Machine Theatre expands its boundaries – and our consciousness – again

A Charlotte theater company prepares an event for a year, sets it on a farm 45 minutes from uptown and limits the audience to 45 people total. Are its members insane, self-destructive or just –

“The least efficient theater company around,” said founder Matt Cosper cheerfully. “Theater is the least efficient art form, and Machine is the least efficient of all.”

He was sitting on a bench outside Common Market, on the Commonwealth Avenue patio where Machine Theatre did an open-air piece earlier this year. That was one of the nontraditional spaces Cosper said “has gotten us more of an audience than we ever had at Duke Energy Theatre. People find us here or at Petra’s or the Milestone, and they’re usually people who respond to us.”

In the case of “Bohemian Grove,” which runs May 30 and June 6-7, such people will meet uptown, be taken in a van to an unidentified location in South Carolina, dropped at a farm property for a comic/cosmic evening and brought back to the city. They will relinquish $50 apiece, all claims to a conventional narrative and control over their lives for 3.5 hours. (To sign up, email machinetheatre@gmail.com.)

That’s not to say there’s no script. Cosper and fellow Machinists have worked up a story he described as “a loose narrative (that) follows a sheriff and his deputy, as they investigate a missing persons case and are drawn from this world into the next.”

With the 5-year-old Machine, the devilment is in the details. The collaborators wrote and recorded 45 minutes of text and music for patrons to listen to in the 15-person van on the trip out. At the site, actors will perform a script that gives each patron one key incident to experience alone.

Cosper, who’ll drive the van, even checked out different routes to the farm to find the right atmosphere. “I’ve got one that goes past a couple of schools and a historic cemetery,” he said. “I’m not going to be narrating while I drive, but I hope patrons will absorb details along the route. The whole experience is immersive: The only part that’s not defined is the drive back, when I hope people will talk among themselves.”

The most-asked and most-hated question Cosper hears after Machine performances is “What did it mean?” Machine creates its works “as open texts. Audiences fit them together for themselves.” He paraphrased Russian director Vsevolod Meyerhold: “My theatrical credo is to make work that’s simple but raises a thousand associations.”

His own first associations for “Bohemian Grove” emerged in 2010, after both parents died.

“I felt younger than I ever had and older than I ever had,” he recalled. “One of the strangest things about grief was that I knew they weren’t here any more but, not coming from a religious background, where were they?

“The work we make is about exploring that kind of mystery. It often translates to humor for us; our impulse is always toward comedy. So 90 percent of “Grove” is in a broadly comic vein, like a clown show, and then it becomes more surreal. We’re calling it an occult performance party.”

Sorry to drag reality back into view, but the maximum possible take on this show is $2,250. That has to pay for refreshments served to the audience, van rental and insurance and a modicum of money for actors and designers. Grants from the Arts & Science council help, but …

“We’re not trying to run year-round, paying administrators,” Cosper said. “We find the resources we need to make the art happen. Then we’re broke. Then it becomes time to make art again, and we find the money to make the art again. Like I said: the least efficient company around.”