"We'll use our imagination," Matt Cosper says as he fires up the engine. Twelve of us are packed into a church van, and he asks us to close our eyes and open them on cue. "Lights up," he says, and we lurch into Charlotte traffic. As we leave the city for winding country roads, Cosper plays a CD. It's a weird mix tape, the soundtrack to a lucid dream where voices and snatches of songs rise and fade. A man and a woman talk about people who have vanished without a trace. A foggy recording of Del Shannon's "Runaway" and a distorted, ghostly take on the 1950s Doris Day hit "Que Sera, Sera" set a nostalgic yet unsettling mood. Except for Cosper, none of us have any idea where the hell we're going.
It's May 2015 and I'm on my way to Bohemian Grove, an immersive event by the experimental theater troupe XOXO that's too boundary-breaking and mystical to be called a mere play. Perhaps "happening" is a better word. In the course of the evening, we traipse through farmland and forest, following two bumbling police officers as they investigate a missing persons case. The police perform a weird aerobics routine before crossing into the grove. In the torch-lit wooded area, cast members in animal masks swarm through the trees like night spirits. A Spanish earth mother in a tight red dress strums a ukulele and sings songs about the moon. Uniformed nurses pick out audience members one by one and take them away.
I follow a nurse to a cabin in the woods. I'm ushered inside and the door slams shut. A lantern flickers in a corner of the room. A shadow moves and becomes a hulking bear of a man. Then it gets weird.
- The bucolic setting of 'Bohemian Grove.' (Photo by XOXO)
At the end, we all gather around a campfire. We join hands and sing "Que Sera, Sera." I talk to my fellow audience members, and no two can agree on what they've just experienced. We just know we'll never look at theater in the same way. We've had a personal transformative experience, and we owe it all to XOXO and its artistic director Cosper.
"We deal with the biggies — sex and death," Cosper says. "We're good pagan artists."
IT'S MAY 2017 and we're sitting in a dark back room at Goodyear Arts. Abstract paintings adorn the walls, but it also looks as if the space has been used as a storage room. Out front, the sound system crackles with bursts of hip-hop as the venue prepares for an event scheduled later that evening. Cosper will be mounting XOXO's latest happening #CAKE (Year Zero) in less than a month. It's the troupe's most ambitious undertaking to date, set on the streets of Charlotte, and in two spaces Uptown.
Right now Cosper is trying to lock in one of those locations, and the clock is ticking.
"We have a lot of lines in the water," the writer, director and producer says. "I've heard back from some realtors who might have office space for us. So we're not panicking — yet."
- Matt Cosper
Cosper, 36, has been organizing chaos into art since 2001. While still a student at Greensboro College, he founded the Farm Theater, which staged avant-garde shows in Charlotte's funky alternative spaces like the Hart Witzen Gallery's since demolished warehouse on East 5th Street.
"We got sick of waiting for permission to make the kind of art we wanted to see," Cosper explains.
When the Farm disbanded in 2003, Cosper acted and directed for practically every company in town that wasn't ensconced at Blumenthal's Uptown complex — Children's Theater, Bare Bones, Actor's Theater, CAST, Charlotte Shakespeare and Starving Artists Productions. In 2009 he launched Machine Theatre, initially to produce pieces he wrote, but it rapidly became a more collaborative ensemble. Machine morphed into XOXO in 2012 with Bohemian Grove's absurdist trek to the afterlife and beyond.
"[The name] Machine initially suggested a series of different parts working together to form a whole," Cosper says, "but over time it began to connote a coldness and precision that was at odds with (our) work."
Whereas, "XOXO has the hugs and kisses connotation, so it's warm and friendly. It also speaks to childhood," he continues. "It has a poetry to it that I respond to."
In the five years since Bohemian Grove, XOXO has staged a drunken, buffoonish reading of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, I Won't Hurt You, a healing ritual filtered through a fractured fairy tale; A Very Tampone Christmas, a wholesome holiday special recast as a Salvador Dali painting; and All the Dogs and Horses, a psychedelic western staged as an acid-damaged Six Flags America show which captivated and confounded audiences at the April BOOM festival in Plaza Midwood.
- Kadey Ballard, Cosper and Adam Griffin get absurdist in Ubu Roi. (Photo by XOXO)
With #CAKE (Year Zero), XOXO unleashes its darkest, most dangerous vision. The production has had a three-year gestation period. Its earliest incarnation, a 2015 work-in-progress presentation at Artspace 525, presented the future of humanity as a toxic and criminal workspace, with would-be power players jockeying for dominance over diminishing resources. A lovable Yeti, baking a cake while touting her high school record for running the 100-yard dash, provided comic relief.
The Yeti is gone from the current production, and the humor is more mordant and acid-laden. In the course of two years, Cosper's description of the show has gone from "an astral projection, examining appetite, privilege and temptation" to "a crime story in the vein of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive." It seems those two descriptions are not too far apart.
"Linking appetite, privilege and temptation to crime is not a huge leap," Cosper says. "The gangster movie is a classic American form because it's the story of capitalism with the veneer of respectability wiped off. We can see what's truly going on. Everyone's trying to rob each other. You can call it liberty, or the market, or moral bankruptcy."
In a case of form following function, #CAKE (Year Zero), which looks at the collapse of late capitalism, is set in the center of bank town. The show's ambitious vision is also complemented by its experimental structure. Cosper says he's scripted a ton of material with his collaborator MB Schaffner, but XOXO is encouraging the audience to determine the direction of the show to an unprecedented degree.
"The show starts here [at Goodyear], looking like a play. There will chairs on risers, and the audience will sit and watch the performance, which then leads them out onto the streets of Charlotte."
- Ballard, Karina Caporino, Lillie Oden, Maf Maddix and Bill Reilly in '#CAKE (Year Zero)' (Photo by XOXO)
Then cast members lead the audience on circuitous routes through Uptown, Cosper says, and each curated route has its own specific flavor. Playgoers will also be given mp3 players loaded with three distinct tracks. Track One is background information, he explains, telling you more about the characters and the dystopian world of the play.
Track Two is surveillance, a theme central to the show. It's a bug, listening to the room where Act One occurred. Track Three is a Bohemian Grove-style metaphysical collage. Each track is 20 minutes long, lasting the duration of the walk. Listeners can choose a single track, or they can toggle back and forth between them.
"You're in charge of how you put that information into your head," says Cosper.
The audience's urban exploration leads them to another location where "the boundary between audience and actors has been erased," Cosper says. "We've rehearsed the piece in such a way that there's room in it for the audience to make decisions about what they see and what they hear."
No one is more interested to see how it pans out than Cosper. He wonders if a few dominant audience members will take charge and impose their will. Or will we see democracy happen, with groups of people reaching consensus? The process poses questions about choice and power.
- Ballard in '#CAKE (Year Zero)' (Photo by XOXO)
In #CAKE (Year Zero), power is the center of gravity. It's our world seen through a glass darkly. An unspecified disaster has occurred, spurring a scramble for dwindling resources. The Mayor, a criminal overlord, runs his enterprise like a dysfunctional office. The other characters struggle to make ends meet, alternately pleasing and plotting against their boss. To anyone who's toiled in the belly of the corporate beast, this dark sci-fi vision sounds uncomfortably like a typical workweek.
Although the grim gravitas of #CAKE (Year Zero) seems a world away from the bucolic mysticism of Bohemian Grove, Cosper maintains that both shows occupy the same universe. If Bohemian Grove is heaven, then #CAKE (Year Zero) is hell.
But Cosper won't take all the credit for creating a waking nightmare. He couldn't have crafted XOXO's twisted vision without its managing director Karina Caporino.
The first time I saw Caporino, she was performing a jerky, puppet-like dance to the Hollywood Argyles' 1960 hit song "Alley Oop." She was teamed with former XOXO cast member Chris Herring, and the routine was a weird and wonderful respite in Bohemian Grove's journey toward the infinite. Then they did the dance again. This time the routine took on the gravitas and concentration of a magic ritual. It was one of those moments where XOXO gently confronts their audience, to engage them and draw them in.
Another example is the Machine Theatre production A Guide for the Newly Dead. "It's in three parts," Caporino says. "The first part is this sort of cartoonish detectives' office, and then we go into the underworld with these abstract characters, and then the fourth wall crumbles and we have an unscripted conversation about death and loss, what we believe and think. Some nights the audience kept very quiet and some nights the audience would engage with us about our pain, sorrows, fears and expectations."
It's a brief moment that's impossible to manufacture, Caporino maintains. It has to come naturally and earnestly or else it won't work.
To get to XOXO's moments of unplanned magic, someone has to mind the business of running a theater company. That's where Caporino comes in. She describes her position as "a lot of nuts and bolts and spreadsheets."
XOXO has a progressive agenda, Caporino explains, and both Cosper and Caporino are ambivalent about capitalism.
"That makes running a theater company challenging," she says, laughing.
"I admire Karina," Cosper says. "She's smart and stubborn. She helps me get the shit done, and she has vision for what an arts organization can do in Charlotte, in a way that I sometimes don't."
- Maf Maddix, Ballard, Reilly, Caprino and Oden in '#CAKE.' (Photo by XOXO)
Caporino also plays one of #CAKE (Year Zero)'s most inscrutable characters, Davey.
"Davey fights for what Davey believes to be justice and equity. Davey chooses to do that by getting close to those in power, and by changing the system from the inside. But being inside the system can take its toll."
Davey is also non-gender specific.
"Is gender even important in a character?" Cosper asks. "What comes up with Karina's work with Davey is this idea that Davey can access masculine and feminine energy, and can be neutral. It's a formalist experiment. Can an actor be un-gendered?"
When it comes to the theatrical adage that casting is 90 percent of a director's job, Cosper disagrees. He thinks it's closer to 100 percent.
"If you put the right people in the right positions, things will happen," Cosper says. "You can be the most brilliant writer in the world, but if you don't have the right team, there won't be life in the work."
- Maf Maddix (Photo by XOXO)
Perhaps Cosper's most surprising casting choice was artist and musician Maf Maddix, a non-professional performer in the key role of Paul, the calm stoic who watches and notes the reckless and criminal activities of the Mayor's operations. Originally Maf Maddix did sound design for Bohemian Grove, and Cosper got him on board to handle audio for #CAKE (Year Zero). Then one day there was a reading, and no one was available to read Paul. Cosper asked Maf Maddix to pick up the script.
"He is engaging and dry," Cosper says. "He's crazy smart, and he has this distance about him. We'd written a character, but we didn't see the person until he came through this actor."
Maf Maddix got it. "Since I've been working on the show," he says, "I can see how this character is perfect for me."
If #CAKE (Year Zero) has a hero, it's the Reverend, played by Lillie Oden. Cosper met Oden when he and Caporino hired her for a piece XOXO did for On The Hook, a collective of Charlotte arts organizations making work aimed at eradicating white supremacy.
"I fell in love with Lillie," Cosper recalls. "She's funny, warm and expressive.
"Everyone in the play is flawed, but Reverend Gerard is the moral center," Cosper adds. The Reverend has a sermon that has to pull everyone together at the end of the harsh and unsettling first act.
"Lillie is perfect for that," he says. "She has this amazing ability to make eye contact and get you to take a deep breath."
Bill Reilly plays the Mayor, perhaps the only clear-cut villain in the piece.
"The Mayor is an awful son of a bitch," Cosper says. The role was written as the personification of "the invisible hand of the market," but Reilly's work has transformed a bastard into a needy middle manager. He just wants his underlings to like him.
"It gives that character some interesting dimensions, and it also speaks to need," Cosper says. "Coupled with the violence that character is capable of, it makes him fun to watch."
#CAKE (Year Zero)'s babe in the woods is Jelly, played by Kadey Ballard.
"Jelly's blissfully, willingly ignorant about what is happening throughout the play," Ballard says. "She doesn't question what's going on, and doesn't try to change it, but she may not be able to continue doing that for long."
- Ballard as Jelly.
For Ballard, #CAKE (Year Zero) is about everyone's complicity in the slow-motion collapse we see around us. We're aware that something is wrong, but what are we doing about it?
On the eve of premiering XOXO's most challenging project, Cosper contemplates his place in the Charlotte theater scene. He's grateful for support he's received from the Knight Foundation and the Arts & Science Council, and he currently holds a job he enjoys: director of theater arts at Charlotte Latin School. He loves working with his students, and he notes that Charlotte Latin seems thrilled that one of its teachers is making art in the community.
"I'm privileged," Cosper says.
Still, he sees a rocky road ahead for the city's theater community. Out of all of Charlotte's companies, only Children's Theatre pays performers something close to a living wage he says.
"Think of the money in Charlotte," Cosper says.
There are plenty of people in Charlotte who could write a check to support a sustainable theater scene, he adds.
"We have a bunch of wonderful theaters downtown where you can see a beautiful show from out of town. So maybe people with money think there is theater to see," Cosper says. "They don't make the connection that those performers aren't from here, and they aren't telling our story."
It's a tough situation that makes Cosper and XOXO's contributions all the more vital.
"If I make the work I want to see, and I do as best as I can with people that I care about, one of two things will happen," Cosper says. "Either after 20 years of doing this, I'll get noticed, and we'll be going on tour to Tokyo. Or I'll spend my life making the work I want to make with people that I care about."
As with everything in both life and good theater, a bittersweetness hovers over either scenario.