By Bernie Petit
Trying to win over the established theater crowd wasn’t working for XOXO. Traditional venues didn’t hold much appeal for the Charlotte experimental theater collective either.
So it got weird.
“We gave ourselves permission to do the kind of shows we wanted to see,” said founder Matt Cosper. “The audience came out of the woodwork, and it’s been really rewarding because it turns out it’s actually this elusive audience that theaters want—a very diverse audience, a young audience.
“People that don’t go see theater come see our shows.”
Case in point: “Bohemian Grove,” the three-hour-plus experiential performance piece the theater mounted last year. For each show, an audience of 14 people loaded up on a church van in Charlotte to be chauffeured by Cosper to a remote South Carolina farm, where a story exploring the afterlife unfolded.
XOXO will remount its boutique work from May 7–30, thanks in part to $5,000 in project funding from the Arts & Science Council (ASC).
The grant is “allowing us to pay artists, rent and insure the van—insurance for a performance like this is not cheap,” Cosper said. “It’s allowing us to do the work that we want to do and serve more people, and that’s a big thing.”
The performance starts on the drive, with the route to the farm specifically mapped out. Music, soundscapes, a monologue, poems and little scenes connect passengers to what they see out the windows—and prepares them for what’s to come.
If you’re used to the traditional theater-going experience, it gets weirder from here.
At the farm, audiences move through the encounter together. The actors are close enough to make eye contact and have one-on-one experiences with spectators. At one point, the audience sits in silence and watches fireflies. At another, each audience member is confronted with a choice.
If the thought of audience participation freaks you out, don’t worry. There aren’t any costumed characters dancing down the aisles. No one is being pulled up onstage or forced to do tricks.
It’s really more of a plugged in, connected experience that audience members get to immersive themselves in for a few hours.
“It might not be for everybody,” Cosper said. “Some people really want that distance. They want a nice frame around the picture and to sit back, but this is not that. You’re in it, you’re making the show.”
You’re also enveloped in the poetic afterlife that XOXO has imagined. It’s a party. It’s also quite silly, Cosper said.
“Most of the show is very comic in tone,” he said. “It’s almost like a clown show, but it also has sort of a spacey vibe. We do kind of think of it as a trip to another dimension.”
Yeah, it sounds weird. But here’s the thing—even though experimental theater can have the reputation of being prickly and inaccessible, “Bohemian Grove” is anything but.
“Whatever experience you have is the right experience,” Cosper said. “We’re not out to make anyone feel anything other than welcome.”
Want to Go?
XOXO presents the theatrical experience “Bohemian Grove” May 7–30. The performance party invites adventurous culture vultures to explore a cartoonish and poetic vision of the afterlife. Click here for ticket information or for more details.