Meet John Dunivant. He just won the 2011 Kresge Arts Fellowship! John specializes in architecture, illustrating, graphic design and painting. He's also in to sculpture and loves to work with his hands (he built his own ferris wheel last year).
In 1999, John Dunivant built a cabin inside of his studio space, thickly blanketing the floor with crinkled dirt-kissed leaves and transplanting hundreds of trees that shadily framed winding trails through the cavernous room, thus impressively dressing the setting of a fateful Halloween Party.
And he didn't get one photograph of it. "And that killed me." If any footage exists, he hasn't had found it yet.
This build-your-own-haunted-forest soiree of his would, beside risk getting him banned from the Russell Industrial Center, clarify to him the sublimely macabre visions for "his largest artistic accomplishment" to date, a backyard carnival known as Theatre Bizarre, which, over the last decade would become one of the area's (and the nation's) most renowned (and most interactive) underground venues, bolstered by an equally visionary collective of enthusiastic avant-gardists, as comfortable in this more guerrilla-styled setting as they would be in a conventional CCS curated show.
Learning from his mistakes of forgetting his camera for that first "party," Dunivant and longtime partner Ken Porier, made sure they diligent about documenting the development of Theatre Bizarre.
Now, Directors Gary Bredow and Per Franchell, are piecing together a documentary film - featuring footage from 2009's characteristically freaky/fiery/ambitious -all-night-concert/celebration - as well as the more on-the-fly videos and candid photography culled by Dunivant and Poirer.
"I was telling (Bredow & Franchell) that I didn't want to sign off on it just yet," Dunivant said. "I wanted to get a couple more years out of it..." Theatre Bizarre went on from 00-05, but took a break, (much-needed, at that point, for the pair of organizers who had led the assemblage of this twisted theme park meant to emulate the physical representation of a psychotic mass-murderer's abnormal mind).
They returned in 2007 with a tacit "five year plan...at that point, houses behind ours (on State Fair Drive) kept blowing up or burning down, and land kept opening up for us so we kept getting bigger. The plan was to go as big as possible, in five years, but afterwards we'd have to figure something out -to either go legit or, something, because it was getting too big to hide..." There was a roller coaster, in 09, on top of the ferris wheel + the considerable stage, numerous carnival games and splayed trails, all of it set alight intermittently with spirit-spurring pyrotechnics and echoing with the howls of inebriated ghouls.
"When we stopped in 05 it was still just a Halloween party," Dunivant said. "Then, after the break, it kinda hit me that it incorporates everything that I've wanted to do with art: graphic design, architecture, illustrating, painting, sculpture..." not to mention some woodwork and metallurgy. "Theatre Bizarre was fulfilling all of those needs for me. We wound up quadrupling in size with the land opening up, it got really intense and there was this whole new energy. I just felt, I guess, unleashed!"
Bredow and Franchell had the film in pre-production as 2010's Halloween approached, but Dunivant had still planned to have his gorgeous, gruesome gathering on the grounds for at least two more years, thus he didn't want to sign off just then, since the exposure would accelerate any hammer stroke from City Officials who were already leering at it from the corners of wary, watchful eyes, suspicious of any "unconventional" venues.
Alas, "things all came to a screeching halt," after all, in 2010, when the powers that be finally reined it in with citations over code violations threatening a razing of the site without their compliance.
"It's frustrating," Dunivant said. Venues like Scrummage University (whose floated three, if not four times, by now), or the Trumbullplex, or the CAID are run and supported by "people who are trying to do positive, creative things in Detroit. But, then, you've got certain aspects of the city, because I can't say all (aspects) since Ken and I have been dealing with the City steadily since last November, through monthly meetings, and once some of them got past the point of thinking we were some fly-by-night rave party, they realized what a positive thing it was..."
"There's a lot of people (working for the City), who support it," Dunivant said. "But nobody's talking to each other." There's an older guard who are more obstinate, giving and taking with "a lot of positive people working for the city, for change. But, you've got decades of crap that they've gotta shake out to get to a better point."
The bureaucratic gridlock of progressive-vs-resistive elements in the city, Dunivant said, was evident as recent as the false-start for Detroit's Hostel. City Officials were on hand for the ribbon cutting, yet merely a few days later, the fledgling shelter received a cease and desist order.
Theatre Bizarre Documentary Preview - June 30 - @ The Crofoot - presented by Big Bang Films - a Launch Party for Indiegogo.com fundraising support for the forthcoming film currently in-production. (Attendees get "Associate Producer" credits and a viewing of the film's teaser trailer).
"This isn't necessarily a Theatre Bizarre event," Dunivant said. "The filmmakers are raising money because they'd like to take an extra year dedicated to cataloging footage and editing it together. It's tremendous, a huge undertaking."
To the community that sprouted around (and supported) Theatre Bizarre: "Thank you," Dunivant said. "For supporting and believing in it without even knowing what it was going to be, going through some backyard party and hopefully finding something unlike anything they've ever seen before...The amount of volunteers that have come out, doing everything from moving woodchips to being apart of builds, to whatever, that's been tremendous. It was overwhelming, last year, at Dally, when we sold out our tickets so fast. That's definitely part of what drives me too, is the reaction and the support. I don't wanna stop. I'm bummed, I wanted all those people (in '10) to go to the grounds and see what we did."
"I still want them too. So, as much as I can, I'm gonna try to get everyone there, back to the grounds, so we can celebrate proper."
"If I can pull it off..." he says, noting that he's conferring with a lawyer to make sure he can stay i bounds, as much as possible.
Meanwhile, the film is tentatively scheduled for a 2012 release, with this June 30th fundraiser being a key building block:
Performing live: The Ruiners / Los Minstrels Del Diablo / Death Lab / Flec Mindscape / The Shitesmen / The Weird Sisters Circus / Satori Circus / Hayley Jane / Sky Fire / Courtney Morningstar / ~the film trailer~ / + Roxi D-Lite
~Costumes encouraged ~Come get interviewed by the on-site film crew