When director and actor Matt Cosper looked around the Charlotte, N.C., theater scene in the first decade of the 2000s, he noticed a serious lack of experimental and avant garde work.
“That’s the kind of work I like to see as an audience member,” Cosper says. “I wasn’t getting to see it in town, and I wasn’t getting the opportunity to make that kind of work through my freelance [directing] assignments, and so I just decided that I should probably make it happen.”
So Cosper took the initiative, starting Machine Theater in 2009 and recruiting friends Barney Baggett, Robert Haulbrook, Carlisle Kellum, Jon Lindsay and Barbi Van Schaik to form the first ensemble.
The group incorporated as a non-profit organization and began staging performances. It was evident from the start that experimental theater was not only possible in Charlotte, but that there was a hunger for it.
“We found that people who don’t go see plays, love the plays that we make,” Cosper says. “And that tends to be a more diverse group, in terms of age, ethnic background, sexual and gender identity, class.”
Only Cosper is left from that original group. The core of the ensemble now includes Kadey Ballard, Justin Evans, Kelly Joey, Jennifer Jordan, Amanda Medina, Glynnis O’Donoghue, Anabelle Prince and managing director Karina Caporino.
They began making work under the name XOXO in 2014, with a similar, but somewhat different approach.
“We had a big change within the company as far as the work that we were creating. We were finding that our work can be very cartoonish and playful, and Machine sounded a little dense and heavy,” Caporino says. “And while, yes, sometimes we do want to smack you around and talk about the gross stuff, we really wanted to be in a loving, safe, kind of fun environment.”
With their more unique and interactive approach, the ensemble managed to reach an audience that traditional theater companies have been trying, and more often than not failing, to connect with for years.
“We didn’t make a choice to abandon theater audiences, but we just kind of figured that what we’re making is kind of out there, a lot of traditional theater audiences…it’s not necessarily what they want to see,” Cosper explains. “The connoisseurs among the theater heads like what we do, but maybe we should go out and pursue an audience that is more interested in seeing live music, or going to art galleries or seeing dance and performance. Maybe people who aren’t interested in traditional theater.”
Part of that centers around viewing the performer, audience relationship in a different way from what is typically seen in the more classic tradition.
“Theater in the traditional model is frankly done better by television,” Cosper says. “What we’re doing is exploring what is essential about theater, which is that it’s a live event. The thing that’s exciting about theater is that it’s happening live in front of you. That’s the thing to really explore.”
Their work is also alive in a sense — a living, changing entity. Their most recent performance, titled “I WON’T HURT YOU (therefore you should just calm down),” a meditation on romantic love, has been well received but is not yet fully formed.
Caporino and Cosper both say they like leaving room for “happy accidents” and that the feedback they receive goes into creating the finished form, which Caporino says likely won’t come for another year or two.
XOXO proved there was an audience for this type of work, and now they have company in that scene.
“Now, in 2016, there’s a handful of really interesting companies that are making work that sort of blur the boundaries between theater, dance, music; there’s really interesting interdisciplinary work that’s happening,” Cosper says. “There are companies like Taproot and Triptych Collective that are doing some really interesting stuff. It’s cool to be a part of that community.”
XOXO is growing and changing as well. Last summer they got involved with a group called On The Hook, which endeavors to create performance art work that challenges white supremacy, inequality and injustice. They, along with organizations On Q Productions, One Voice Chorus, The Possibility Project-Charlotte and A Sign of the Times, collaborated on a performance commemorating the victims of the Charleston, S.C., church massacre.
The Charlotte Community Building Initiative then commissioned them to write a short piece about access to the American Dream in Charlotte.
“That piece was about marginalized communities; communities that maybe don’t feel like they have a voice: immigrant populations, trans populations, former addicts in recovery or people that have been incarcerated and are trying to reintegrate into society,” Cosper says. “So we made a short work around that, and that went over very well. I think it started a conversation that may have been difficult for people to start.”
That led to their involvement in the LGBT non-discrimination forum, held on Feb. 1, which had the stated purpose of reintroducing the ordinance to the public and allowing for small group discussions around the issue.
The performance took the shape of four citizens alternately voicing their opposition to and support for the ordinance.
Actor Che Busiek represented a trans man who has had to be fearful no matter what bathroom he uses, male or female. Busiek, himself transgender, was proud to be able to present that face to the public.
“Even those people who didn’t want to, had to look at me,” he says. “I was representing my community, all of the men and women that had or have been abused or murdered for their struggle. All of the pain and fear from not feeling like a ‘normal’ or valuable member of a community. Everything was represented. And that night we were visible. That meant everything to me.”
“I think they just felt that it was a natural fit for us to create something around this [issue], but it is very different,” Cosper reflects. “A lot of our work really is surreal and poetic work, but now we’re branching out into this other form that is more documentary theater, more form theater. It’s hopefully more super realistic, plainspoken performance, around social topics, around how we share our community.”
They plan to continue making both types of work, which will likely launch XOXO into an even wider circle of awareness within the city and beyond. They have already performed in Raleigh, N.C., Durham, N.C., and New Orleans, La., and are looking to do a mini tour this summer, playing Asheville, N.C., Durham and possibly Charleston. After that, the goal is to travel more broadly.
“We are looking, in the coming year, to do a larger tour, and hit New Orleans, Austin [Texas], Detroit [Michigan] — we have friends all over the country who are making work that we like, and we have brought people here to share work, so that notion of exchange is very important to us. Especially cities that aren’t New York, LA [California] and Chicago [Illinois],” he says, stressing that great art is made in mid-sized cities as well, and it deserves a wider audience.
They may not be the type of theater, or the type of performance, theatregoers are used to, but XOXO won’t hurt attendees. They are here to help, so just calm down and embrace them.
They will be performing “I WILL NOT HURT YOU (therefore you should just calm down)” as part of BOOM, a community and artist-led performance and visual art festival taking place in the Plaza-Midwood neighborhood, Apr. 8-10. Visit them online at xoxoperformance.org for more.