Maker Faire Detroit: Interview with John Dunivant of Theatre Bizarre

Maker Faire Detroit: Interview with John Dunivant of Theatre Bizarre

Theatre Bizarre Detroit

The beauty of Maker Faire is that you never know what you might see there, but you’re guaranteed that it’s all a perfect fit. Our second Maker Faire Detroit is taking place this weekend, July 30 and 31, at The Henry Ford in Dearborn. One maker who likes to think big is John Dunivant, and his Theatre Bizarre will no doubt have a memorable presence at the Faire.

1. Tell us about Theatre Bizarre: what it is, how it started, and how you’ll be bringing it to Maker Faire.
Theatre Bizarre is an underground, illegal Halloween masquerade that’s been growing on the edge of Detroit since the turn of the century. It started when I was ejected from my old studio space and I needed to find a spot for my annual Halloween party. Ken Poirier (my current partner in Theatre Bizarre) had some land just south of the old Michigan State Fairgrounds and I managed to convince him to let me invade it. Since then, it just sort of blew up.

As for how we’ll be bringing Theatre Bizarre to Maker Faire, we have an old NYC Transit accordion bus that we’ll be using as an anchor to build a stage and a banner wall, complete with flamethrowers and our main stage marquee. We’ll be presenting some of our favorite acts on the stage alongside the record-breaking hi-striker that Grant Johnston built for the us. From what we’ve been able to determine, it’s the world’s tallest one and it shoots fire all the way up. It’s worth the price of admission all on its own.

2. Creating an immersive environment of this scale is a huge undertaking. How did the initial vision come to you? Did it grow to scale organically?
Theatre Bizarre grew out of my love of roadside attractions. I love simulated environments — dioramas, fake historical sites, amusement park attractions – so I wanted to build a place that ten-year-old-me would love. When we had that first party on the current grounds, I knew that I was on the way to having the playground I’d always wanted. It gets bigger every year. Last year, we added a vintage Ferris wheel and we built a ghost town — it’s got a bank, a whorehouse, an undertaker. It’s some of our best work. Unfortunately no one got to see it because the city shut us down before the show.

3. How has Theatre Bizarre continued on after the physical space was shut down?
Theatre Bizarre seems to be unkillable. Last year, we moved the entire show to the Fillmore within 24 hours of being shut down. Since then, we’ve launched and a documentary that’s currently being produced by Big Bang Films. And as far as the future of the show is concerned, there are big, secret things in the works.

Theatre Bizarre Detroit

4. How many artists are involved in Theatre Bizarre and how do you all collaborate?
The overall vision of Theatre Bizarre is mine. I design the grounds and paint all the signs and props, but I do work with other artists. In addition to Grant (who’s building the hi-striker), there’s Len Von Speedcult, who loans us his roller coaster and fire cages. There’s Dave Presnell, who sculpted and built our animatronic Fiji Mermaid and does a lot of our custom makeup. There’s Brett Carson, who’s our photographer, and there’s Kevin Skinner, who helps with printed materials and web stuff. Nichole Davila sews our costumes. There are too many people to mention them all because there are also tons of craftspeople and other volunteers who bring the whole thing together. Some are artists. Some are performers. Some are just Halloween enthusiasts. As for how we collaborate, it’s impossible to describe. It changes every day, but it always works out in the end.

5. How did you hear about Maker Faire and why did you decide to participate?
We heard about Maker Faire through BoingBoing. Why did we want to participate? How could we not?

Theatre Bizarre John Dunivant

6. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
I’ve got a bachelor’s in illustration from the College for Creative Studies here in Detroit. Painting is my first (and ongoing) love. I’ve always made things: Halloween costumes, toys… if you’re an artist, you’re probably a maker. My inspirations are all over the place: The Grand Guinol, medical illustration, religious iconography, 70s horror movies, and of course The Henry Ford Museum. It’s a real honor to be setting up shop there if only for a weekend. The village here, and all the places like it from my childhood, continue to inspire me to this day. My dream is to have a full-scale, fully immersive amusement park that’s just as complete and exacting as Greenfield Village.

7. Is your project strictly a hobby or a budding business? Does it relate to your day job?
Theatre Bizarre has never been a huge moneymaker. Being an illegal, once-a-year event just isn’t a good business model. Plus, my desire to make it better every year means that we pour pretty much every penny we make into the grounds. But, now that we’ve been forced out into the light, we’re looking for ways to keep the show going, so it’d be fair to call it a budding business. It’s also my current day job, so it relates pretty directly.

8. What do you love most about Detroit?
I love that it took them a decade to care that we were running a fire-spitting carnival in the shadow of the old fairgrounds. I love that the people who shut us down regretted it even as they were doing it. I love that everyone is pulling together to keep us alive. I love the community of people who come to Theatre Bizarre, who build Theatre Bizarre, and who treat Theatre Bizarre as their family. What do I love most about Detroit? Every goddamn thing.

Theatre Bizarre Detroit

Thanks John!

For all the information you need to attend the Faire this weekend, head on over to the Maker Faire Detroit site.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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