Petaluma theater, dance and music impresario Stephan Buchanan is going to hell and wants to take you with him.
Buchanan’s band, Damnatorum Liberi (Children of the Damned, in Latin), performs “Fallen Angels,” a “gothic rock opera” in which musicians emerge from coffins, and dancers of the undead variety cavort with chiaroscuro shadows, in two North Bay appearances this month.
The 2 1/2-hour production comprises 13 original musical montages, all of which underscore a visual landscape that borrows from everything from Dante’s “Inferno” to German Expressionist films. Accompanying front man and singer Buchanan are band mates Jeff “Purple” Piccinini, Jeff Robbins, Ernie Brady and Aliza Brady.
“It’s very Luddite, in the sense that it’s very basic. I’m not trying to go for the super-duper flashy blinky-blink crap that all the other bands do,” says Buchanan, a veteran of the 1970s punk scene. Among his arsenal of theatrical visuals is using reflected light provided by a garrison of mirrors and fan blades to create eerie strobe effects.
Buchanan works on his productions at Theatre Vampier, a shadowy garret built from a warehouse still surrounded by the dilapidated machinery of an erstwhile agribusiness on Petaluma’s west side. The studio’s decor is a cross between Andy Warhol’s Factory art space and a Tim Burton film and is apportioned to suit Buchanan’s various artistic needs. There is a sprung dance floor, a place for band rehearsal and a library among other accoutrements that make the place surprisingly homey, particularly for an artist with a yen for unusual live-work spaces (everything from a converted gas station to a fortune cookie factory).
At Theatre Vampier, Buchanan gives free range to his imagination as he shapes his dark spectacles. He has mounted similar productions throughout the Bay Area for 15 years.
“I don’t like to have people set artistic parameters on things,” says Buchanan. “I never restrict myself. It should be an open canvas that you can do whatever you want on. If I want to have people hanging upside down with weights on their nipples, I would do it. I don’t care. It’s not my thing, but I would do it.”
If the painted silhouette of actor Max Schreck as Nosferatu on the studio’s door is any indication, Buchanan’s “thing” is vampirism. It is the premise that unifies his various artistic pursuits and, for that matter, much of his personal life.
“For a long time, I looked for a theme that all the kind of art I do could fall under. Then I struck upon the vampire thing,” says Buchanan, who credits the work of author Anne Rice as an inspiration.
“I read ‘Interview With the Vampire’ about six times and thought, ‘This is pretty cool,’ ” he recalls. “Every ancient culture has a vampire myth, and it all has to do with blood. Blood is the life, ritual sacrifice, all that kind of stuff. It’s really interesting — it’s timeless, it’s erotic and it’s very dark, which I like. I thought, ‘This is perfect, I’m going to do this.’ “
A self-professed pagan, Buchanan says the vampire imagery and lore dovetailed nicely with his spiritual interests and have come to inform every aspect of his artistic output.
“A lot of people ask, ‘When are you going to get out of the vampire thing?’ Never. It works for me. All the paintings I do, all the sculptures, the writing, everything — it’s all vampiric,” says Buchanan . “It’s universal. You don’t even have to understand the language.”
Buchanan points to the slew of vampire films and books churned out every year as an indicator that the public’s fascination with the genre has not waned, but flourished.
“People say it’s going to wear out, but it never does. It grabs people. Like the blood thing, for some people it’s a horrible fascination — they love it, but they hate it.”
Likewise, Buchanan’s relationship with the public can be love-hate. Though his performances draw a loyal, if necessarily niche audience (he boasts an e-mail list 10,000-people strong), his work is not immune to controversy. A show staged in San Francisco drew protesters from a Christian group, which, in Buchanan’s recollection, were nonplussed by the inclusion of a 9-year-old cast member costumed as a vampire.
“People were horrified. They said I was a pedophile, or worse than a pedophile — a vampiric pedophile! And with no respect for the church,” he recalls wryly.
Buchanan has become relatively inured to such outcries and maintains a very visible presence in Petaluma, where his vampire mien and black attire blend rather seamlessly into the customer base of at least one downtown cafe. He also remains sanguine in the face of the death threats he says he has received over the Internet.
“Every time I get a death threat, they say, ‘I’m going to find out where you are. I’m going to come and get you!’ I give them my phone number and address and I say, ‘If you have trouble finding me ask for me at Deaf Dog Coffee, they will tell you where I’m at,’ ” he says, then adds with a laugh, “I tell them, ‘I need another head for my altar,’ then I never hear from them.”
Buchanan elaborates by quoting a lyric from “Fallen Angels”: “People fear what they cannot understand, and they hate what they fear.”
“I was a black sheep where I grew up,” says Buchanan, who was raised on the Nebraska-Wyoming border before his studies and professional stints in music, dance and video production took him through the East Coast, Canada, Europe, Australia, Dallas and several Bay Area locales. “I was raised with a bunch of cowboys. That wasn’t my scene. I have a lot of confidence in what I am and what I do.”
That said, Buchanan admits that his chosen aesthetic appeals to him in part because it contextualizes his staunch individualism.
“I can identity to that kind of imagery because it’s like Frankenstein —
he’s not really the monster, he’s the victim. If you’re a little bit different, you’re perceived to be a monster. Anybody who does their own thing is perceived to be a monster by somebody. That’s what a lot of people think I am. It’s actually quite laughable,” he says. “I hear the most funny things. One story leads to another, to another, to another.”
Consequently, Buchanan sees parallels between his life as an artist and classical notions of vampirism.
“Vampires can’t help being what they are. Frankenstein can’t help being what he is. If you’re an artist, you can’t help being an artist,” says Buchanan. “For me, I have no choice, because that’s what I am. In order to live, I have to create. In order to create, I have to do what I do.”
To that end, Buchanan makes no apologies for either his work or his lifestyle. Moreover, he’s happy to live in a relatively tolerant era. Were he alive during another point in history, Buchanan suggests, it would perhaps be more rough-going.
“I’m glad that we are enlightened to the point where I don’t have to worry about being staked. I mean, look how many witches got burnt. It could go really bad for you really quickly. This country is good in the sense that I don’t have to worry about that — I don’t think,” he says with a laugh. “Every night, when I look out and don’t see the local hicks marching on me with pitchforks and torches, I say, ‘It’s a good night.’ “
“Fallen Angels” plays at 7 p.m. Jan. 22 at Club Fab, 16135 Main St., Guerneville. $20. For more information, call (707)763-0129. Audiences are encouraged to take photos and videotape, and attend in gothic or vampire attire. 18 and older.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle.