Emma J Hawkins, who is just over one metre tall, face-plants into a pile of chopped onions. When she turns to the audience her eyes are raw and teary.
“What do I call you?” she pleads.
She squints, her blue eyes in pain.
“I just want to pick you up,” she adds.
“You’re so brave.”
Ms Hawkins, a 36-year-old performer and dancer based in Melbourne, has heard comments like these her whole life.
But now she gets to turn them back on the audience, in a zany, fantastical one-woman show inspired by everyday reactions to her height, which can range from patronising to irrational.
“If people haven’t met someone like me before, I call it the brain-freeze moment,” she explains, after a run-through of her show “I Am Not a Unicorn”, which debuts March 31 at the Northcote Town Hall as part of Melbourne’s International Comedy Festival. “People’s brains go different. Some people will get a bit mean. Other people just stop thinking at all and just stare at you.”
Ms Hawkins, who produced the show and raised money for it herself, plays a range of otherworldly characters contemplating what it means to be unusual.
They include a unicorn dancing in a pink tutu and cowboy boots, a lonely middle-aged train driver who’s looking for love and a woman at a tiny wooden table planning drinks with Goldilocks.
Ms Hawkins says the show explores how people approach her stature by reflecting their opinions back to them.
“People do look at me like I’m a unicorn because I’m short-statured,” she says. “I get seen as fairytale creatures. So it’s just turning those stereotypes around and playing them a bit differently.”
She adds: “People do think that maybe I live in a tiny little house and that I have everything made my size.”
The real world can be tiring. She looks for ATMs near cafes so she can pull over a chair to step on. She uses a scarf to reach the lock on the doors of public toilets. People shout at her from cars. They watch her eat at restaurants. They call her “cute”, “brave” and “inspirational”.
“It’s not inspirational to get out of bed and go do normal things,” she says. “I can’t be at home under my blankey just feeling sorry for myself.”
Ms Hawkins says she wanted to talk about living with a disability in a way that’s engaging and approachable.
“If you want people to walk in your shoes for a while, you have to get them to experience it,” she says.
The show is theatrical and interactive, and it invites the audience to question their own views about what they expect from her.
“I can have sex and I can have babies,” she tells them. “I am a cheap drunk.”
Ms Hawkins also plays a wicked queen, a menacing woman in a swishy purple coat who tires of being so wicked. The character allows her to say what she doesn’t want to tell the audience herself.
“That I’m tired, it’s not easy being me,” she says. “It’s kind of what I want to say without just going ‘my life’s really hard’.”
She performed an early version of “I Am Not A Unicorn” last August, and scored an invite to the Comedy Festival. Ms Hawkins said she didn’t know until then that she’d made a comedy.
“It’s not a show where you should play for the gags because it’s not a stand up show,” she explains. “You’ve got to play for the realness of it and the humour comes out from the situation and the crazy characters . . .
“But it’s such a great way to talk to people and get them on your side.”
This is Ms Hawkins’ first-ever solo show, a major milestone for any performer, though it follows a long and diverse career in entertainment. Since the age of 10, when she decided what she wanted to do with her life, her experience runs the gamut from Shakespeare to burlesque. Classical theatre was her “first love”, but she learned over time that she could use her physicality to her advantage.
“If there’s a white elephant in the room you’ve kinda got to talk about it,” she says. “It’s about using what you have and your skills.”
She and a short-statured friend, Kiruna Stammel, formed the Atypical Theatre Company, with the aim of creating professional and interesting work for performers with and without disabilities. Through the company, she created and starred in the award-winning “One More Than One”, a romantic dance piece about Internet dating, with a 196cms (6-foot-5-inch) Malaysian actor named Keith Lim. She then joined Circus Oz, as a tap dancer and stilt walker.
Ms Hawkins is also working with other circus performers, Lachlan ‘Loki’ Rickus and Australian circus pioneer Kim Kaos, to develop The Fair Ground Project, an organisation that would support professional opportunities for circus performers with disabilities.
In February, they participated in a well-received fundraising showcase called The Fair Ground Speakeasy, which celebrated sensuality and body diversity. It showed what such an organisation could look like.
“There’s a lot of talk about diversity at the moment,” she says. “So it’s quite an exciting time, I feel, for this sector.”
“I guess it’s just challenging myself at this stage in my life,” she continues. “This time I wanted to create my own work and ask, ‘What do I want that to be?’ ”
Ms Hawkins is many things: an actor, an acrobat, a tap dancer, a burlesque dancer, a producer, an accounting student and an advocate.
But she is not a character in one of your fairy tales. She does not live in a tiny house, with tiny furniture and tiny appliances. She is not childlike or innocent.
She is not “normal”, but neither are you.
She is not a unicorn.
► “I Am Not A Unicorn”, 17 shows from March 31 at Northcote Town Hall