When Sishir Bommakanti sat down with his parents to watch one of his first animated shorts with them, he looked over to see his mom hiding her eyes behind a blanket. It was that weird.
“I knew then that this was my calling, to create really strange stuff,” Bommakanti said.
Bommakanti and other artists who deal in the bizarre have found a home at “Weird Stuff Only,” a monthly variety show that recently held its first-anniversary spectacular at Bryant Lake Bowl Theater dedicated to showcasing some of the most out-there performance-based art the Twin Cities has to offer. Hosted and curated by animator and filmmaker Merit Thursday, “Weird Stuff Only” eschews anything expected or predictable, instead bringing works that defy conventions of form and genre to its stage.
The September show lineup featured two animated shorts, the first by painter Moqui Joy, who laid down on the stage covered in pink body paint while a dream-inspired line drawing animation played over their head, and the second a collage-style short by John Akre called “Illustrated by Alligators,” in which a series of book titles on increasingly complex and outlandish topics are supposed to be illustrated by, yes, alligators. To close out the night, Leo Dreis of local music project Marvelous performed a set of songs he usually reserves for his preschool classes. The audience was an enthusiastic class as they laughed and sang along.
No two “Weird Stuff Only” shows are the same, and the performance genres vary widely. There are only two requirements for art to be submitted: it has to be durational (as in, a moving piece that starts and ends) and it has to be weird.
While “weird” might seem to be a murky guideline for artists to adhere to, Thursday said that a lot of it is not just about what the artist does in the performance, but about how it involves the audience. So much of art, he said, “conforms to a common visual vocabulary. It doesn't ask us to do anything except absorb it. And I think there are so many people in the city who are making art that does ask something of its audience, that asks you to be present and engaged in a more active way.”
Audience engagement is an essential part of Weird Stuff Only, as every performance is followed by a Q&A session between Thursday, the artist, and the audience. Thursday said that the artist talkback portion feels so essential both because it makes the audience active participants in the art and because “a lot of experimental art is odd, and I think without context it can feel inaccessible.” The audience questions are sometimes thoughtful questions about the art itself, and sometimes just aim to get a little closer to the artist, such as when someone asked Marvelous if he was using his “teacher voice” onstage. (No, he was not.)
At first, two-time “Weird Stuff Only” performer astrid hubbard flynn said they were a little bit apprehensive of the weirdness requirements.
“Why does everything need to be weird? What if it has to be weird for the sake of being weird?” they asked. They said that a lot of their hesitation came out of their experiences in academic and high art contexts that, even when the work is experimental, can’t seem to shake the ghost of taking itself too seriously.
“You're supposed to stare at it and nod impassively or whatever. ‘Weird Stuff Only’ is the opposite of that,” flynn said. “A lot of it is coming out of drag, coming out of camp, coming out of really bizarre puppetry and experimental film and things where there's no prescribed way to react to it. You can do whatever you want with your body. And it's rare to have a space like that where all reactions are valid.”
flynn has a degree in classical composition, but for their two “Weird Stuff Only” appearances they decided to branch out. At their first show, they did a reading of original poetry and a performance that involved a “set of music on penny whistle, pressing the penny whistle into some objects, and screaming into the penny whistle.” For their second performance, they “screamed an ode to birds and their abilities to shit and vomit copiously, to be very pointy and stab things, and to make homes out of all of the detritus around them.”
In the beginning days of “Weird Stuff Only,” Thursday said the idea was to provide a space to encourage artists to make work that might not have any chance of making it into the mainstream, especially with the tightly-controlled festival circuit that often rules the world of film.
“Minneapolis has such a vibrant and vital community of artists who are just deeply peculiar people,” Thursday said. “And they need a space as much as the next guy.”
Thursday and the weirdness extravaganza found their way to Bryant Lake Bowl Theater in the fall of 2022. The theater has shows almost every night that run the gamut from weekly comedy open mics to burlesque shows to album releases, in addition to participating as a venue in local arts festivals such as Minnesota Fringe and the upcoming Sound Unseen film festival. Merit described the venue as “down to clown and host unusual programs.” A show like “Weird Stuff Only” is hardly out of place there.
The crowd that fills both the Weird Stuff Only lineup and the seats of the theater is unmistakably queer. Thursday said he would have to work hard to produce a show without any queer artists in it. He said he doesn’t seek that out exactly, it just happens by nature of the work that “Weird Stuff Only” includes.
“I think queer artists are making art that is on the margins because they themselves are on the margins,” Thursday said. “You can't shoehorn your passion or your ideas into a commonly existing structure because you yourself do not fit into that commonly existing structure.”
The audience shows up in kind, filling the theater with what Thursday described as “queers, weirdos, punks, and anarchists.”
Thursday kept returning to the idea of earnestness as a throughline in “Weird Stuff Only” shows that makes it feel worthwhile for everyone involved.
“It’s not called ‘Good Stuff Only,’ it’s called ‘Weird Stuff Only,’” flynn said. “You can make a very strong statement with art that isn’t strictly speaking good if you put enough purpose and meaning into it.”
The monthly celebration of oddities continues into its second year of shows, running November 15 and 16 at Bryant Lake Bowl Theater.