Queen City Nerve

Charlotte's Cultural Pulse

Manoj Kesavan Lowers the BOOM Back on Plaza Midwood
The builder of art bombs

By Pat Moran

April 24, 2019

Manoj Kesavan and a dedicated band of artists and volunteers got the BOOM ball rolling three years ago. Where it stops, nobody knows.

When BOOM, an annual three-day festival of avant-garde and grassroots performances, first detonated in Plaza Midwood in 2016, its eclectic mix of dance, music and theater succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams. Like a chain reaction, BOOM came back each year, getting bigger, better and weirder. Last year, the mother of all art bombs featured over 100 performances spread throughout the artsy neighborhood.

This year, BOOM returns to Plaza Midwood from April 26 to 28 with even more firepower. Over 120 performances will go up at indoor venues including Petra’s, Snug Harbor, Open Door Studios, Rabbit Hole and Coaltrane’s, and on a free outdoor stage dubbed “The Intersection.”

As with previous years, BOOM’s core will consist of staged fringe shows and ticketed events at indoor venues that charge a $10 admission. The streets and The Intersection will be wide open and free with a mélange of performances, art installations and interactive fun and games.

What’s different this year is that BOOM will partner with Open Streets 704, the Queen City’s annual celebration of the outdoors, neighborhoods and car-less community.

On its final day, the festival becomes part of Open Streets’ four-mile route. This means that BOOM will likely experience an unprecedented attendance explosion.

BOOM remains a labor of love, Kesavan says, the realization of a dream to bring a first class fringe festival to Charlotte. Queen City Nerve spoke with Kesavan about exploding past that goal and becoming Charlotte’s largest, wildest and most diverse arts festival.

Manoj Kesavan (Photo by Jeff Cravotta)

Queen City Nerve: Why has BOOM grown?

Manoj Kesavan: The reason why BOOM has become so big so fast is because it’s an open, collaborative platform which gives people ownership of things. For example, when someone like [spoken word artist] Bluz comes in to perform, they feel like it’s their space. They are creating their spoken word community there. Every year we take a big leap because BOOM is participatory. It’s only slightly curated. We don’t check the content of any of the shows. We know enough so that no two shows are exactly alike, and there is as much diversity as possible.

The other thing is we allow and encourage people to take risks. Part of the issue with Charlotte and the arts is that the city is so risk-averse. They try being creative without pushing the envelope. One of the reasons BOOM has become so popular in the arts community is that we create the space to take risks.

How would you describe BOOM to someone who has never experienced it?

It’s a huge arts festival. There is a visual art component but it’s primarily performing arts.

There are two major components to BOOM. One is what we call the BOOM fringe. These are the full-length shows that happen at the indoor venues which are Petra’s Bar, Snug Harbor, Open Door Studios, Rabbit Hole and upstairs at Coaltrane’s. Tickets for shows are $10. Then we have the BOOM intersection which is our community hub. We take over the gravel lot across from Common Market and set up a big stage. There will be multiple things going on all the time there throughout the weekend. That’s the most visible and the major part of BOOM. Two-thirds of the festival happens outside and it’s totally free.

Last year we also started something we call BOOM Streets. Saturday we’ll be at the main street corners in that area in front of Soul [Gastrolounge], Pizza Peel and Rabbit Hole. The idea is to take art out of specialized spaces like museums or galleries, and bring it to other parts of the city and make it a part of day-to-day life. We’re lowering or erasing the barriers against entry. The street gives us more access and makes art more visible. Last year we had pop-up dance performances, live painting and fashion shows.

This year we are excited to be including the podcast community. There is this new thing, a mobile podcast studio owned by Lisa Heffler. They will be parked [in Plaza Midwood] Saturday, and we’re also partnering with the Queen City Podcast Network’s Brian Baltosiewich. A series of podcasts will be recorded during BOOM right there on the street corner.

Manoj Kesavan (Photo by Ron Stewart)

What else is new this year?

Charlotte Pride will host their annual [Reel Out] Charlotte LGBTQ film festival almost exactly when BOOM ends. They are going to show a small portion of the festival, a teaser, at BOOM. Opera Carolina will stage a full recycled fashion show on the street Sunday with opera singing. One Voice Chorus — the Gay, Lesbian and Gay-Affirmative Chorus of Charlotte — is coming. Elizabeth Kowalski who created the New Music Festival has a group that will be performing.

Is BOOM at risk of outgrowing Plaza Midwood?

One thing we struggle with is that we have over 100 programs this year and we feel like we’re bursting at the seams. There’s only so much you can do in the area in one weekend. That’s one of the big things we need to grapple with as we continue to grow and evolve, whether we have a cutoff at a certain size or whether we can afford to also have venues outside the area. Right now we are keeping it [in Plaza Midwood] because we are still a tiny organization dependent on volunteers. Largeness is hard for us to manage particularly beyond [the neighborhood’s] radius.

Also, I think it helps that people can move freely between venues because they are so close by. The artists that come from out of town comment on that. Most other festivals you have to drive to the next venue. The closeness adds to the feel of the festival.

Last year we crossed 100 performances. This year there are close to 50 fringe performances. Total planned performances are close to 120 right now. It’s perhaps the largest festival of its kind in Charlotte.

Why does Charlotte need BOOM?

The city has grown so much, and so much talent has moved here. I think BOOM became big simply because we created the platform. This proves that you can help create a community and that audiences are looking for something different. I think our popularity and the public’s response justifies our need to be here.

So in a sense, you built it and they came.

Right, although we’re aware that we are creating it with the artists. We’re trying to erase the line between us and them. It’s a collaborative creation. Without this group of artists and their resources we couldn’t have built this by ourselves.

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