The Headless Woman

Entry from Acts of Transfer:

Duration: 30 min
Format: ¾” Umatic SP

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.[1] 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.”[2]

Dempsey and Millan met in Toronto during a surge of feminist performance art within the city, formally beginning their collaboration in 1989.[3] 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.[4] 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.’”[5] 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 writing. 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.[6] Dempsey and Millan, now based in Winnipeg, continue to be active as performance artists.[7]

Credits for The Headless Woman
Music Composition: Lori Freedman
Bass Clarinet: Lori Freedman
Piano: Marilyn Lerner

1 – “The Headless Woman.” Western Front. February 1, 1998. Accessed April 2018.
2 – Ibid.
3 – Dempsey, Shawna, and Lorri Millan. “About Dempsey and Millan.” Shawna Dempsey & Lorri Millan. Accessed April 2018.
4 – 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.
5 – Ibid.
6 – Ibid.
7 – Dempsey, Shawna, and Lorri Millan. “About Dempsey and Millan.”

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Original Archive Entry:

Original Archive Entry:

Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan were artists in residence at the Western Front editing their tape The Headless Woman from January 9-31, 1998.

A description of The Headless Woman on the Finger in the Dyke productions reads “Performed with live musicians against a video backdrop of death-defying feats, this story-telling piece charts the intertwined lives of the headless woman and her sword-swallowing man. Behind the performer a woman vacuums across Niagara Falls on a tightrope, the bearded lady becomes buried in her facial hair, and a human cannonball never lands. Using metaphors of showmanship, The Headless Woman explores risk and danger; the complexity of desire; and the many parts (and absences) that make up one’s identity. Music composed by Lori Freedman, and performed live by Freedman (bass clarinet) and Marilyn Lerner (piano).”