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  • Dead Women talk back: The Dead Ladies Show shares women’s lives (not their deaths)


Dead Women talk back: The Dead Ladies Show shares women’s lives (not their deaths)

The three-person team behind The Dead Ladies Show wanted use their podcast to show how the women of history lived, rather than how they died.

Photo: Makar Artemev

There’s a lot of dead women in the podosphere, most of them there because of the gruesome way in which they died rather than how they lived. Luckily, a Berlin-based podcast – The Dead Ladies Show – is here to redress the balance, adding detail and nuance to the lives of an astonishing range of dead ladies.

Episodes of the show have highlighted Amrita Sher-Gil, the queer Hungarian-Indian painter, Eva Crane, a beekeeping nuclear physicist, and Sister Mary Ignatius Davies, aka “the Mother Theresa of reggae”. Each month, the podcast’s three hosts – Katy Derbyshire, Florian Duijsens and Susan Stone – introduce the life and work of a different woman, be it an electronic music pioneer, an overlooked animator or an aristocratic code-breaker. The stuff of each woman’s life is first detailed live onstage at a bimonthly evening of talks at ACUD MACHT NEU in Mitte, prepared by either the hosts themselves or an invited guest. The audience is shown photos, film and audio footage, which listeners can find in the show notes once the episodes are available to the wider public.

“We have three rules,” says Derbyshire of the podcast’s choice of subjects. “They have to have been dead for at least six months – out of respect really.”

“They have to be ladies,” continues Stone. “Or to have identified as women while they were alive.”

“How they defined themselves is how we define them,” Derbyshire clarifies. “Going forward, we’ll also talk about non-binary people. And the third rule is very important, because we’re in Berlin: no fascists.”

“Which you’d think shouldn’t need to be stated,” says Stone, “but we got tired of people saying, ‘Oh, can I do Leni Riefenstahl?”

“There are literally billions of dead ladies,” says Derbyshire. “We don’t need to do the fascists.”

Women’s history is everyone’s history

The idea for the show was cooked up over a shared bottle of Rotkäppchen back in 2015, when Duijsans, a Dutch writer and editor, read Derbyshire a classic Dorothy Parker theatre review (it said a lot about her hangover and little about the play). Derbyshire, a renowned literary translator from London, countered with a piece by Irmgard Keun, a relatively unknown German writer from the 1930s. “We were like, you know what we should do? We should go on stage and tell these womens’ life stories and get people to pay to watch,” says Derbyshire. Unlike most of the so-called good ideas dreamed up over Rotkäppchen, this one actually saw the light of day. The pair booked a room in ACUD, prepared talks on Parker and Keun, and were astonished to find the audience full of strangers as well as friends.

Stone, a journalist who was in the audience for that first show, was invited to give a talk (about musician Bebe Barron) for the third. An NPR veteran, she immediately spotted the show’s auditory potential and started recording. The resulting podcast launched in 2017, with each episode offering the story of one woman’s life and taken from the live show. Recent episodes include comic-book pioneer June Tarpé Mills, actor Romy Schneider and writer Djuna Barnes.

They’re usually very independent and willful

Seventy-plus episodes later, the Berlin show still takes place in ACUD, but The Dead Ladies Show has gone international – there’s a regular New York show (which also contributes to the podcast), a travelling Belgian one and an occasional New Zealand outing. Most listeners tune in from Germany or the US, but episodes are regularly downloaded from as far afield as the Dominican Republic, South Korea and Uzbekistan.

So, what makes a good dead lady? “Imperfection,” says Stone, at the same time as Derbyshire says, “Fascinating lives”. She adds, “They don’t have to be role models. I can usually find something to admire in the ladies I talk about although quite often, I’m horrified by the things they’ve done to people around them.”

“They’re usually very independent and willful, all the qualities I identify with,” says Stone. “In most centuries it’s been challenging to be a woman, and it still is … You find very different experiences depending on what class the person was born in and on their financial and geographical situation too.”

Given how lovingly its creators talk about the show – and about “their” dead ladies – it’s a surprise to learn that a book is not, and never will be, in the offing. “I don’t want to make another little potted-biographies-of-women book,” says Derbyshire. “I just think, well, can they each not have a biography of their own?”

Stone agrees. “I’ve started putting this slightly cheesy thing in the podcast show notes: ‘Because women’s history is everyone’s history.’ I know it’s a slogan, but honestly, it should be taught and understood in that way. Would I like to see a day where The Dead Ladies Show isn’t necessary? I’d like to see a day where the ‘Women’s History’ designation isn’t necessary.”

  • Listen to The Dead Ladies Show wherever you get your podcasts and visit their website for details on the next live show.