In Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth, tween Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) daydreams her life away imagining that she is a character in a fantasy world. When she recites the magic words to invite Jareth, the Goblin King (David Bowie), to take away her infant brother, Toby, she realizes her folly and spends the remainder of the film negotiating Jareth’s enormous labyrinth in order to rescue the child. Eleven years after the film’s release, Shawn Strider held the first Labyrinth of Jareth Masquerade Ball, in San Diego, and despite the comparatively humble attendance of the first event (around 100 people), folks interested in visiting the court of the Goblin King were already surprising Strider by flying in from Chicago and New York. After several years of bouncing around in different cities, the event assumed a permanent residence in Los Angeles. The spectacular affair takes place once again this weekend, transforming downtown L.A.'s historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel into a true fantasy world.
Nowadays the attendance rate is in the thousands, and people travel from as far away as Europe and Australia to immerse themselves in the epic, story-based masquerade, this year celebrating its 21st anniversary. One of the principal inspirations for LoJ was the European tradition of masquerade balls. “When you look at the Venetian masquerades and [other] European ones, it was the kind of celebration that people would do for creativity," Strider explains. “It wasn't just a court aspect, but ...Venetians centered an entire festival around it. It was the way that they celebrated Mardi Gras and then later on became famous for celebrating just about everything with a masquerade — the French as well.”
The dynamic of those centuries-old traditions fuels the spirit of LoJ, especially in terms of the creativity of the guests and the idea that the fantasy is fleeting. This makes Labyrinth something to look forward to and plan for annually. “Each year they would make it anew — even in Venice, when they were making papier-mâché masks, these were things that they would toss into the canal at the end of the night and know that that year was finished. And they'd start dreaming about how they wanted to sculpt the next one,” Strider says.
Given the name of the event, it is obviously influenced by Jim Henson’s film; however, when it comes to the imagery and themes that the creators and guests explore at LoJ, Labyrinth is just a starting place. “Over the last couple of years, we've been exploring a storyline that’s based on Midsummer Night's Dream, but we've also brought in elements of modern fantasy as well — of course our namesake Labyrinth, [Jim Henson's] The Dark Crystal, Lord of the Rings — these things are massive influences for us," explains Strider. "But at the end of the day we just try to create a space where people can come and have their imagination set free and, for at least a weekend, feel like it's a sanctuary surrounded by costumes and dreamers."
Anyone admitted to LoJ can attest to the event’s immersive and elaborate environs. It is a transformative experience, and part of that is thanks to a strictly enforced dress code — ticket-bearing guests will be turned away at the gate if their costumes are not good enough or if they are not dressed in formalwear.
When asked how the fanciful sights and mystical delights have evolved into the elaborate Labyrinth of today, Strider says, “In the early days, it was something that we would work on for a couple of weeks, maybe a month or so. It didn't really have a whole lot of story; it was really just about celebrating our influences. Now, it has become something that we start thinking about the next year before we're finished with this one.” He points to the influence and inspiration that guests have had on the masquerade and on their fellow attendees. “What we bring is a small piece compared to what the patrons bring. Seeing their costumes evolve just over the last 10 years — much less the last 20 — has been astonishing, especially with the rise of cosplay and the rise of the maker society.”
The spirit of the attendees, who include talented artists and craftspeople as well as master costumers and sculptors, makes for a collaborative, creative vibe at the event. Strider says patrons often advise one another's costume creation and you’ll often overhear conversations like, “'Hey, this was kind of cool. Let me show you how to do it a little bit better. Let me show you how to save money on it,’ or ‘Let me show you how we did this when we were working on this movie,’ like Thor or Star Trek or something. You know, like, ‘Let us indoctrinate you into some new methodology.' So just because of that network and community, you've seen people that have gone from making stuff out of cardboard to making foam appliances with fiberglass overlays and stuff that has the kind of quality you'd expect out of WETA Workshop — it's fascinating.”
The variety of characters, tribes and races on display at the event is quite obvious. For example, it is easy to spot elves, wood sprites and, of course, goblins roaming among the human guests. However, the levels of intrigue at play between groups and individuals can be quite elusive. One can easily attend the ball, enjoy the intense scenery, dance in the ballroom, take tea, watch a variety show (thrown by goblins), twist and shout to the sounds of a colorful rock band, marvel at an impromptu variety act, etc., without ever knowing that there are scripted story elements at play. In fact, every year, the world of LoJ is expanded and built upon — to the extent that there is practically a secret Silmarillion-esque history there.
Of the process for developing the storyline each year, Strider explains, “The way that it tends to go is that I will sit down and I will write a script — it'll take me a couple of months — and try to tie together the different tribes and different acts that we have, as we have different pieces. If there's a character in fantasy that you can imagine, we have it somewhere within our realm (elves and fairies and any of the normal tropes are within our world somewhere). So I'll write a script and then I'll turn around and I'll tell it to everybody once a year at an event that we call storytime, and I'll talk to our various captains and builders and other dreamers who are part of it. And then they tear it apart, and then they add parts for 300 of their closest friends.
“Everybody brings something special to it. And, because they have to live it for three days [at LoJ and at] all the rehearsals and stuff, their characters start to take on lives of their own,” Srider continues. “They start bringing those aspects in a way that they become storytellers in themselves. So really, I put down a framework with a very small team and then we give it out to the larger team, who takes it and runs with it, goes in all kinds of directions quite often. Directions I would have never got up in a million years.”
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As for how much of this is actually known by most of the attendees, there are always hints, bits and pieces, and lore that is very much alive and at work during the masquerade each year; it is simply not overly publicized or paraded. “There used to be books that we would release, but it has been some while since we have done so. [But] in our archives and in our drives, we have 20 years of artwork and sketches and stories and scripts and short stories and things,” Strider reveals. “[The lore] is something that all of our performers are fairly well versed in; they know their origin. They know their point of view of the stories and they are trained to sit there and be able to talk to anyone who wants to talk to them about these characters.You know, like, ‘How did you feel about the War of the Court’ and ‘How did you feel when the [dark elves] came up from the underground?’ and these people have visceral reactions, because they lived through those events.”
So, if you are a newbie who wants to explore an overwhelming world of fantasy cosplay, keep in mind that this is a realm of serious fun. Be prepared to dazzle others just as they will dazzle you. Go to enjoy eye-popping splendor or delve deep if you wish into the plethora of lore and Easter eggs hidden within LoJ. Strider has made it easy to do the latter. “We have this thing called post office, where [you can go and engage in missions that] will lead you through the story. ... This particular year you'll be able to get a card and a way that you could read goblin runes. And if you read them all, it'll give you a hint to the story that's going to be coming next year.”
And so the Labyrinth story continues...
Labyrinth of Jareth Masquerade Ball takes place Aug. 24-25, at the Millennium Biltmore L.A., 506 S. Grand Ave., downtown. For tickets visit labyrinthmasquerade.com.