Hail Zombo! Detroit's Theatre Bizarre

Hail Zombo!

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):

And the full gallery is here; my shots of Mother Feather’s performance here. I hope to return…

Articles from my Sabbatical Published!


I spent my sabbatical last spring developing an idea I had long been kicking around--that we reached a technological maturity point in our industry sometime in the past decade or so. Of course there will always be innovation, but it occurred to me that most of the big problems we had encountered during my career had been pretty well sorted out, and things had settled down a bit. Gear, for example, is now starting to just wear out rather than go completely obsolete. We have 15-20 year old moving lights and powered speakers and other stuff at my school, for example, that--while of course needing replacement--are still working fine. And the new models don't really offer any significant new functionality.

I’ll write more on this topic later, but the articles are both now available online and I hope people will take a look.

I would read this Lighting & Sound America article first, titled Show Technology Comes of Age, which talks about the maturity of technology in our industry, and includes a detailed timeline (thumbnail above) of seminal shows and show technology developments. I then go onto talk about how this has impacted the way we do things, get reactions from industry leaders, and speculate on where we are going in the future. Link here (you have to create an free account to read) or direct PDF link here.


Next I would recommend reading the article in the USITT journal TD&T, which discusses the impacts of this technological change on the way we teach and how things have changed since a 2002 article I wrote on the topic. It’s titled Bridging Art and State-of-the-Art and there is a link here.


Dante Redundancy and Troubleshooting


One of the greatest features of Dante audio networking is redundancy. If you use it, and something goes wrong on either network, the system will switch over and the change won’t likely even be audible.

If you mix the Primary and Secondary networks, though, you can get very chaotic behaviors that can be hard to troubleshoot. Working with students, who can find new and innovative ways to break nearly any system, I’ve encountered this problem in a way that i wouldn’t have anticipated, so I thought I’d post it here in case anyone else is searching for a solution to the same behavior.

Audinate recommends, wisely, that when using Dante in a redundant system, you should get the primary completely up and running, and then add in the secondary network. I generally do this myself, and a few times, when I went to connect the secondary system, I got all kinds of erratic behavior in Dante Controller and things would appear “offline” in the Yamaha console. The culprit? Unintentional mixing of the two networks.

How could this happen if you’re carefully managing your networks (I even like to use different colors). Well some Dante gear defaults to Daisy Chain mode, where the redundant feature is disabled and the Dante enabled device essentially becomes a two-port switch using the Primary and Secondary connectors. In this way, when you connect the secondary cable or network, the gear set to Daisy Chain mode now connects your two networks, causing all kinds of erratic problems.

So now, on my checklist, in addition to connecting only the Primary network first, I go to all connected gear and verify that it is in Redundant mode and not Daisy Chain mode.