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Cheat sheet:
The Unbelievables

Your A to Z for the history of the variety show

Isabella Phillips
Sydney Opera House

▶️ Play

Do you hear that?

The sword being sharpened? The band warming up? It’s the sound of world famous performers getting ready for the biggest show of the summer.

The Unbelievables is Sydney’s hottest variety show filled with the finest entertainers, cherry-picked from stages around the world.

The art of magic goes centuries back: death-defying aerials, acrobatics, knife-throwers, spell-binding magicians, comedians and world-class dancers.

Birthed on the stages of Victorian England, variety shows remain an important fixture in performance history.

The Unbelievables

From the producers of The Illusionists and Circus 1903 comes a brand new blockbuster. Season from 19 Dec to 29 Dec 2017. Buy tickets for The Unbelievables now.


⏪ Rewind

The perfect mix

Bringing together a mix of styles and genres, audience members with tickets to a variety show are guaranteed an evening of lively entertainment.

The inspiration and building blocks for vaudeville and music hall, variety shows saw stages ablaze with musical performances, sketch comedy, magic, acrobatics, juggling and ventriloquism. They were often strung together by a theme to unite eclectic performances and were hosted by a charismatic M.C.

Variety shows in 1860s America would pop up all over town, as abandoned churches, barns and warehouses were transformed into performance spaces for variety merriment.

The format of variety shows kept its popularity throughout the 19th and 20th century, seeing the migration from stage to television. In the late 1940s it became the bread and butter of television and remained so until the late 1990s. Variety series such as Hey Hey It’s Saturday were a household favourite spanning three decades, and America’s Saturday Night Live premiered in 1975 and continues be to a staple of American television today.

✋ Stop

Take a moment to discover history

Acrobatics and aerials

The history of acrobatics and aerials can be traced back thousands of years, having and has been practiced in many different cultures across the globe. The performance of agility, balance and coordination has long been a fine art form, documented in the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 AD) and Minoan art (2000 BCE) as an expressive artistic practice. The spectacular movement and contortions of the body remains captivating to this day. It’s no surprise that it became a staple and favourite of variety performance.

Sword swallowing

Sword swallowing originated in India, 2000 BCE as a religious practice that demonstrated power and connection to the gods. It later spread to Rome and Greece in the 1st century AD and from there made it’s way to Japan in the 11th century to be incorporated into sangaku, a form of Japanese acrobatic theatre. The art of sword swallowing then traveled across the seas to Europe and became a popular type of street performance in Medieval England, solidifying itself within variety performance and becoming a household favourite.


Much like sword swallowing, ventriloquism emerged as a religious practice. However in its origins there was no puppet and the sound was believed to have radiated from the individual's stomach. The booming voice was believed to be that of the deceased who occupied the ventriloquist’s gut. In the 18th century ventriloquism started to become a form of entertainment and the new use of puppets within the performance propelled the art form into popularity. Famous ventriloquists such as The Great Lester and Edgar Bergen wowed audiences with their skill and comic interactions between the actor and puppet.   

⏩ Fast Forward

Your new mixtape

Meet the team of international sensations preparing to take the stage this December.

Aleksandra Kiedrowicz, The Floating Phenom &
Artem Lyubane, The Titan

Aleksandra and Artem are known the world over for their strength, dexterity and power. As one of the world’s top aerial gymnasts Artem's prowess on the flying swing pole is the stuff of legend. Combining strength, flexibility endurance, dance and gymnastics, Artem’s show stopping performances see him lift and contort himself on a sometimes stationary, sometimes moving apparatus suspended 20 feet in the air–the highest aerial act ever performed in the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall.

Brett Loudermilk, The Blademaster

One of the youngest professional sword swallowers in the world and dubbed a “master showman” by Neil Patrick Harris, Brett Loudermilk has performed in over 20 countries and shared the stage with everyone from Perez Hilton to Snoop Dogg and Penn and Teller. An expert on the history of magic and sideshow performance, Loudermilk regularly showcases his skills at LA’s world-renowned Magic Castle and has performed at The Montreal Comedy Festival, Kids Choice Awards and at Speigelworld’s Vegas Nocturne in Las Vegas.

Jay Johnson, The Ventriloquist

Tony Award Winner Jay Johnson is a one-man duet who has perfected his craft over 30 years of performing and delighting audiences. To date Jay has hosted three comedy specials, produced and performed in two network television specials, two HBO specials, hundreds of guest appearances and starred in four television series. His TV credits are long but don’t compare to the thrill of seeing him perform live on stage. His one-man show Jay Johnson: The Two and Only opened on Broadway to rave reviews and won him the American Theatre Wing Tony Award for Best Theatrical Event in 2007.


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