lettretalks: THE DEAD LADIES SHOW – Interview with Katy Derbyshire

The Dead Ladies Show happens every two months or so and celebrates ladies who were fabulous while they were alive, in English and in German.

Each time, the two co-hosts, Katy Derbyshire and Florian Duijsens, invite two special guests to share their love of particular ladies of yore in the form of lively presentations showcasing these people’s lives, works, and achievements. Covering all walks of life – from ancient mathematicians to silent-movie stars to record-breaking athletes – the Dead Ladies Show is all about women or non-binary people who achieved great things against all odds. The live footage from the shows is used as material for the monthly feminist history podcast, so deceased-dames fans can also listen in or catch up from wherever they may be.

Previously hosted in our immediate neighbourhood at ACUD, the Dead Ladies Shows now take place at Lettrétage. To mark the occasion, we spoke to one of the hosts, Katy Derbyshire, about the format of her shows, the selection of people featured and what has changed recently.

When it comes to you as a group, do you (or has one of you) have fields of interest that are especially intriguing (like their profession for example) when it comes to choosing the next three women to present?

We ask our guests to talk about any woman or non-binary person of their choice, as long as they’ve been dead for at least six months, identified as a woman or as non-binary themselves, and weren’t a fascist (there are so many more interesting women than Leni Riefenstahl). Presenters often pick women who’ve inspired them in one way or another or who they feel deserve more attention: Daniela Dröscher spoke about the children’s book author Christine Nöstlinger, for instance, while Sharon Dodua Otoo told the story of Yaa Asantewaa, who led the Ashanti war against the British empire in what is now Ghana. 
This time around, our guest Rachel Pronger is a film curator, producer and script editor, so it’s no wonder she’s chosen to tell us about a Czech New Wave filmmaker, Ester Krumbachová. My co-host Florian Duijsens has always had a penchant for lady scientists. They tended to lead fascinating lives – since working in science or even leaving the home in the first place was a transgression for women in the past. He’s shared the stories of the scientific photographer Berenice Abbott or the Victorian ichthyologist Mary Kingsley. Dame Miriam Rothschild is right up his street! And I’ll be talking about Anna Göldi, the last person executed for witchcraft in Switzerland – because why not?

Is there something that connects all the women you talked about in your format?

To be honest, we’ve presented a huge range of women, so the only things that connect them all are our three criteria (dead, lady, not a fascist). I hope that’s part of the fun – you might come to a show and hear about a nun who shaped reggae music, an animation pioneer, a Romanian novelist, an Asian-American actress, or a transgender spy for Louis XV. Perhaps what they do have in common is that these women are discoverable for us now. We’re reliant on the availability of biographical material – even now, women are written about less than men, but in the past they were often rendered invisible. So we rely on biographers’ dedicated detective work to piece together women’s stories.

Do the women of today have to fight the same odds as your Dead Ladies in previous times?

Obviously, women’s lives have improved in most parts of the world since previous centuries. Generations before us fought hard for women’s rights, and I’m grateful to be free to work and live independently, to have control over my own body in most circumstances. However – to take Anna Göldi as an example – people are still tried for witchcraft in some countries today. And it’s still possible for powerful men to silence women through the courts, as happened to Anna Göldi. Her case ended in her execution, but I see clear parallels to Depp vs. Heard, for instance. Perhaps the challenges we face are different and less drastic in democracy, but they haven’t disappeared entirely. I hope we’re doing our bit to making women and non-binary people more visible in Berlin – and more audible worldwide, through our podcast!

To find out more, listen to the Dead Ladies Show podcast, which is available wherever podcasts are available, and read up on the Hall of Dames on their website. Or you can simply come to the next Dead Ladies Show (now in its 36th edition) on 16 May at 8pm. You can find more information and the ticket link on our website.