The wickedly secretive Detroit masquerade-twisted carnival-Halloween shindig known as Theatre Bizarre is back in its second torturous decade of existence. The curious event is no stranger to switching venues (Russell Industrial Center, residential State Fair Road, The Fillmore and now the Detroit Masonic Temple). In fact, the nomad-type mysteriousness adds to its intrigue and surreptitiousness. Shrouded in a cloak of uncertainty, yearly it seems, the party rears its ugly and masked head in late summer or early autumn to provide more questions, clues, riddles and anticipation as to what will happen with each year's respective event.
Past years have featured burlesque performances, mind-numbing musical acts, sideshow enactments of every type and overall debauchery. Undoubtedly, this year's malicious merriments will be no exception.
A cultish following and indie (almost grass roots and entirely DIY) workforce, Theatre Bizarre is anything but a ramshackle party thrown together at the last minute. Tickets are oftentimes nearly impossible to come by, and past occurrences have become the stuff of legend. Does this all seem vague and mysterious to you? Good, because that's the way we want it. And our little goblin friends over at Theatre Bizarre wouldn't have it any other way.
John Dunivant, the main mastermind and mad scientist behind Theatre Bizarre, received a 2011 Visual Arts Fellowship from The Kresge Foundation, and has obviously been quite busy as of late. But we were fortunate enough to talk to Zombo The Clown, the figurehead and grotesque mascot behind the festivities, who was kind (or the closest thing to it) enough to take some time out to discuss this year's event, entitled The Initiation. Please forgive his cryptic answers. Speaking with him leaves a chill down your spine at best, and this was, simply put, the most we could get out of him without things turning ugly.
What's new about this year's show?
This is the first time we've allowed open access to the Society itself – the organization behind Theatre Bizarre. With that access comes a deeper level of decadence and depravity. The elements of Theatre Bizarre that draw people in each year – the amazing musical acts, the live burlesque, the sideshow performers – are all intact, but now they've been transported to the world's largest Masonic Temple. The move to the Society's home base also allows us to go much, much bigger.
Obviously, things needed to be altered and accommodated for the venue. How did that change things?
While The Initiation is bigger overall, the indoor environment allows for more intimate performances. Also, being away from the prying eyes that come with outdoor venues, we can dig much deeper and expose much more. Attendees will see things they've never seen. Not at Theatre Bizarre... not anywhere.
What's the future of Theatre Bizarre behold? Next five years? Is it a year-to-year plan?
Theatre Bizarre is simultaneously eternal and momentary.
How did this all start? Did John just have a backyard extravaganza in mind, and it grew to become what it is today?
Theatre Bizarre grew out of John Dunivant's personal Halloween party. As it gathered followers, it outgrew his space at the Russell Industrial Center and Ken Poirier provided the land where it now stands. The rest is history.
How does all the national media attention feel?
On the one hand, it's gratifying to be recognized. On the other, when you trade in secrets and whispers, shouting can be troublesome.
Why the decision to make more tickets available?
Our fan base grows by the minute. We have about 12,000 Facebook fans and a constant stream of people telling us that they're fans, but that they never touch Facebook, so add them in and that's a lot of people. Prior to this year, we've never sold more than 2,500 tickets because we simply didn't have the space. This year we can accommodate more, so we're admitting more.
How difficult is it to keep things grass roots?
It's not difficult at all. We've always been a volunteer organization and we remain so. When your labor force is made up of volunteers, you are, by definition, grass roots. The people who work on Theatre Bizarre are the greatest people in the world because they're voluntarily building something sheerly for the enjoyment of others. They labor for days, weeks and months to introduce the world to something unique and precious. That's as grass roots as you can get.
What kind of role has social media played in the buildup and excitement and mystery of the event?
We do not have halfway fans. Our fans are devoted and evangelical. They spread the word. They gather the troops. They bring us new blood.
Tell us about "The Initiation." What's in a name, after all?
We've already told you too much. | RDW
The Initiation • 10/22 • Detroit Masonic Temple • 500 Temple, Detroit • theatrebizarre.com • Ages 21+ • Tickets $65