Meet the Storytellers

Debi Wong didn’t set out to disrupt Western opera. In fact, the classically trained mezzo-soprano was skeptical that the opera she knew, dominated by white male composers, was for her at all. “There are so many stereotypes,” she says. “The women always die; the people who look like me are sex workers.” Her discovery of early Baroque opera, which valued innovation and collaboration, was a game changer. She began to see authors of past works as co-creators and to wonder: If opera was originally created as a disruptive art form, what would it look like to invent opera as a disruptive art form today?

The obvious answer for Debi, a self-professed gaming nerd, was some kind of virtual reality mash-up — and in 2017, re:Naissance Opera was born. Her team of gamers and opera makers created a fantastical mythological world where they could experiment with different technologies long before the Oculus Quest was invented. Pushing the boundaries of a classic art form doesn’t come without risks. But one of Debi’s many superpowers is her fearlessness. “I learn through constant failure,” she says. “I don’t see mistakes; I see snapshots of my process.”


A willingness, even a need, to try something new, to experiment and, often, to fail is something that unites our XLIST Storytellers, a group of modern-day raconteurs who have plowed through the fourth wall. There’s Felix Barrett, a pioneer in immersive theater known for Sleep No More, his groundbreaking interpretation of Macbeth; former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, whose recent projects include a disco musical about the wife of a Filipino dictator and a barefoot concert with revival-meeting vibes; and Shana Carroll, a former trapeze artist who uses acrobatics, dance, multimedia and music to create magical performances.


It’s not just how they tell their stories that sets them apart. Their approach to representation and the business of theater is just as unconventional. Beth Morrison, for example, has created a new opera company dedicated to cultivating diversity, while April Cleveland started a donation-based immersive theater group in the midst of the pandemic. “We’ve never sold a ticket,” she explains of her Exodus Ensemble. “After every show, somebody gets up and explains who we are and what we do. We get people who come and give $5 or $10 and somebody who gives $1,000. It all evens out so that everybody can attend the experience.”

The majority of that money, April says, goes toward paying the ensemble full-time salaries. “The idea that you can go work for eight hours at Trader Joe’s and then go rehearse and do something extraordinary is just unfair. If we’re really taking this art form seriously, it has to be a job — which means we have to figure out how to pay people.

Like Debi, April attributes the success of Exodus Ensemble to her wild spirit. In gathering her crew of 10, she was looking for a group of people who were “out of bounds,” ready “to get dirty” and to make do with what they had — including technology. April’s goal was to “warp time and space in the live experience” without relying on expensive equipment. “It’s about thinking about the mechanics, not the instruments that create amazing sequences in cinema and TV,” she explains. “We use a ton of live feed, we use a lot of multimedia, and we try to make it feel like a TV show or movie,” she says.


Technology is one thing that divides the group. Some — like immersive journalist
Nonny de La Pena and Corvas Brinkerhoff, the brains behind Meow Wolf’s futuristic grocery store installation Omega Mart — embrace screens as a way to enhance their stories. Others, like Zach Martens, Parker Murphy, and Brendan Duggan of Denver’s Odd Knock Productions, have gone in the other direction. Eschewing screens and high-tech gadgets hasn’t made them any less experimental. Their inaugural project, Test Kitchen, was a series of intensely imaginative and productive sprints (a technique often used by tech teams). For two weeks, they would write, build, and rehearse, then perform for one weekend, and start all over again.


XLIST 2023: The Storytellers

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“It was very, very difficult,” Brendan reflects. “But we learned an enormous amount in such a short period of time. We were able to take that information and creative process and transform them into a real production.” Their biggest takeaway (and best advice for anyone just starting out)? The door is wide open, there are no rules, and immersive storytelling is whatever you want it to be.

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Experiential Is Everything

XP Land is for experiential creatives and experience-makers, brand leaders, and IP-owners, space stewards and venue visionaries — all those in the business of epic gatherings and live, immersive storytelling.