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07/20/2017

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About

Theatre Bizarre has been the singular, must-see annual event since it launched (illegally) in the early days of the 21st century. Year after year, its creators return with a spectacular event unlike anything else on earth.

Since finding its permanent home at Detroit’s Masonic Temple (the largest in the ...

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Publicist
Ben Michaels
812-339-1195 X 204

The Greatest Masquerade on Earth: Detroit’s Legendary Theatre Bizarre Summons the Mystery of its Notorious Underground Parties, Creating an Immersive Art Installation of Unprecedented Scale

Two weekends October 13-14 and October 20-21

In the autumn of 2010, things were going great. An outlaw group of friends had built a towering theme park in a neglected corner of Detroit (complete with a roller coaster, ferris wheel, flame throwers, etc.) and were gearing up for the big event.  Then the governor of the state of Michigan checked Facebook one day and asked, “What is that?”

The “that” in question was Theatre Bizarre, the dream of painter John Dunivant and a crew of like-minded artists and performers, built from scraps and memories of sideshows long gone, spanning an entire derelict and deadly block on the city’s northern border. For one night each year, they threw open the gates to another world, where clowns torment demons, burlesque dancers twist in tornadoes of fire, and everyone sheds their drab, daily skin to revel in the fantastical.

It was, in a word, magic. It was also entirely illegal. As soon as Jennifer Granholm, Michigan’s governor at the time, stumbled on the event, she had little choice. Within hours, city and state officials (as well as a heavily-armed SWAT team) shuttered what many have called “The Greatest Masquerade on Earth.” The show hastily moved to another venue (as The New York Times noted) and continued to thrive in Detroit’s Masonic Temple (the largest in the world). It could easily contend for the title of world’s largest immersive art installation as they use over 250,000 square feet.

In 2017, for the second straight year in its storied history, Theatre Bizarre will open its dark portal for “The Fortuitous Unfortunates,” two weekends of immersive, intense performance experiences. Two consecutive Fridays in October (the 13th and 20th) will play host to an exclusive Gala Masquerade, where revelers will enjoy an open bar, strolling gourmet dinner, valet parking and a unique tour of highlights from the event including performances by Roxi D’Lite, Messer Chups, The Theatre Bizarre Orchestra (The group’s Carpe Noctem was nominated for best jazz album in last year’s Detroit Music Awards) and so many more.  Saturdays (the 14th and 21st) will see a 9-hour marathon of nonstop debauchery spread out over 8 floors.

The Temple is transformed on a grand scale, complete with a Victorian ice cream parlor serving liquor-infused treats; a cinema offering vintage international erotica and horror; and a wild “Ghost Train” ride that takes place in the dark on the seventh floor. There are six main stages with over 20 bands (bands ranging in styles from punk rock to a barbershop quartette, a marching band, a Jazz trio, jug bands, rock and roll, and more), two dozen performance spaces, two grand ballrooms, dozens of strolling and aerial performers, burlesque stars from around the globe, suspension artists, vaudeville, carnival games, and countless other sensory delights combine to ensure that partygoers never, ever have a dull moment. Every hallway, every lobby can become an impromptu theatrical experience, this is truly a choose-your-own-adventure that has to be seen to be believed.

There is nothing else like it on earth.

{full story below}

In the late 90s, painter John Dunivant was struggling to find his voice as an artist. He didn’t have any trouble, however, devoting himself to breathtaking, elaborate Halloween parties. One, the one that nearly got him kicked out of his loft, involved 500 trees, forest trails, and a full-sized cabin.

In search of a new venue, he joined forces with friends and fellow party-throwers, and began building on multiple lots in a very rough neighborhood. “I was interested in old sideshows. Which was going to be the theme for just the year, but it stuck,” recalls Dunivant. “I began to develop stories and worlds based on that. I created my own visual laws, backstories, different elements that honed the whole thing.”

The whole thing--complete with theme-park rides and multi-story set pieces--thrived for ten years in the shadows, all on volunteer power. The blight that has plagued Detroit gave the collective the space to keep creating, even as bullets flew and firebombs hit nearby hulks of abandoned houses.

“There is no other place in the world where we could have gotten away with what we were doing.  We had the opportunity to build on our creation for ten years because the area was so neglected. It was a war zone with drug deals gone wrong and gunfire every day, all day,” says Dunivant. “The only reason we could grow was, as things intensified, houses around our lots burned down. We’d expand into where the empty houses once stood, fence it in, and keep going.”

Social media brought the peculiar art project crashing down, as the authorities came to call hours before the party in 2010. The setback was devastating, but temporary, as the collective behind Theatre Bizarre regrouped.

The second life of Theatre Bizarre came with challenges--how to create the same kind of immersive environment in an old building with fire codes and historic covenants, installing and tearing down each year--but this spurred Dunivant and his collaborators to an even deeper, lusher exploration of the world they had made, an approach that won the collective support from both The Knight Foundation and Kresge Foundation

The guiding aesthetic paved the way: the color palette, the scale designed to overwhelm, the mix of charm and revolt, of decadence and decay.  But now another layer was added, that of the Secret Society, of magic and the occult.  The decadence was taken to another level.

“I was originally inspired by 1930s penny arcade dioramas, although I wanted to blow these miniatures up to a grand scale.  To walk around in the models, and lose yourself in a maze,” relates Dunivant. “I studied architecture, and as part of that, I documented some of Detroit’s crumbling churches. The psychological design of the cathedrals was meant to mess with your head, to make you look up and feel humbled. We’re harnessing the same effect: Everything looms, and you have to stand on your tiptoes at times.” To embody this feeling (and literally capture the collective’s past), Theatre Bizarre has crafted massive dioramas of the old grounds, several yards high, complete with quirky mechanisms.” explains Dunivant. “It’s bringing things full circle.”

This model is teeming with life, with a cast of characters--clowns, devils, and gods--that Theatre Bizarre continues to expand and elaborate. Dunivant has developed very specific rules to guide this creation: “Gods make creations out of clay and simple materials stuck together, then given life. These characters evoke that,” says Dunivant. “Our performers wear outfits that are crude and simple, with oversized stitching, tattered around the edges, and with a limited color palette. They are meant to be like the figurines in this penny arcade.” The clowns and devils often duke it out, and control their own special territories over Theatre Bizarre’s eight floors.

Though Dunivant has been the creative driving force behind the project, Theatre Bizarre has taken on a life of its own. More and more regular performers inhabit characters, creating their own costumes, stories, and death-defying acts (like walking a flaming tightrope suspended by hooks in the flesh of two suspension artists). “It’s become more collaborative. They are using their strengths to create characters that amplify this world,” Dunivant says. “yet still intertwining with these basic laws.”

One law that all abide by: A total commitment to the cause of creating this uncanny spectacle each year, and a rejection of corporate sponsorship. Theatre Bizarre’s dedicated crew camp out for weeks ahead of time at the Temple, sleeping on air mattresses and barely leaving the building. “The core group of people take off work, leave their families, and live in a musty, crazy old building. It’s amazing to see these things come together. In theory, none of what we’re doing should work,” remarks Dunivant.

And now, some of Detroit’s most established organizations are rewarding Theatre Bizarre for their cultural and artistic contributions.  They’ve also taken up permanent residence at the Detroit Historical Museum, cementing their place in the timeline of Detroit’s history.

 

Theatre Bizarre 2017  lineup (so far)

  • Messer Chups
  • His Name Is Alive
  • Roxi D’Lite
  • The Theatre Bizarre Orchestra
  • Sydney Deveraux
  • Michelle L'amour
  • Black Jake & the Carnies
  • Monkey
  • Trixie Little
  • Gabriel Brass Band
  • Medinaoche (Miss exotic world 2017)
  • The Squidling Brothers Circus Sideshow
  • Lady Bones
  • Jenn O. Cide
  • Kommander
  • After Dark Amusement Park
  • The Imagnatron
  • Tart
  • Mat Fraser
  •  Julie Atlas Muz
  • Pinch and Squeal 

 

For tickets and additional information, see theatrebizarre.com.