by Jeff Milo
The multifaceted visual artist (and 2011 Kresge Arts Fellow) still uses the word "here" subconsciously when he speaks "the Grounds," back on West State Fair that fostered his creation, a living art space and celebrated neighborhood carnival known as Theatre Bizarre - even though he's currently seven miles south of there, hunkered down, tonight and all week, inside a new temporary home: Detroit's Masonic Temple.
"We would have been a very positive thing for Detroit," Dunivant said, looking back with a bit of a wistful chip on his shoulder at the night he and 12-year-collaborator and Grounds-property owner Ken Poierer were cited with a laundry list of code violations for operating their backyard avant-garde amusement park.
The Grounds were quiet last year, thanks mostly to the City Fire Marshall's final say, rebuking it for its lack of clear fire exits. Initial stories harped on their lack of a liquor license, but as Dunivant says, "as far as (city officials) were concerned, even if we'd gotten rid of liquor all together, it still wasn't gonna happen..."
Still, Dunivant admitted to hopes of establishing his own proper venue - thereby providing potential jobs for hundreds of people, from performers, to stage-hands, lighting/sound crews and aspiring directors; to have an actual Theatre, beyond its usual once-a-year swelled crescendo of a Halloween odyssey.
"We're kind of left with nothing," says Dunivant.
But, "I am not letting this go into the dark," said Jason McCombs, this year's Project Manager who, for eight of his 10 years' worth of working with Dunivant and Poirer, lived on the grounds at W. State Fair.
"It has been such a driving force in our lives, if it were to pass it would be like losing a lover."
Dunivant added, "We didn't want to not do anything, this year."
Oh, but if they only had their land, their expansive backyard, Dunivant says, then he and his volunteer squad of builders could have an easier (and more affordable) time dealing with the production's monstrously large scale.
Transplanting their carnival environment into all seven floors of the Masonic, has proven an exceedingly higher road for them to take, compared to last year's more hustled substitution-location inside the Fillmore Theatre.
"We spent 10 years building what we had," said McCombs, "and now we are producing to that level from scratch."
As Dunivant describes it, 2010 was the worst time to get shut down. Celebrated from 2000 to 2005, the dusk-till-dawn macabre masquerade then took two years off, returning in 07 with what Dunivant considered a "five year plan." This would have been the year where he and his creative team could start focusing on "more nuance," as well as pay off many of the exceedingly exciting and inventive new attractions they'd erected in 08 and 09.
As property opened up around them through 08-09, Theatre Bizarre's grounds expanded beyond 5,000 sq ft. Such hurried growth left little time, Dunivant said, "to really tweak" anything. Enthusiasm and anticipation from both attendees and potential performers amplified each year, leading to tickets selling out days before the actual event in 09 and 10.
Then it all came to a heartbreaking halt, last season, albeit sustained still, by that year's packed crowd at the Fillmore.
Building back up from scratch means their costs are out of control, taking an even bigger back-pocket bite out of the crew, who, combined only with their ticket sales, have funded the productions themselves. This creates even more "uncertainty," Dunivant said, for an organization that, heretofore, has always "flown by the seat of (its) pants."
"The building is not designed for what we're about to do with it, so it could be a grand experiment that only happens once. And then what?"
The hope is to get back "here."
In order for McCombs, Dunivant and the dozens of volunteer staff to raise Bizarre's curtains outdoors again, they have to do whatever it takes to keep it alive.
So, this Saturday begins a new storyline. Theatre Bizarre hosts a different kind of party at the Masonic Temple, one where attendees will be initiated into the oldest and most secret-est of old, secret societies: "Templum Balatro."
Thanks to a collaboration with The Crofoot in obtaining a rental contract, "The Order" now has the keys to the Temple's seven floors, two ballrooms and two cathedrals.
The goal, drawing upon the lore invited by the ostensibly mystified setting of the Masons' home, is to "open up portals" and pull "the grounds" through, piece by piece, stage by stage, reanimating all its ghastly inhabitants inside the Temple. Think psychedelic soiree meets séance.
(The grounds, as a "thing" to be conjured through some portal, are inherently amorphous; a nightmarish narrative mapped out by Dunivant established Theatre Bizarre as the manifestation of the fractured, hallucinogenic mind of a psychotic killer. But truly, it's become so much more.)
McCombs said that those newly initiated into Templum Balatro ("Temple of the Fool") will enjoy 25 bands, 13 DJs, 12 burlesque acts, 60 sideshow performers, and two suspension teams, spread across 10 stages and seven floors. Indeed, McCombs said, "This is by far the largest thing we have ever done."
"It's definitely a different ship," Dunivant said, revealing how fun it's been for him, who studied architecture in school, to be handed the plans for the building and thus explore its unique elegance, its nuanced nooks and curious crannies.
"Being able to walk into (the Masonic) and expand upon a world that I created in ways that I didn't expect," Dunivant said, has been doubly inspiring. "There was a little bit of something bubbling, there, (at the Grounds) but then it exploded. Being, now, able to walk into other parts of worlds, opening them up for myself, is exciting."
Dunivant described the Grounds as like "walking into a painting."
Entering the Masonic represents a newly discovered door, for him, inside that same painting.
A new part of his world.
Tickets are still on sale (info @ www.theatrebizarre.com )
Theatre Bizarre- The Initiation - 10/22 at the Masonic Temple - Ticket information can be found on Theatre Bizarre's Facebook page.
The loose plan, barring any miraculous return to the Grounds, would be to return, instead, to the Masonic (again) for Halloween 2012. Maybe. We'll have to wait and see...
McCombs said that in the face of such uncertainty, he remains confident that "we will be in a better position next year, because we will have a base to start with."