Last year, my friends from the phenomenal NYC band Mother Feather posted pictures of a show from Detroit, at an event I had heard about but really didn’t know well: Theatre Bizarre. The whole thing looked amazing, and since I’m always up for a road trip, when I heard MF was returning this year, I cashed in some miles and got a flight to Detroit on a rare weekend where we were off from building our own Gravesend Inn. And I’m really glad I did: Theatre Bizarre is one of the most amazing show/events/happenings I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot (my write ups of many other interesting shows I’ve seen or worked on here).
Billed as “The Greatest Masquerade on Earth”, the event started in 1999 and then grew in a run down area of Detroit near an old fairground, got evicted, and then in 2011 found a home in the world’s largest Masonic Temple, which is just a breathtakingly amazing building (especially when dressed up).
The event now occupies eight floors and several hundred thousand square feet; There’s a lot of great history in this TedX video featuring ringleader John Dunivant;
Spread across many venues through this space is amazing range of musical, variety, burlesque, and side show performers. And, while much of the performance is clearly intended to be shocking, for those of us part of this scene in NYC, Theatre Bizarre feels familiar—it’s like taking the Coney Island USA sideshow, The Slipper Room, and the House of Yes and putting them each on a floor of a single massive building. And when it all comes together—especially at this scale—it’s quite beautiful and amazing.
In an era where “immersive” is a way, way overused adjective to describe just about any kind of performance without a fourth wall, Theatre Bizarre truly is immersive, and the design and curation is simply astounding. When I first looked at photos of the event, I was baffled that every photo had an orange-ish cast to it. But then I found out that they change every single light bulb in the public areas of the building. It’s this kind of attention to detail that makes this event truly incredible. And with the scale and the scope of it—combined with the labyrinthine nature of the building, and no map—it really did feel like a different world, bizarre but welcoming to those who enter without judgement and an open mind.
Safety is taken seriously here too, and another real achievement is that, as large as Theatre Bizarre is now, it still has a real personal feel and a vision and consistency to the design. It’s in the league—both in creativity and scale—of things like Meow Wolf in Sante Fe (my writeup here) and the City Museum in St. Louis (writeup here). And while Theatre Bizarre predates it, of course there are obvious comparisons to Sleep No More (which I saw 10 years ago before it came to NYC), but Theatre Bizarre—rooted in sideshow and horror and carnivals and Detroit—is very American and less pretentious.
Here’s my highlight photos from Saturday October 12, with some NSFW (there are about 100 so give it some time to load—click on any photo for a larger version):