Originally published on Forbes.com
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Playwright Robert Anderson famously said, “You go into show business to make a killing, not a living.” But Cynthia von Buhler can say, quite literally, that she has done one by staging the other.
The artist, author, playwright and theater producer first ventured into immersive theater when writing a book exploring the mysterious death of her grandfather. After launching a Kickstarter campaign to help fund her research for the graphic novel Speakeasy Dollhouse, a memoir about her research that was published in October 2011, she decided to host a party, staging his murder inside of an actual speakeasy.
The one-night only event was a success, evolving into Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Bloody Beginning, an immersive theatrical event that ran for five years. Next was Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Brothers Booth, an immersive production exploring the legends of John Wilkes and Edwin Booth staged at the Player’s Club – Edwin Booth’s former home. The site-specific Speakeasy Dollhouse: Zeigfeld Midnight Frolic featured a 1920s showbiz theme at the old Liberty Theater, and in the summer, von Buhler whisked guests away to her country house an hour outside the city to experience The Illuminati Ball. Another production of The Illuminati Ball will be held in New York on February 23, at the Weylin, the former Williamsburg Savings Bank.
Written, produced, curated, designed and directed by von Buhler, the immersive production was inspired by Marie-Hélène de Rothschild’s ball held in 1972. It will dive into the mysteries surrounding the famous secret society while inviting guests to participate in occult rituals as they move through the 6,500 square-foot space.
With a cast of burlesque and circus performers, including aerialists and acrobats, the ball will explore guests’ desires to join the Illuminati – an important element of the show for von Buhler, who said, “There are five things that everyone wants: wealth, power, love, respect and fame. We’re trying to give people who come to The Illuminati Ball at least one of those five things. Of course, people are going to come and see amazing singing, dancing, aerialists, walking as if they’re being initiated into the Illuminati and roaming all these rooms with different experiences occurring. But we’re also trying to take it one step further in terms of helping people in their lives. We’re trying to not only give people an incredible experience but help people with what they’re seeking… It’s great to be entertained but whenever I create a show there’s an underlying message. Something deeper and more important about life than just, ‘Let’s go to a show and see someone dancing and singing.’ We want to teach people about life.”
Guests must apply to purchase tickets to the event at von Buhler’s country house. Tickets to the February 23 event start at $100. As with all of von Buhler’s productions, The Illuminati Ball is sensual, ornate and opulent – and its funding is completely ticket-driven, without outside investors. Rather than invite people to invest in her productions, von Buhler has developed an independent system driven by ticket sales.
“These are very elaborate and expensive shows to produce,” von Buhler said, adding that the costliest part of every production has been the show’s venue, even more so than paying her cast and various forms of insurance. “They are very lavish and expensive, and we spare no cost. It’s very important for me to have a stunning, gorgeous venue. Sometimes I’ll find a venue and write my story about it. Finding a disused space and bringing it back to life is something I really enjoy doing. However, it does involve cost.”
One of the biggest contributors to the show’s profits is the sale of alcohol. Cocktails are served at all of von Buhler’s productions, but she does not take any of the profit from the sales. The high-end ticket buyers imbibe heavily at her shows, she said, and at times she has negotiated rental of a venue free of charge, unless a certain amount of drinks were not sold – which has never been a problem.
Because von Buhler does not take any profit from the drink sales, her funding comes from the ticket sales. The profits are then channeled into her next theatrical project.
“We like to put [the profits] back into investment and grow the business,” she said adding that she does a great amount of self-promotion, drawing upon her background as a public relations director. “In the short time, we’ve been making the money and putting it back into other shows, and each time we can do something a little bit bigger. I think if we did have an investor, I think we’d just go even bigger and make bigger profits, because the model is working. We’re already selling tickets, we’re not losing money. We can keep growing and keep doing bigger things.”
That would be bigger than an approximately 60-member cast and 25-person production team that von Buhler leads. It’s a position that requires a strong sense of adventure.
“We’re doing thousand-person shows in very intense venues,” she said. “We’re talking large sums of money going out the door and coming in the door. I don’t know any other company doing that at that level. It requires a very high level of risk-taking. I am definitely confident enough in my skills and my team: ‘OK, we can do this. This is going to cost us $100,000 [per night] to put on this show but we can do it.’ Those kind of numbers for many people would be scary, but for me, I just see it as a challenge and exciting.”
And von Buhler has no plans of slowing down. Following The Illuminati Ball, the next theatrical production, Speakeasy Dollhouse: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini, adapted from the Hard Case Crime/Titan Comics book Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini, will open October 2018 at The Connelly Theater. She also has plans to adapt The Illuminati Ball into a graphic novel.
And she may even venture into the food and drink industry. Reflecting on how much alcohol is sold at her shows, she added, “I might even open my own speakeasy and have [the death of my grandfather] be the theme.”
Information about The Illuminati Ball can be found here.