It's a crisp Saturday night in a gritty industrial area of downtown L.A., and a line stretches in front of a warehouse on an eerily silent street. Dozens of men in ties and women in satin dresses and pearls wait for the doors to open at Sneaky Nietzsche. Launched in late August and recurring weekly through the end of October, the event is billed enigmatically as "a theatrical exploratorium and musical experiment for the senses," and few attendees seem to know what to expect.
"I don't even know where I am right now. I don't know what this is," one twentysomething man says. Without offering details, his friend assures vaguely, "You'll have a good time."
The heavy gray doors open and partygoers file down a staircase into a low-ceilinged room decorated with empty picture frames, antique scientific instruments and yellowed pages from weathered books. Hundreds of eye masks hang on the walls, and revelers hesitate before donning them and adjusting the fit. A man in a vest parts a curtain, revealing a hole in the wall and — taking the hand of each new arrival — he ushers them though a gilded-framed portal into a basement throbbing with old-timey music.
The 6,000-square-foot underground warehouse has been transformed into an experimental performance art and theater event called Sneaky Nietzsche, orchestrated and directed by 25-year-old L.A. actress and artist Sheila Vand. The cavernous garment-district space has been made to resemble an indoor forest, with a faux campfire area, tree branches tangling the landscape, a wishing well installation and faded Oriental rugs thrown over the concrete floor. The lighting is dim and twinkly, and hundreds of guests in masks wander around, acclimating themselves to the low light and their newfound anonymity. Bartenders in papier-mâché masks accept donations in exchange for special cocktails with names such as Black and Blues and Dead Man Walking
Finally, a stage lights up and lead performer Vand, in a Día de los Muertos mask and rib cage painted on the bare skin above her bustier, conducts an eight-piece band and croons original songs into a vintage mike like a smoky-voiced chanteuse.
Matt Soson, 22, is a performer who wanders through the gloaming, leading audience members to waltz. He says of the event, "It's what you would call, in the '60s, a 'happening.'"
Jennifer Williams, 32, is an attorney who heard about the event through a friend. "I'm relatively new to L.A. but I try to hear about things that aren't mainstream stuff," she says. "The weirdest aspect is that I can't tell who's involved and who's a spectator — which is kind of cool."
Dancers randomly howl and sing, hopping from the audience onto the factory's old conveyor belt, which tugs them high above the crowd.
Creator Vand conceived Sneaky Nietzsche over a year ago as an experiential performance-art piece. She graduated from UCLA's theater department and appeared recently in Rajiv Joseph's Pulitzer-nominated play "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" at the Mark Taper Forum, and her résumé is heavy with acting and directing credits. But it was singing that frightened her the most. Along with her composer friend, Johann Carbajal, Vand conceived of a nameless, fictitious house band to play a residency in a make-believe underworld she called Sneaky Nietzsche, named after a lyric from the Athens, Ga. pop band Of Montreal. She and Carbajal wrote a dozen 1940s-ish, cabaret-inspired songs layered with trumpet, tambourine, violin and piano, then attacked her fear of singing by assuming her chanteuse character. "I definitely slip into a trance when I perform," she admits.
Next, Vand found an empty warehouse on Craigslist and began to assemble a crew of lighting designers, dancers, set designers and choreographers. Everyone involved volunteered, despite day jobs that include everything from behavioral therapist to set decorator for "Mad Men."
"I'm really interested in collaboration with space and the relationship between form and content," Vand says. "If we create a fake band, then we have to create a fake world." The goal was to create an environment that is as much about the live music as it is about the feeling of stepping into a living, changing art piece. The project recurs each Saturday through the end of the month, with slight changes in the aesthetic details and set list.
"I don't know that you're supposed to experience it as a linear event," said Dan Safarik, 34, who came with friends. "You're just supposed to experience it as an experience."
Where: 799 Towne St., downtown
When: Saturdays through Oct. 30
Cost: $10 suggested donation; $20 on Oct. 30