Tales for a New World, The Short Tale of Little Lizzie Borden, The Headless Woman

Entry from Acts of Transfer:

Duration: 48 min 32 sec
Format: ¾” Umatic SP

In January of 1998, collaborative performance duo Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan undertook a month-long artist residency at Western Front where they edited a video production called The Headless Woman and performed Tales For a New World and The Short Tale of Little Lizzie Borden to a live audience in the Grande Luxe Hall.[1]

The Headless Woman is a 30-minute monologue by Shawna Dempsey that recounts a revelatory love story between a headless woman and a sword-swallowing man. It was performed live with a pianist and bass clarinetist who provide emphatic musical interludes and interjections and create a cabaret-style atmosphere. Throughout the monologue, a video plays in the background featuring characters performing spectacular circus acts: a woman vacuums over Niagara Falls on a tightrope, a bearded lady’s beard subsumes her, and a human cannonball is propelled into the sky flying infinitely.[2] These acts of showmanship become metaphors for what the artists call “…risk and danger, the complexity of desire, and the many parts (and absences) that make up one’s identity.”[3]

Tales For a New World and The Short Tale of Little Lizzie Borden are delivered as monologues by Shawna Dempsey dressed in an evening gown. Beside her microphone she has a crash cymbal which she whacks sporadically and enthusiastically using the pointed heel of her stiletto as a drumstick. Tales For a New World is a retelling of North American legends and events mythologized by pop culture. The scattered hearsay qualities of such stories offer a loose form for Dempsey and Millan as they rewrite the narratives to integrate lesbian and feminist readings: Tales For a New World recounting the story of Tonto and the Lone Ranger as a Western lesbian love story, and The Short Tale of Lizzie Borden reinvestigating the events of Borden’s childhood leading up to the murder of her parents, controversially positing rage as a logical and justifiable emotional reaction to the repressive conditions in her home and as a woman in the Victorian era.[4] Dempsey’s delivery is confident, commanding, and powerful: an intentionally masculine strategy used by the artist to subvert conventional women’s roles.[5] The humour which pervades the performance serves a similar purpose, undermining dominant narratives to propose alternative representations of women.[6]

Dempsey and Millan met in Toronto during a surge of feminist performance art within the city, formally beginning their collaboration in 1989.[7] At the time, Millan was active as an artist, photographer and songwriter; Dempsey was studying theatre production at York University and working as a technician for The Clichettes, a satirical lip-syncing performance girl-group.[8] The malleability of performance art as a medium allowed Dempsey and Millan to integrate their respective skills while also conveying their feminist politics. Their interdisciplinary approach to performance art is a spectacular mélange of theatre, humour, identity politics and queer theory which has manifested in the form of “monologues from iconic females, rap songs about female anatomy, meditations on lesbian life, and site-specific interruptions referred to as ‘real world performances.’”[9] A strength of Millan and Dempsey’s work is their integrity and unfaltering commitment to their craft, as emphasized by their careful attention to costumes, character development, gesture/choreography, and script. Millan notes the affective politics of “peopleness” as a driving force behind their practice as collaborators and performers, a testament to the enduring appeal and success of their work.[10] Dempsey and Millan, now based in Winnipeg, continue to be active as performance artists.[11]

1 – Front Magazine, vol. IX, No. 3, Jan/Feb 1998, 6.
2 – “The Headless Woman.” Western Front. February 1, 1998. Accessed April 2018. https://front.bc.ca/events/the-headless-woman/.
3 – Ibid.
4 – Dempsey, Shawna, and Lorri Millan. “Work: Tales for a New World.” Shawna Dempsey & Lorri Millan. Accessed April 2018. http://www.shawnadempseyandlorrimillan.net/#/eastward/.
5 – Fisher, Jennifer. “Shawna Dempsey & Lorri Millan: Performance Art Out and About.” In Caught in the Act: An Anthology of Performance Art by Canadian Women, edited by Tanya Mars and Johanna Householder, 189-96. Toronto: YYZ Books, 2004.
6 – Ibid.
7 – Dempsey, Shawna, and Lorri Millan. “About Dempsey and Millan.” Shawna Dempsey & Lorri Millan. Accessed April 2018. http://www.shawnadempseyandlorrimillan.net/about/.
8 – Fisher, Jennifer.
9 – Ibid.
10 – Ibid.
11 – Dempsey, Shawna, and Lorri Millan. “About Dempsey and Millan.”

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Original Archive Entry:

The following text is taken from Front Magazine, vol. IX, no. 3, p. 6, Jan/Feb 1998:

“What happens when the Lone Ranger takes off the mask? When the fabric slips and rips and shifts? What happens when the mask falls, leaving her naked between the bridge and the brow?

Well, it turns Tonto on. Tonto, who’s not Tonto yet. Tonto, the butchest woman of the Sierra Madre, who left her mixed Chicano/Pueblo parents behind to throw tomahawks in a circus side-show. Tonto, who can eat glass, swallow fire, and grow a beard to boot, who does so with pleasure, and was in fact doing just that when the circus got busted. When the stranger rode into town, white horse flesh between thighs, hat and belt worn low. The Lonely Ranger. Here to expose the grift, the graft, the ballyhoo, all the while holding tight her own secret, her own illusion, while laying bare the evil of tricks and trickery, the un-American nature of games of chance. “You have to work hard to get nothing. You can’t just get nothing for nothing easy.”

Except Tonto, who wasn’t Tonto yet. Tonto was easy.” – from The Lesbian Love Story of The Lone Ranger and Tonto.

– Artist in Residence 31/01/1998

Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan will be at the Western Front Jan. 9-31, editing their half-hour tape, “The Headless Woman.” They will also be performing a selection from “Tales of The New World,” an on-going body of oral work, on Jan. 31. “Tales of The New World” insert our sexual selves into the myths of Americana.

Full digitized video available through Western Front Archives upon research request.