Multifaceted Creative Producer Callum Stembridge Puts Feature Film “Koo Koo the Bird Girl” into Motion
From the films and TV shows we watch to the theatrical performances we attend, the entertainment we consume has a strong influence on how we see the world. While the majority of the entertainment industry through history has upheld whatever norms are present in society at the time, i.e. female character’s being played by men thanks to the 1600s puritanic law forbidding women on stage, or white actors playing black characters in the shameful times of blackface, the media also has the power to change the way we see the world.
Though we are slowly moving towards times of greater inclusion and acceptance for all humans, the entertainment industry continues to fall short in its representation of disabled people, who, if included in the script at all, are often portrayed by able-bodied actors.
However, thanks to revolutionary artists like producer Callum Stembridge, and actress Sarah Houbolt, a powerful story centering on a disabled star has made its way into the spotlight through the stage show “Koo Koo the Bird Girl.” And, after a highly successful run with the international show, which was written by and stars Houbolt, a disabled performer, Stembridge has begun setting plans into motion to turn the project into a feature film.
“I feel this story can inspire people, as well as give them a greater empathy for others. Sarah, through Minnie Woolsey, reminds us that those who are ‘other’ are human, because it seems we still need to be told,” says Stembridge.
“Modern society is making slow inroads into accessibility and reducing discrimination, but changing some attitudes can take longer still. People still need to question what we think we see. And what we haven’t seen already but should.”
The film is inspired by “Koo Koo the Bird Girl,” a theatrical narrative that takes audiences on a journey into the life of Minnie Woolsey, a blind historical freak show performer, who had a rare congenital growth skeletal disorder called Virchow-Seckel syndrome, which caused her to have a very short stature, a small head, and a narrow bird-like face.
Woolsey, who lived from 1880 to 1964, lived in an asylum in Georgia until she was “rescued” by a traveling showman and began a life as a vaudevillian sideshow entertainer, appeared in Tod Browning’s 1930s film “Freaks,” and finished as a freak show performer at Coney Island.
A one-woman show created by Houbolt, “Koo Koo the Bird Girl” is a story of endurance and difference that enticingly portrays the beauty, truth and breadth of what it is to be human.
Houbolt shares a similar medical condition to Woolsey known as Hallermann-Streiff Syndrome, which makes her one of the only performers in the world capable of authentically telling Woolsey’s story. Her performance is so spot on that as projections from “Freaks” play during the show, it becomes nearly impossible to tell the difference between Houbolt and Woolsey.
“Sarah combines all her different performance skills to great effect. She is a dynamic person to watch. And the script has so much depth, revealing as much about Sarah as it does about Minnie Woolsey, and telling us as much about the world we live in today as the world Minnie Woolsey in the early 20th century,” explains producer Callum Stembridge.
“Ultimately it’s of great importance because of a very visceral message; we must love other people, respect others. All the people around us have so much to offer. It’s so important to dig beyond our knee-jerk prejudice and to realize that with understanding and accepting others comes strength for us all.”
Long before Koo Koo came to fruition, Houbolt, a former paralympian swimmer, made a name for herself as a multi-talented circus performer through her performances with numerous companies including Cirque Du Soleil and with the Extant Theatre UK.
As the producer, Stembridge was integral to ensuring the show went off without a hitch. From contacting and booking the venues for the live shows that took place around the world, to overseeing the production design, technical specifications, media, travel, accommodation, Stembridge was there to take care of everything so that Houbolt could focus on the show.
“Accessibility is extremely important for Sarah. So working with her I reached out to venues and festival promoters to be sure that her performance spaces, dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, accommodations, transport, basically every place Sarah and her audience would be were accessible and understanding of disability,” explains Stembridge.
More than just representing disability on stage, it was extremely important for the production to make the show accessible for disabled people. In order to do so, Houbolt would often provide a tactile tour of the stage prior to the show for visually impaired audience members and many of the performances are AUSLAN interpreted.
“I love working with Callum because he understands my artistic vision and the outcomes I’m trying to achieve,” explains Sarah Houbolt about working with Stembridge as her producer.
“He is a clear communicator, and most importantly for me, understands and addresses disability access requirements, appreciates the history of freakshow and contemporary arts practices of freakshow performers and Disabled artists. This level of inclusive practice is rare to find. Callum ensures that there are bums on seats, that the show happens, and that creative visions are fulfilled.”
The winner of the Australian Green Room Award for Contemporary Performance in 2019, “Koo Koo the Bird Girl” achieved a stellar run on the international stage, showing at venues around the world including New Zealand’s InterACT Disability Festival and TAPAC in Auckland, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House, Metro Arts in Brisbane, Australia, the Melbourne Fringe Festival, the Coney Island Sideshow in New York, the International Theater Festival of Blind and Visually Impaired Zagreb, Croatia and more.
“I loved seeing the show! Experiencing the performance and being part of the audience is a thrill. And seeing how it developed was wonderful,” says Stembridge. “Many people think a show just appears ‘out of the bag’ and what you experience is how it has always been. But live work always evolves, even from night to night! No performance is ever the same from the last.”
Up next for the team is the feature film, which is expected to begin filming in 2025. “Koo Koo the Bird Girl” the feature film will be a New Zealand, Australian and American co-production that will be filmed in the US, primarily around Coney Island and Rabun County, Georgia, where Woolsey grew up.
Stembridge says, “I’ll be working with Ms. Houbolt in developing the theatrical script for “Koo Koo the Bird Girl” into a feature length film script, pitching and securing finance for the project and then seeing it through from pre production to being on screens around the world.”
A multi-talented creative in his own right, Callum Stembridge hails from Auckland, New Zealand where he got his start in the industry as an actor at a young age through roles in hit series such as “White Fang,” “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” with multi-award winning actor Kevin Sorbo, and the Primetime Emmy Award winning series “Legend of the Seeker.”
“Once I started acting classes as a teen I became involved in anything I could be a part of,” recalls Stembridge. “I got a degree in acting from the New Zealand drama school, but by the time I graduated I’d become interested in producing theater.”
One of the things that sets Stembridge apart as a producer is his vast skillset, and extensive experience in numerous areas of production. Early on in his career he danced, sang and acted in four touring shows with The Dust Palace, as well as played 14 different characters on stage for the Adam NZ Play Award winning play “Seed.”
“I’m blessed in that my work has been wonderfully diverse over the years. This has given me the ability to think outside the box, to bring ideas to a project that others who have been singularly focussed may not have experienced. It also has given me an empathetic approach to the way others may work,” explains Stembridge.
“I’ve seen how others do their jobs, and as such I respect those differences more than others who have been exposed to just one way of understanding their roles.:
From his work as a traveling poet and solo musician to working behind the scenes to ensure the lighting and set design for a production are perfect, Stembridge brings invaluable expertise to the table as a producer.
Aside from the upcoming feature film “Koo Koo the Bird Girl,” Stembridge is the producer behind numerous other projects that are set for release next year, including AG Crist’s documentary film “On the People’s Beach,” the dark comedy film “Tea” starring Michael Gandolfini from “Ocean’s 8,” the historical drama film “Morning Vigil” from director David M. Maire, as well as Marissa Velez’s film “Eydie.”