All’s Faire in Love and Gorey: The Edwardian Ball Turns 20

Ukrainian, cabaret-inspired Dakh Daughters perform at the 2019 Edwardian Ball. (Zoart Photography)

Long before Sleep No More upended Macbeth in New York City, or San Francisco’s linchpin immersive theater experience The Speakeasy poured its first gin cocktail, a band of classic misfits began a whimsical, meta-theatrical tribute to the creative genius of author and artist Edward Gorey, who died in 2000. Twenty years later, the Edwardian Ball has evolved into a weekend-long wonderland of choose-your-own adventure pageantry and sensory overdrive.

A sumptuous soiree with significant literary underpinnings, the Edwardian Ball and its weekend of auxiliary events has come a long way from its humble beginnings at the Cat Club on Folsom Street. That first foray, coaxed into existence by dark cabaret act Rosin Coven, involved not much more than a slideshow of Gorey’s gleefully morbid abecedarium, The Ghashlycrumb Tinies, and a concert of their own music. A few years in, they recognized the limitations of that format, and invited the then-emerging circus-centric performance troupe Vau de Vire Society to reenact one of Gorey’s peculiar works onstage. A fertile creative collaboration was born.

Though a frequent misconception about the Ball is to conflate the “Edwardian” in the event with period-specificity, co-founder Justin Katz is emphatic about the name as a reference to Edward Gorey, their “patron saint.” This open-ended theme allows participants to let their imagination alone guide them in what to wear and how best to participate.

Participants dance and mingle at the 2019 Edwardian Ball World's Faire. (Zoart Photography)

Katz confesses a fondness for the costumes with a literary bent—Gorey-an or otherwise—citing participants who clad themselves as Gashlycrumb Tinies, or Doubtful Guests. But what really excites him are those who go the extra mile to create elaborate, character-driven backstories complemented by but not subsumed by their costumery. As much inspired by Victorian Science Fiction and Nonsense Literature as by Edward Gorey, you’ll find attendees in top hats and spats dancing with ones in homemade replicas of anthropomorphic diving suits, stripe-stockinged bawds escorting bewigged dandies, and plenty of feathers, flounces, and fringe.

“Whatever the roleplay that they are doing, people come prepared with their own story,” Katz enthuses. “And I feel like in that way, we are writing the book of the Edwardian Ball each time.”

Stephanie Bailey and Maggie Powers of the Vau de Vire Society setting the stage at the 2019 Edwardian Ball. (Zoart Photography)

In addition to the character traits and artful attire displayed by Ball patrons are those contributed by the Vau de Vire Society. After coming onboard during the Ball’s scrappy Cat Club years, and taking on co-producing duties ever since, the Vau de Vire Society gives the Ball a playful, unpredictable edge, and much of its visual panache. Adapting an Edward Gorey story each year into a narrative for the stage, Vau de Vire’s flamboyant approach to creating spectacle turns Goery’s wryly somber monochromatics into a dazzling, daring tableau.

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“It’s really fun to play around with his work,” Vau de Vire co-founder Mike Gaines enthuses. “There’s a lot of openings for story, that we’ll create, or opening to develop a character. We usually dive deep...embellishing their backstory...without deviating from his scripts.” Over the last few years they’ve also engaged the services of director Alexis Poledouris to help them solidify the plot points and motivations, integrating them smoothly with their acrobatic prowess. This year’s Gorey story, The Lost Lions, features circus dancer Juliano Wade as the lead—a charmed movie star named Hamish—whose propensity for his pet lions lands him in an unusual predicament (unusual predicaments being somewhat of an Edward Gorey specialty).

Edwardian Ball hosts and progenitors, Rosin Coven, performing at the Lincoln Center in ...
Edwardian Ball hosts and progenitors, Rosin Coven, performing at the Lincoln Center in ... (James Ryan)

Over the past two decades, the Edwardian Ball has gone through many iterations, forever building upon past lessons with new nuances. From the slideshows and cardboard cutout decor of the early years, the Vau de Vire Society’s first adaptation which involved shrieking demons swooping across the Cat Club on swinging trapezes, and their brief residency at the Great American Music Hall which included Grand Guignol stalwarts, the Thrillpeddlers, gleefully “decapitating” onlookers with their life-size guillotine, every Ball manages to bring something new to the table, even 20 years in.

Dark Garden model Lindsay Getzell comfortably ensconced in the Regency Ballroom, current venue of the Edwardian Ball. (Zoart Photography)

These days, comfortably ensconced at the Regency Ballroom, the Ball is bigger—and admittedly pricier than those earlier productions—but carefully conceptualized. An intricately detailed Wunderkammer with just enough blank space for each attendee to create their part of the narrative. A multi-faceted world where Tea Parties and museum pieces thrive beside sideshow entertainers and electro-swing, literary nonsense rubs shoulders with morbid curiosity, and kinksters run wilder in clownpaint and knickers, while escape artists emerge from their straitjacket cocoons, and opera singers deliver cameo arias.

“One of the things I’ve seen that I find very encouraging is we’ve seen a real uptick in youth participation,” Katz remarks of his all-ages bacchanalia. “A new generation of Edwardians, bringing a lot of new energy and new ideas to the ball. I’m curious to see where advances in film, lighting, (and) theatrical advancements will allow us to go, and allow us to create even more immersive and inclusive experiences...(while continuing) to emphasize the participant-generated environment.”

Couple dancing at the 2019 Edwardian Ball World's Faire. (Zoart Photography)

So what would Edward Gorey, the inspiration for it all, think of his namesake celebration? A well-known facet of his character was his love for the New York Ballet during the Balanchine years, and in 1978 he won a Tony for his innovative work on the Broadway production of Dracula, for which he designed both costumes and the set. As detailed in the 2018 Mark Dery biography Born to be Posthumous, even in his college days Gorey was drawn to the performative, penning short plays and creating playbills with Cambridge’s “Poets’ Theatre” along with soon-to-be literary greats such as Frank O’Hara. He then spent his sunset years in Cape Cod working on fanciful puppet theater pieces of his own devising, crafting the narratives, puppets, and stage sets and directing teams of (mostly amateur) puppeteers in weird vignettes with titles such as Lost Shoelaces and Crazed Teacups. True, the Edwardian Ball, with its rollicking extravagance, is a far cry from a modest cluster of poets and puppets, but beneath the madness, there is plenty of method.

“I think he might find us a bit much,” admits Katz with a laugh. “But I think underneath he would love the theatrical nature of what the Edwardians create together...I wish that Gorey could have seen this at least once, to know that there was this much love and care for the craft that went into it. I think it would be something he could be proud of.”

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The Edwardian Ball runs Jan. 24–25 at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco. Details here.