Chicago’s RedRum talks Halloween, vodou, character creation, and horror.

Interview: Shoshana

Q: When we last spoke, you mentioned your fascination with death began with your fear of it.  Can you explain the evolution of your relationship with death?

My art has provided an outlet for processing feelings about death but sad to say it has not provided any answers, just more questions.  I’ve been very close to death before and it was strangely comfortable so it’s not the act of dying that scares me but the unknown and what a lonely journey it must be.  I fear I would have a hard time letting go and will likely haunt around a while after I pass even though I don’t want any ghosts hanging around me!

It’s such a contradiction that I worship ancestors & look to them for guidance and I am endlessly fascinated with the supernatural, but really I don’t want to actually see them in material form or want them mischievously moving things around my house. I have a lot of friends who have told me stories about living in houses that were haunted but thankfully I’ve never had that problem.  Surrounding myself with creatures and other morbid objects is a way of confronting the fear and also setting up boundaries. I take on the personification of death as a way to disguise myself – ‘if they think I am one of them maybe they will leave me in peace’, very similar to the way that costumes became a part of Samhain and then Halloween traditions.

Q: As a vodou practitioner, what are some misconceptions about the religion you would like to clear up?  Also, how do you feel about “voodoo acts” in burlesque?  Is there a line which should not be crossed?

I first encountered Vodou like most people do through its outlandish portrayal in horror movies, tv shows and books.  Zombies and the living dead have always been my favorite horror themes but as seduced as I was by the frightening occult aspects I wanted to break through the ‘Satanic Panic’ and find out what the religion really meant to people.  During my time at SAIC I was lucky enough to study with Marilyn Houlberg who was a leading expert on the arts and culture of Haitian Vodou.  She had traveled to Haiti extensively since the 60s and was so beloved that they called her Mambo.  She introduced me to Gede – the family of Loa that embody death and fertility, they represent the crossroads, the living and the dead and many of them are tricksters, they are lewd, funny and outrageous.  These qualities gave birth to the overall concept of RedRum, so my performance name wasn’t just chosen because of the movie “The Shining” or “murder” backwards, but also a reference to rum used in vodou rituals and ceremonies and the red represents Papa Legba who gives permission to speak to the spirits.  My choice of the skeleton makeup was also inspiration from Gede.

When it comes to misconceptions “Voodoo Dolls” are a big one, Vodou is not intended to hurt or control others.  You may find aspects of similar objects in Hoodoo or Conjure but not in Vodou. We could spend an eternity talking about the occult mashups and ‘fear’ projected on the religion and where it comes from but it might be a topic for another time. My personal connection to Vodou is the belief in a visible and invisible world – death brings you to the invisible world but we are still connected.  Our ancestors are always with us in spirit to inspire and guide us.  Vodou is a religion without a dedicated scripture or a universal authority so who am I to say there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed – I have my own personal boundaries but it is overall about individual responsibility, individual experiences and community strength, the Loa are as imperfect as people because they once were us.  I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Vodou acts in burlesque – I’ve seen a lot of bad ones.  Because I have a personal and spiritual connection to Vodou I choose to embody Gede in everything I do rather than make a specific act about Gede.

Q: When you came on the scene horror burlesque wasn’t a thing.   Tell us about your first gig, realizing what you were doing was indeed burlesque, and creating a space for yourself in such an overwhelmingly “pretty” and “glamourous” industry.

My first introduction to burlesque & sideshow was back in 2007.  I was hired to help with video, makeup & set design for the “Coffin Banger’s Monster Mash Party” at Reggie’s Rock Club here in Chicago.  Since it was a Halloween show naturally it was full of gory acts – horror themed burlesque has been a longstanding thing but rare to see it as a year-round concept.  During the show performers were ripping off fake skin, piercing real skin and hanging from the ceiling.  It was also my first introduction to Maya Sinstress & Angela Eve who down the road would offer me some of the best and most memorable opportunities to support my career.

Since I already had some background in makeup effects I was thinking immediately about the potential for what I could do with this style of performance.  My husband Sanjula gave be the best advice “If you can’t do something better, do it different”.  The dominance of the celebration of beauty in the industry definitely motivated me to represent the opposite point of view – the fact that youth and beauty were temporary and no matter how wealthy, famous and brilliant there is no escaping death.  One aspect of the performances that stood during that first experience of burlesque was the performers’ faces, even though they were doing gory destructive things there was still a concern with keeping the face beautiful and being a kind of playful-teasy-sexy.  What if the face was distorted and grotesque – what kind of audience reaction could come from a kind of attraction/repulsion?  What if my body moved in unattractive & distorted ways?  What if the peeling of lavers wasn’t to reveal more of the body but to reflect a transformation from one character into another and finally what if I did these things outside of Halloween – there are certainly dark and disturbing aspects to all parts of life.  The choice of the skeleton face was really bothersome to many people from other performers to producers when I first started – “I would love to have you perform but can you do it without the skeleton face”, “you have such a nice face why be something hideous”.  Thankfully I love a challenge and something to push against.  I am grateful I started working right away with Viva La Muerte and Hot & Heavy Burlesque – the heavy metal specific aesthetic became the perfect opportunity to experiment with being horrifying year-round and eventually it became an idea and look that was requested.

Q: With a background in fashion design, I would have thought that you become inspired by a costume, and build from there, but I was surprised to learn it’s quite the opposite.  What is your creative process when developing new acts?

Surprisingly I have no background in Fashion Design!  I currently work as the Administrative Director in the Department of Fashion at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago but my actual background is in painting and drawing, I received my MFA from SAIC in 2005.  I ultimately love experimenting with many mediums simultaneously, my MFA Painting & Drawing thesis was a horror film of all things.  After two years teaching myself video and basic horror makeup effects I was quickly thrust into creating live Grand Guignol style performances in Chicago galleries under the collaborative umbrella of Death By Design, Co., a special effects and video based company founded with my colleague Teena McClelland.  DxD transformed any space into a film set where clients were invited to engage in an in-depth conversation with life through the creation of their own “Hollywood” style death. With this project, we offered audiences a safe vehicle for exploring ideas on myth, storytelling, cinematic illusion, celebrity, and our own mortality.

With that background in making, performing and conversing with death the transition to burlesque felt perfect and more manageable on an individual level. Costuming was more of a challenge but you work with what you know.  Sculpture was familiar to me, so when I approach costuming it’s pinning materials together and massaging it into shape.  I depend heavily on found materials to create my work.  Part of that decision is budget but I also appreciate the creative process of transforming everyday discarded materials into something new, different and unrecognizable – a type of resurrection!

The process of conceiving an act varies but it is always working within a unifying framework of sex, death and humor.  Sometimes the music comes first – a song that I want to twist the sentiment on or it is a character that haunts and fascinates me. There is no planned choreography to speak of, I rely heavily upon improvisation. I spend most of the time researching a particular character and the choreography is simply being that character with every step.  An act never turns out the way I originally imagine, but that part of the creative process I enjoy – it’s the slow growing of a piece that also makes it important that I do every aspect of the building myself.  I can’t imagine letting someone else build my costume or do my makeup – it’s an immersion ritual for me.

Q: You are one of the lucky few who has a day job that supports your burlesque-ing.  Not only do they support it, they celebrate it, recently featuring your costumes (and you!) in an exhibition called Michelle Maynard Unmasked: Red Rum, The “Lon Chaney of Burlesque”!  What’s it like having your two worlds so intertwined, and how was the show received? Please include any photos, video, etc you have of the exhibition to share with our readers!

I am extremely lucky to have been connected with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for 15 years now, it’s been so long I can’t even imagine transitioning to a job where I would have to hide anything – I am a bad liar so it is for my own sake!  I definitely eased out the hints over time but before I knew it colleagues were coming to shows and inviting me to talk to their classes.  The most surprising positive reaction was people thinking they knew what “burlesque” was and then seeing what I do they had their definition infinitely expanded and were excited about learning more.  The school also started their own drag and burlesque show about 5 years ago for students to participate in.  Here it’s just another avenue for conversation, performance, creation, expression, etc.

The exhibition of my costumes here in the Fashion Department was more successful than I expected.  I appreciated the opportunity to see a group of my characters standing together like a mini retrospective of where I’ve come and to give perspective to where I’m going.  From the outside people were constantly stopping to take pictures, videos and selfies with the work.  I admin from the office adjacent to the exhibition so I was able to overhear so much of the conversations about it every time the elevator opened.  People constantly guessing what it was about, pointing out their favorite costumes, appreciating the wax museum style setup, generating ideas and shouting out “that’s Michelle’s work…she works in that office” – if everyone didn’t already know I was a burlesque performer I certainly unmasked myself for the rest of the public!

Q: Your home is Halloween ready year around.  What are your top 5 prized macabre possessions and why?  

Mummified cats

We have an overwhelming mix of objects and Sanjula does an amazing job of finding a place for every little thing – the apartment is a constant work of art in process for him.  We both collect things but he is really the object & artifact hunter!  Some of the proudest elements include a collection of 30+ artworks by notable serial killers.  Our dining room has 3 caskets – one that even once held bodies, the linen is stained with seepage and corpse makeup, one has an actual human skeleton and one has doubled as a guest bed.  I have a lamp from the set of “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” that I received from the film’s Art Director, Rick Paul.  We have a pair of mummified cats forever locked together in a cradling position that were found under the floor boards of a house.  Props that we have made together also make up a percentage of my favorite things…it’s hard to see any individual item as valuable but in a mass together it is something spectacular.

Q: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about horror films!  What are your top five horror films of all time and why?

It can be pretty easy to guess some of my favorite horror films by looking at my acts.  These might be cliché picks but it’s about the ones that stick with me the most, not necessarily what are the top in the genre.  Here’s a stab in no particular order:

#1 The Thing – John Carpenter is a master at turning the mirror on ourselves.  This movie has parasitic lifeforms that assimilate other organisms until paranoia destroys all.  The special effects in this movie are the most imaginative and grotesque I have ever seen.

#2 Poltergeist – For the longest time horror was off in a castle or a cemetery or a creepy abandoned space.  Home was your sanctuary, your protection.  This is the first movie I experienced where horror hit home – in the lovely suburbs even! You were not safe in your own bed, the bathroom, with your toys and not even your parents could save you!

#3 Texas Chainsaw Massacre – You can never re-experience that first time you watch Chainsaw – my jaw was dropped the entire film.  Those questions of “What am I watching?  Is this a movie or is this REAL?”  It’s built up and remembered for being the most brutal and gory film of all time but there is very little blood actually in the film.  I also love the movie because it is another reminder that people are capable of more horror than any supernatural creature.

#4 Jaws – The pure vulnerability of dangling your legs in the water with no idea of what could be lurking underneath!

#5 The Shining – Aside from being visually stunning it has everything!  Individual sanity deteriorating either due to supernatural forces or pure isolation, incredible blood imagery, creepy twins, axe murders, necro-romance, telepathy, stylish ghosts, and enough hidden symbolism to keep the conspiracy wheels turning for all time!

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