While we were sleeping – or more likely looking down at our handheld devices, engaged in an intimate dialogue between our online ‘authentic’ selves and the world at large – something mind-bending happened to pop culture. The fringe became the mainstream and the mainstream became the fringe. Cosplay aficionados flock to conventions in major urban centers worldwide, letting their geek flags fly while the general population now has some idea what the word means. Alterna-nudie site SuicideGirls launched a touring ‘burlesque’ show which consistently sells out internationally. Disney got Star Wars, guaranteeing a hit parade of feature films through 2020 as well as a tidal wave of merchandise now available far and wide for who knows how many years after that. The Jesus & Mary Chain toured and played cult hit Psychocandy in its entirety. David Lynch signed on for a third season of Twin Peaks set 25 years on. And somewhere, lit by the soft glow of Netflix streaming and the runaway popularity of fan favorites like “The X-Files Files” podcast, Chris Carter harkened to the collective cry of “when are The X-Files coming back?” and announced six new episodes slated to begin this month.
None of this came as a surprise to Seattle producer Jo Jo Stiletto, whose Burl-X-Files: The Truth Is Down There, was met with widespread glee during its first staging in 2013. Well, sort of not a surprise. Though when she launched her ‘nerdlesque’ homage to the long-running, often exasperating, conspiracy-steeped Fox show she didn’t envision three years later the series would get a reboot – Jo Jo always had an unfailing belief in the power of fandom. “Fandom made this happen; WE made this happen,” Jo Jo says of the series’ return.
Always a champion of wacky ideas, Jo Jo’s specialty is conjuring them into quality burlesque shows such as the popular Whedonesque Burlesque and Bechdel Test Burlesque (Jo Jo and co-producers have in fact been invited by the University of Oregon’s Women and Gender Studies department to bring Bechdel to campus). Frequent panelist spots on the “Con” circuit have helped her role in legitimizing nerdlesque as a “thing”, as she fondly refers to it (her informal title is “The Professor of Nerdlesque”). Not only can she recite brainy references to the feminist/nerdist party line in her sleep, she’s fun. Big fun. And so are her burlesque shows…which brings us back to The X-Files.
The series was always about communal viewing to Jo Jo: a weekly gathering of like-minded X-Files geeks, complete with a little, boxed wine loosening things up as Mulder and Scully navigated parasitic worms, exploding pustules, a hot mess of conspiracy theories, and maybe, just maybe, the hope of a real kiss between David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. With those heady days of nineties appointment tv in mind, Jo Jo decided to mount a second staging of the Burl-X-Files: The Truth Is Down There just in time for the new episodes. Cast and crew have viewing parties planned after the Theater Off Jackson run January 14, 15, 16 – the first episode airs January 24.
Rewatching a series that’s so inherently nineties as a grown up has its own perils: many have discovered (like Jo Jo, like me) that where Mulder once seemed dreamy – a tortured, sexy soul on a quest for truth that didn’t bode well with conventional life – now he reads as a guy that probably didn’t shower often, had a messy apartment (and no bed?), called sporadically, and treated his single most unfailing supporter – the hotter-by-the-season Agent Scully – pretty dismissively most of the time. Hindsight was a hot topic at recent GeekGirlCon panel “X-Files: Can’t Stop Believing”, in which Jo Jo and co-panelists Jennifer Stuller and Sarah Mirk of Bitch Magazine momentarily pondered whether their younger selves’ impression of Mulder shaped their future choices in fucked up partners. Mirk championed the hashtag #mulderisadick for a minute there; all in good fun of course. And for the record, Jo Jo now says it’s all about “Daddy Skinner”.
“I see now why we wrote narratives in our brain about Mulder and Alex Krycek [played by Nicholas Lea],” Jo Jo says. “At the time we were so desperate to see any sign of homosexuality [on that show], that we read into those moments.” Another problematic plot point was the not so faint whiff of a male-written, somewhat patronizing preoccupation with motherhood, baby harvesting…perhaps even a pseudo-messianic birth in later seasons. (See also the vaguely biblical 90s chanting music cued up any time Scully’s mystery pregnancy came up).
“It’s almost laughable,” Jo Jo agrees. But then again, she says, “It’s still fun. It’s a show. I’m invested in the idea of criticizing pop culture and I love the idea of finding pleasure in the problematic products of pop culture, but…it’s ok to watch the show and love it deep in your heart, but also be disappointed in it. But now I get to go and tell my own version of it. This show is about my memories of The X-Files.”
Memories through the filter of fan fiction, of course. Burl X-Files: The Truth Is Down There threads a narrative around paranormal events that take place in a historic burlesque theater. The casting of the leads was essential and Seattle burlesque star The Shanghai Pearl nails Scully’s brainy, fact-spouting, sexy lady (in a restrictive FBI outfit) perfectly. The exceedingly handsome Bazuka Joe of Chicago’s illustrious boylesque troupe Stage Door Johnnies plays Fox Mulder (a very big deal for burlesque aficionados). The Lone Gunmen, Cancer Man, Daddy Skinner…perhaps even Queequeg will make an appearance. Sideboob/sidebar: there will be a gallery of carefully curated fan art on display in the lobby. Fans might – just might- get an eyeful that Fox would never dream of airing.
Burl-X-Files: The Truth Is Down There runs January 14, 15, 16 at Seattle’s Theatre Off Jackson. Tickets can be purchased here.