The Truth Is Down There: Jo Jo Stiletto on The Burl-X-Files.
~ Written by Jessica Price
Three weeks from the launch of her brand new show The Burl-X-Files, the effusive dynamo that is Jo Jo Stiletto was cool as a cucumber when we met on a warm summer day to talk all things Mulder and Scully. At that point in the process the acts were steadily pulling together, along with the buildup of anticipation for Jo Jo’s next major event after the successful Whedonesque and Geeklesque Unites productions. But the actualization of The Burl-X-Files has been a long time coming. Nearly two years ago Jo Jo’s nimble brain began to fixate on the idea of a show inspired by the long-running, paranormally-obsessed television series The X-Files. While wrapping up a presentation at Nerd Nite in Seattle, Jo Jo made an offhand remark about a possible next show paired with a slide from the series; to put it mildly, the crowd went nuts.
The X-Files first aired September 10, 1993, but like the “dream of the nineties” (as Jo Jo lovingly refers to it) the series had fizzled out and lost most of its fanbase well before its final episode on May 19, 2002. The blame was placed on everything from audience viewing preferences post-September 11 to more plausible issues with cast changes and increasingly poor writing. (There were questionable X-Files films in 1998 and 2008, one of which this writer will personally defend, but I digress). For a very special stretch of the 90s when American pop culture was swirling with a heady mix of conspiracy theories, internet chat rooms, rumored alien abductions, cyber punks, and government suspicion, the show was a thrilling weekly indulgence. Even The X-Files’ opening sequence contained paranoid, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it messages: Trust No One. They’re Watching. The Truth Is Out There.
Meanwhile in the Northwest, a pre- “Stiletto” version of our future producer Jo Jo first caught the series while attending the University of Oregon. Connecting with the spirit of the show (and in particular, with 90s heartthrob Agent Fox Mulder and strong, brainy female lead Agent Dana Scully), Jo Jo began organizing viewing parties in her dorm. With cropped red hair and a thrift store version of Scully’s FBI-appropriate business suit, Jo Jo found both a new circle of friends and a welcome distraction in geeking out on The X-Files. For a time Jo Jo entertained ideas of becoming a forensic scientist until journalism and theater eventually won out over the prerequisite chemistry and science she knew went with forensics territory. “Gotta know your strengths, and that was not one of them,” Jo Jo recalls. “I think I didn’t want to be a forensic scientist; I wanted to play one on television.”
After college, Jo Jo moved to Seattle and distanced herself from the faltering show, (not unlike David Duchovny did at the time, taking a large part of the show’s audience along with him). Exploring her newfound adulthood while embarking on a career in advertising, she became involved with Seattle’s fringe theater scene and eventually fell in with the tough broads of Rat City Rollergirls. She also came across Seattle burlesque troupe the Gun St Girls, and within six months had signed up for Miss Indigo Blue’s Burlesque 101.
But as any true obsessive can attest, though the action figures, dioramas, and other badges of fandom may be temporarily stuffed into the darkest corner of the closet, they never truly leave their “host” (to use the parlance of The X-Files). By the time Jo Jo started producing shows, the burlesque that she naturally gravitated to was born of fandom and a “new” hybrid of pop culture-referencing striptease called nerdlesque.
Following her hugely successful Whedoneque Burlesque (inspired by the works of Joss Whedon), it was time to finally come clean about her love for The X-Files. Paying homage to a twenty year old show without being obscure would be tricky as well as deeply personal; Jo Jo realized the way to develop the show was to call in the professionals (i.e. trusted associate producers and close friends dubbed ‘The Syndicate’). The idea began to take shape that The Burl-X-Files should feel evocative of both “monster of the week” and myth arch episodes with visitations from some familiar characters, but a brand new story would weave the acts together. Though spoilers are carefully guarded to keep things interesting, Jo Jo will say that the show is framed by Mulder and Scully investigating paranormal activity in a burlesque theater. “To some the show will feel like a bit of a genre spoof, trying to capture the tone and feeling of a conspiracy/horror/drama/sci fi shows from the 90s and beyond. To others it will be a walk down memory lane,” Jo Jo clarifies.
Casting the show was relatively easy once Jo Jo landed on the lead roles (a process which at one point involved paper cutouts arranged in different combinations). The Shanghai Pearl was quickly cast as Agent Dana Scully, and Jake Groshong as Agent Fox Mulder. Though there were specific act submissions, The Syndicate kept a few performers on board in a “blank slate” capacity until the story dictated what types of acts were needed. Rehearsals took the form of all-cast brainstorming sessions and a series of drop-in workshops for feedback. All of which adds up to a uniquely collaborative new narrative.
When asked how society looks back on The X-Files and what holds up from the 90s, Jo Jo unsurprisingly has given this a lot of thought. “Strong female characters,” she says is what the show’s lasting legacy is. “Scully, Buffy…Wonder Woman. Nobody now has that role.”
“Rewatching it has been really interesting,” she continues. “Its greatest strength and greatest weakness were these overarching stories…because they got so convoluted that you had no idea what was happening. You were watching for the moments of humor or the moments of connection between two characters that literally had no sexuality…their relationship was so angst-ridden, that that became the fun. You were waiting and watching for that one little touch…a chaste kiss…”
“There’s been some great articles I’ve read looking back on the idea of Agent Scully and why was it so important to have a character like her that wasn’t defined by her sexuality…[but] wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got to see her, maybe…as a full human lady, with all the different parts of female sexuality? I mean she had a fucking kid- but we never got to know how or why?? That’s the ultimate betrayal right…you watch the show for so long, and wait…they had a baby? Even the actors joke about it now,” she laughs.
“That’s what has been fun about taking this into a burlesque realm,” Jo Jo says. “Now we get to explore some of the things the show didn’t share with us. But also do it in a way that is respectful to the show. We want to fulfill some expected fan fantasies while also holding some things back because that’s The X-Files. It’s about what’s seen and what isn’t seen. It’s about revealing some truths and then not revealing. It’s perfect for burlesque, if you think about it. You don’t reveal everything, you must hold something back. Things aren’t explained. Things are mysterious. Things are magical. And to me, that is burlesque”.
Jo Jo Stiletto Events in Association with the Theatre Off Jackson present:
The Burl-X-Files: The Truth Is Down There
Burlesque Inspired by the X-Files
August 23, 24, 29, 30, 31st
DOORS 7pm. SHOW promptly at 8pm
The Shanghai Pearl as Agent Dana Scully
Jake Groshong as Agent Fox Mulder
Rebecca M. Davis
Sailor St. Claire
Jesus la Pinga
Lady Drew Blood
Associate Producers/The Syndicate:
Rebecca M. Davis
Sailor St. Claire
EmpeRoar Fabulous (not performing)
Mercury Troy (not performing)