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Interview With Blunderland Creator Eric Schmalenberger

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Blunderland is finally coming to San Francisco. The LGBTQ+ loving variety show which has wowed audiences in New York City, New Orleans, and Adelaide now comes to our beloved City by the Bay for an extended weekend’s worth of performances at Chinatown’s Great Star Theater. From October 7-10, 2021, San Francisco audiences can catch this simultaneously raunchy and sweet show that draws from burlesque, cabaret, and circus arts to present such acts as international burlesque sensation Dirty Martini, Oakland-based circus artist Colin Creveling, glam clown aerialist Pixel the Drag Jester, Grammy-winning cabaret star Lady Rizo, and House of Yes resident aerialist/dancer Peter Mercury. With these and other talents in Blunderland’s lineup, it’s hard to dispute creator Eric Schmalenberger’s description of the show as “all killer, no filler.”

Get your tickets right here.

The theater world in various guises is part of Schmalenberger’s creative DNA. He’s the son of a cabaret singer. His high school curriculum included musical theater courses. Doing a primal scream in the woods happened to be just one exercise done as part of Schmalenberger’s classwork at the NYU Experimental Theater Wing.

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It’s hard to realize that Blunderland began on a dare. Famed New York City House Of Yes founder Anya Sapoznikhova challenged Schmalenberger to put on a variety show. Schmalenberger had previously done the BANZAI performance art series with Muffinhead, so it wasn’t exactly his first impresario rodeo. The challenge part involved Schmalenberger having to put the show together solo. On December 7, 2011, Blunderland debuted at the House Of Yes to delight its audience.

But a funny thing happened after the show. What originally was intended to be a one and done deal turned out to be something Schmalenberger wanted to do again and again. Now Blunderland does twice a month shows at the House of Yes and even at other venues. The San Francisco stage for Blunderland’s debut used to present live performances of Cantonese opera or the latest Jet Li martial arts action film. Now it’ll be a spot for something that will attract club kids and art house weirdos. 

For the curious, the inspiration for the revue’s name did not come from the names of either a 1902 novel by Caroline Lewis or a 1907 novel by John Kendrick Bangs. As Schmalenberger said to me in an email interview, “Alice in Wonderland has always been a central inspiration for me, so here is the starting point. Then I just took a jump to the left and fell down a different rabbit hole.” 

Photo from Blunderland

The rest of the interview with Schmalenberger of course touched on other issues. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

Peter Wong (PW):  Congratulations on finally having Blunderland appear in San Francisco.  You’ve said this city was one of your dream performance venues, along with Santa Fe and Lisbon.  How close are you to going to some of these other places now that you’ve done New Orleans and Adelaide?

Eric Schmalenberger (ES): Thanks, very exciting indeed!!  I’m always so thrilled to bring Blunderland to new cities.  Having been born in San Francisco, it is the city that sort of shaped so much of who my parents were/are and how they raised me.  This location, in particular, is very exciting. 

Santa Fe… I’ve been chatting with some folks there about an exciting project for Blunderland that hopefully will happen in 2022. Lisbon dreams got replaced by other possibilities since I brought that up as a dream location.   But now that I’m reminded of it maybe I should hop back on it with Portugal. 

PW:  Any additional dream venues you’ve added to your list?

ES:  Before the Pandemic, we were talking to spots in Las Vegas, Austin, Paris, Edinburgh, Brussels, Amsterdam, Perth, Sydney, and Tokyo… I’m hoping that as we come out of this strange time those conversations are able to start back up again!!

PW:  More impatient readers may ask what took so long for Blunderland to make it out here.  What answer would you give them?  (Mild profanity is ok, if you feel like using it.)

ES:  Independent touring theater and variety is a difficult thing to do!!  Each new city presents a new series of challenges and excitements.  I’ve had to grow very slowly as I’m not a rich man and most of my shows are pretty intimate, not big giant theaters that bring in the resources to grow quickly. It has truly been a labor of love.  Waiting for the right opportunity and the right collaborators, I’m never in a rush.  I’d rather do things right then speed them along, and I think SF is getting something very special!!

PW:  Blunderland’s San Francisco appearance comes on the heels of the show’s run-up to the 10-year mark since its supposedly one-off (which wasn’t) performance on December 7, 2011.  What special plans do you have for this “10 years of Blunderland” year?

ES:  I’m not really one for anniversaries, I just continue to try and one-up myself with each show and location. Every show we attempt is for it to be our BEST ONE YET.

PW:  Previous Blunderland performances have run about an hour.  They’ve been variety shows which have featured burlesque acts, cabaret singers, drag performers, and the like.  Most importantly there is no imposed theme or story line tying these acts together.  

ES:  Yeah, no theme, no story line, just a hallucinatory series of wonders and talents and images. I do have a fondness for glamour, for psychedelia, for the queer, and for the surprising. I love abrupt changes in tempo and temperature and try to keep an audience interested by giving them work that is wonderfully worth seeing. 

I have no interest in the linear and themes personally bore me, I love the illusion of madness.

PW:  Will these San Francisco performances have any change from this format?  More importantly, how does a Blunderland performance maintain an audience’s interest to the end given what sounds like an “anything goes” setup? 

ES:  The SF show is EPIC, it is a VERY FULL evening of world-class variety but keeps to the Blunderland style of glamorous insanity… but longer than an hour and just keeps more of EVERYTHING!!

As for “anything goes” I wouldn’t say that is true at all. The madness is very calculated and curated to hold an audience and give them a beautiful experience.  Nothing is random in a Blunderland, it is all very thought through and deliberate. 

PW:  More than a few right-of-center entertainers feel they need to punch down at people different from them to ply their trade.  Speaking as someone whose shows reflect both a left-of-center vibe and a healthy respect for what audiences can take, what disagreements do you have with this attitude?

ES:  I think people who feel the need to “punch down” at all with their entertainment are lazy, not empathetic, and not particularly intelligent. One can do so much, still be shocking and interesting and even offensive and still treat your audience with respect and kindness. Anyone who says “it’s just a joke” as a defense is lazy.. make a better joke. 

PW:  Your mentor Kembra Pfahler once taught you “If you don’t show your audience something new, they should kill you.”  Coming to this city that’s been the birthplace of The Cockettes and more than a few jaded hipsters, what is it about your show that will prevent your name from appearing in the next day’s crime blotter as “someone killed by a disappointed audience?” 

ES:  Jaded audiences are my favorite and learning how to make them crack into enthusiastic audiences is practically a fetish for me.  The cast of this show comes from various places and backgrounds, but each of them is an expert in entertainment and in making even the most “jaded” viewer have a good time.

PW:  Which particular acts are you proud to present at Blunderland’s San Francisco appearances and why?  

ES:  Oh lord, ALL OF THEM!! 

Rizo and Darlinda Just Darlinda were both in the very first Blunderland and have been muses, collaborators, and friends since the very first show.  Each creates work that is totally unique and charismatic. Justin Elizabeth Sayre, the host, is one of the greatest wits in contemporary theater and has really built a name for themselves as a raconteur and divinely smart and charming host. Dirty Martini is the most charismatic burlesque performer possibly on the planet… Each performer brings something to the table that is exciting.  All finale NO Filler!!!

PW:  How do you see Blunderland satisfying Jeffrey Deitch‘s fascination with the places where different artistic media meet?

ES:  This is something that I continue to work on and build as it really had an effect on me … I love collaborating with various performers, costume designers, photographers, visual artists, and encouraging folks to meet and work together.  This is a life long project for Blunderland and a personal one for myself.  I’m so inspired by Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of The Ballet Russes, and how he managed to bring together so many geniuses from different media together into any given production.  It just boggles the mind… I hope Blunderland can be a little like that as we forge our way forward!!

For Broke-Ass readers who know of or are talented LGBTQ+ stage performers who might want to be on the Blunderland stage, Schmalenberger offers a couple of simple pathways.  “The two ways I find new talent is either by seeing them perform myself or by them being recommended by someone I’ve worked with a bunch whose opinion I have a lot of respect for!! Most of my performers have been recommended too by other performers I work with!!”  Good luck on finding the rabbit hole Schmalenberger used and joining him in Blunderland.

(Tickets for Blunderland performances can be purchased here.)

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Peter Wong

Peter Wong

I've been reviewing films for quite a few years now, principally for the online publication Beyond Chron. My search for unique cinematic experiences and genre dips have taken me everywhere from old S.F. Chinatown movie theaters showing first-run Jackie Chan movies to the chilly slopes of Park City. Movies having cat pron instantly ping my radar.

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