It comes as no surprise that sword-swallowers suffer the odd gullet gripe. “It’s called sword throat,” says Amanda Miller. “It feels like you’ve smoked too many cigarettes – like you’ve had a hard night – but all the time.” For someone that deep-throats daggers, feasts on fire and knocks nails into her head, she sounds sugary sweet – but is quick to assure me, “it’s a front.”
Science graduate by day, madam-masochist (by the name of Elle Diablo) by night, Amanda’s always had a fasciation with physiology. “The beautiful thing about the stuff that I do is that it’s just physics – all the fire stuff, bathing in baths of broken glass…” It’s a wonder she can’t find test subjects.
Following a sold-out debut at Perth’s Fringe World, she’s throwing open her Chest of Wonders – a theatrical amalgamation of circus, burlesque and sideshow – at Melbourne Fringe, with her bearded-lady co-founder and troupe of exotic eccentrics in tow. “Only bearded sometimes!” insists Amy Wilson-O'Brien (aka Tiki Amazon – the one with the whiskers).
She too is a lady of the lab, with a PhD in medical research. The whole Chest of Wonders crew, in fact, make for quite the science club. “We’ve got biomedical scientists, a neuroscientist, a plant pathologist…” says Amy. Science and circus, who would have thought?
She and Amanda took a 1930s “dust bowl, drunken, dirty travelling carnival” take on the circus genre. “If you want to see pretty girls in shiny things that just swan about, don’t come to our show,” says Amanda. “I mean, we’ve got pretty girls and shiny things, but there’s not a lot of swanning.”
When it comes to the technicalities they're on par with the likes of Empire and Cirque du Soleil, but are irrefutably filthier. “Somebody’s always taking their clothes off at some point, and I don’t do anything in pants – that’s almost become my tagline,” laughs Amanda, “I do dangerous shit with no pants on!”
Which is a good thing, considering there’s been a few times when she surely would have shat them. “We had a little accident not long ago,” she admits, “I perforated my oesophagus.” All in a days work, no doubt, but then there was this cracker. “I nearly put an impact driver in my face” – for those not in the know, a drill that goes in and out, not around.
“My drill was running out of battery, so I picked up what I thought was a regular drill and went to walk on stage with it.” If the stage manager hadn’t caught her, it would have been quite the public execution. “So now I know the difference between a drill and an impact driver,” she says, “and I always check.”
So while there’ll be no actual deaths on stage, the show is based around a whodunit. MamaShak (“our crazy gypsy overlord”) had to choof off to New Zealand for her molecular biology PhD right before Fringe. “So we’ve killed her,” Amanda jokes. And in ode to Film Noir, the entire cast is clad in black and white, with the odd flash of red, à la Frank Miller. As Amy puts simply, “it’s going to be something people haven't seen before.”
Chest of Wonders runs for six nights at The Butterfly Club, Thursdays at 10.30pm and Sundays at 9.30pm from September 18th.
Here are our picks for this year's Fringe Festival: Navigating the Fringe.