because there was this play I wanted to do, but at the last minute I decided I wouldn’t.
How do you deal with how people react to your beard?
Well, you can imagine that’s constant. So I’ve developed … a wide array of strategies that depends on the situation, all kinds of responses. Mostly what I do is I’ve developed … an ability of putting people at ease when I first meet them … just by being comfortable with one’s own self.
What kind of statement does a woman send when she decides to embrace her facial hair?
I think that it’s a statement that’s read differently by everybody who sees it. I think it certainly says, “I’ve made a decision that does not align with what most people decisions are. I’ve pushed a boundary. I’m not accepting what’s generally thought of as an acceptable way for women to appear.” I think that’s the main thing. It says, “I’ve made a decision that … I’m not going to follow the roles of normative gender behavior.”
Why are women with facial hair stigmatized?
I think because it challenges a gender binary, which is uncomfortable. Accepting that is uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons. One [reason] is about male power, so when we transgress those boundaries … it makes that particular power structure destabilized. It’s a mark of difference. It screams “no” to the hegemonic ideology of the two-gender system and the power dynamic inscribed in that. Facial hair on women threatens men. It can even threaten women. If only it could bring down capitalism, racism, misogyny, homophobia. At least it challenges heteronormative ideas of what a women should look like—and then of what a women wants to look like. And maybe what women want. It disrupts a classification system, given that it is thought of as a male signifier—it seems like a power grab. It also challenges the authority of the market-driven sense of gender construction/performance and its attendant fashion.
What will you be doing at Utah Valley University?
I’m going to be teaching a couple classes, which I’m excited about. The public event is going to be a performance that combines some sideshow acts from Coney Island Circus Sideshow, storytelling from the sideshow, stories from my life and monologues, and it’s comic. It’s going to be dance, circus acts, sideshow lore, colorful characters and a little bit of postmodern gender theory, all whipped together to make a fantastic evening of entertainment.