People Who Make NY Special

How to Score an Invite to the Illuminati Ball (Hint: Don’t Ask About the Illuminati)

The creator of NYC’s hottest surrealist party, Cynthia von Buhler, shares the secrets of her immersive theater work.

Photo by Kyle Dorosz/Courtesy of Cynthia von Buhler

When I texted Cynthia von Buhler regarding my upcoming call, she told me she was ready. “I just cleaned my pig barn so I’m jumping out of the bath now,” she wrote back. “I now know why Charlotte’s Web was about a pig and spider. I’ve never seen so many huge spiders. Eek!” 

When von Buhler’s not busy taking care of her two pigs, 25 homing pigeons, four cats, a family of fish, a dog, and a rabbit, she’s busy creating. A fine artist by training, she had creative collaborations with Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman as an illustrator before creating the immersive theater venture Speakeasy Dollhouse, and is best known for the long-running ball-and-masquerade hybrid The Illuminati Ball, which takes inspiration from the 1972 surrealist ball hosted by Baron and Baroness de Rothschild. 

Von Buhler complements her theatrical productions with graphic novels. Last year, she published and produced The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini, an attempt to solve the mystery surrounding the murder of Harry Houdini. In October, she published a graphic novel version of the Illuminati Ball that starts off, aesthetically speaking, as an Eyes Wide Shutstyle party only to delve into animal rights, genetic experimentation, and the absurdity of modern-day conspiracy theories. 

Photo courtesy of Cynthia von Buhler

We chatted with Von Buhler about her creative process, her attitude as a director, and her love of surrealism.

What Should We Do: You debuted a new iteration of the Illuminati Ball coupled with the launch party of the graphic novel by the same name in October. How did it go?
Cynthia von Buhler: We had almost 400 people. It was really beautiful; it went very well and the venue [a mysterious historic Manhattan temple] was gorgeous. I was running around like crazy and superbusy, so I couldn’t really enjoy myself. So I decided that, for New Year’s Eve, I am going to do the Immersive Excursion, which is a smaller one; it follows the graphic novel more closely. I decided that I’m going to choose 35 people from an application and invite them to attend; it’s going to be very intense.

WSWD: How so?
Von Buhler: I want to be able to focus on each person’s desire. I want to carefully choose a group of people, read their applications, and really focus on satisfying them…sort of like Fantasy Island. I am so busy at the bigger shows that I never can actually connect. Also, I don’t like repeating myself. This will happen in the winter, and I am thinking of doing things with ice. I’m thinking, How can I do things that are stunning in the woods in the winter?

Photo by Mark Shelby Perry/Courtesy of Cynthia von Buhler

WSWD: You just mentioned the application process. Is it for real or just a tongue-in-cheek component of the immersive experience?
Von Buhler: We turn away a lot of people, especially if somebody is too weird. Those I usually reject are people who believe the Illuminati is real. I get folks from Nigeria and France, from all over the world asking how [they can] join the Illuminati. At first we went along with it, but then we no longer wanted to lead them on.

I get people from all over the world asking how [they can] join the Illuminati. At first we went along with it, but then we no longer wanted to lead them on.

WSWD: You direct both long-running shows and one-night-only events. What are they like for you as a director?
Von Buhler: I much prefer doing something on a regular basis in a set venue. You learn a lot about the space and the flow, and you keep improving all the time. You add things [to] make it more exciting. That is the direction I want to go in. We’ve been thinking about getting our own space so we could do Speakeasy Dollhouse on a regular basis. I have my eyes open and am looking around, and we have some investor interest.

WSWD: Can you tell us about your path as an artist?
Von Buhler: I am a trained fine artist and illustrator. I make 3-D paintings and sculptures; some of them are interactive. I also did a lot of illustrations for Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, but then I got bored with illustrating other people’s work and wanted to do my own. That’s when I started really getting into writing books and illustrating them. 

I am definitely a surrealist in my art, and my writing tends to be magical-realism. It all has to be based in some sort of reality so you can feel like you’re going through the porthole into magic. It gives the magic and the surrealism grounding. If something is just too out there, I think people have a hard time getting into it. Adding a bit of realism and facts helps people get down the rabbit hole. The same goes for theater.

Photo by Mark Shelby Perry/Courtesy of Cynthia Von Buhler

WSWD: What advantages and disadvantages does each art form—immersive theater and graphic novels—have over the other?
Von Buhler: I think each one has different strengths and they support each other. Let’s say, for example, we’re doing an immersive play: I watch all the actors and they go off script and into tasks I did not envision. I watch the audience’s reactions and emotions, and I can store that away in my brain. When I am drawing, I can pull that out and draw the emotions, reactions, and different things that I saw. I think that, with a play, it’s really spontaneous, but with a book or a story, I like that you do know where it’s going and you’re planning where it’s going. You’re taking spontaneity and crafting it into a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The graphic novels help me visualize—almost storyboard—my play. The other way, if I start with the play, it’s research for the book. 

Sometimes my work becomes a kind of fever dream, but I like that.

WSWD: And books allow you to go to town with flashbacks and location changes, which are hard to pull off in an immersive play.
Von Buhler: It’s a challenge. In a book, you can just draw it. In a play, to re-create travel, I use sound. That makes me think outside the box. I think being a surrealist helped me with that. When you’re a surrealist, you’re thinking more in a dream state. You can break the rules. You can, all of a sudden, walk into a room and be in a different place. Sometimes my work becomes a kind of fever dream, but I like that.

Photo by Lester Tsai/Courtesy of Cynthia Von Buhler

WSWD: Were you always a surrealist?
Von Buhler: As an artist, you start as a realist. You have to learn how to really draw. My number-one skill is that I can draw like a maniac. You have to learn how to draw before you start playing with drawing and experiment a little bit more. I am also interested in the Fluxus movement; I like it because it’s very idea based.

WSWD: Your work conveys a deep love for animals, and you have adopted quite a few throughout the years. What do you love about them?
Von Buhler: I love animals more than people. I think animals are incredibly innocent and pure, and in many ways they’re wronged and somebody needs to protect them, and I feel very protective of them. I relate to them and I connect with them on a pretty deep level. I really understand them and love helping them; I feel that is my greatest purpose.

I became licensed as a wildlife rehabber so I could help animals that were hit by cars or things like that. Whenever an animal passes my path, I know how to care for it. People bring me animals all the time. They need a voice because they don’t have one, so I try, through my graphic novels and children’s books, to be their voice.

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