by: Tanya Cook
Imagine a place where the weather is perfect every day, there are so many activities you never get bored, and the minute you arrive you’re greeted by an amazing community that instantly accepts you, supports you, and loves you. Too good to be true, you’re thinking. Well, my friend, I found this magical place. It exists once a year at Canyon Creek Resort in Lake Hughes, California, and it’s called the Xenite Retreat. Each year, Xenites, fans of the tv program Xena: Warrior Princess, gather to connect with fandom friends, engage in a multitude of activities, and celebrate all things Xena.
Xena: Warrior Princess originally aired from 1995 to 2001 and was a spin-off of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Filmed on location in beautiful New Zealand, the show about a strong woman with a troubled past looking to redeem herself quickly gained a large following and became an instant cult classic. The intimate relationship between Xena and her companion Gabrielle provided important representation for same sex relationships at a time when there were few, if any, openly gay or lesbian characters on tv. Although the writers of the show left the relationship ambiguous, several have since validated the fandom’s read on Xena and Gabrielle as a couple, leading actress Lucy Lawless (Xena) to describe the relationship this way: “…they’re married, man,” in a 2003 interview with Lesbian News.
Xena: Warrior Princess was groundbreaking for its focus on two strong women who were read as a couple and for its creative storytelling (for more on this check out Xena: Warrior Podcast where three film students analyze and discuss how this show took important and influential creative risks). Musical Episode? Groundhog Day Episode? Trans character portrayed in a respectful (if campy) way? Xena Did it First! But Xena was also groundbreaking in terms of fandom. Xenites were one of the first fandoms to harness the power of the internet and benefit from successful interaction ritual chains sustained by Creation Entertainment Conventions. Although social media was not the juggernaut it would become, Xena fans wrote and exchanged fan fiction, fan art, and donated millions of dollars to charity. As of last year, the Xenites have donated over 15 million dollars to charity including $160,000 raised by AUXIP for Lucy Lawless’s charity of choice the Starship Foundation. (Thank you to the wonderful Mary D. of AUXIP for the data on Xenite’s charitable activity).
Last summer, I had the good fortune to meet and interview Penny Cavanaugh founder of GC Events and the Xenite Retreat. And I had the even better fortune to attend my first retreat this year. For the past three years, together with her wife Kat and with the help of an intrepid group of volunteers called Team Awesome, Penny and GC Events have hosted the retreat. After the last official Creation Entertainment Xena Convention in 2015, Penny wanted to keep the fandom community going. Built around the annual softball game and charity breakfast that took place at and after the convention, they came up with the idea of a weekend-long retreat. During our interview, Penny mentioned some of the weekend’s activities included a high-ropes course, softball game, 24/7 Xena re-watch marathon, and something called an Amazon Dance Party. As we neared the end of the interview she asked if I was interested in attending. “You had me at ‘Paint yourself blue and howl at the moon,’” I answered.
The fun begins before the retreat officially starts with various virtual activities created by Team Awesome. Attendees are placed into groups called “nations,” and in my case, I met many of my nation members virtually through Facebook before the actual retreat. Nations are organized around main and popular characters of the show. Xena’s Warriors, Gabrielle’s Bards, Ephiny’s Amazons, Callisto’s Cutthroats, and Brunnhilda’s Valkyries compete throughout the weekend to earn “Tap” points and the coveted Nation Championship. I bunked in a cabin of seven with my fellow Warriors. All nations stay in cabins near each other and decorate their front windows as part of a competition.
After flying into Burbank and staying near the airport on Thursday, we all boarded the “Argo Express,” a large charter bus, for the ride up to Canyon Creek on Friday morning. Forty minutes of windy mountain roads (and a great conversation with my new friend Lesleigh) later we arrived and were immediately greeted by enthusiastic members of Team Awesome bearing shots of Jägermeister. (Yes, you read that right.) Friday’s activities included registration, Team Olympics, cabin decorating, and dinner followed by a bonfire and then the epic Amazon Dance Party.
On Saturday, as I was not yet brave enough to try the high ropes course, I chose to join Canyon Creek co-owner, “Mama Jill,” on a nature hike. I cheered my fellow attendees on, however, as they climbed a really, really tall pole and made the “Leap of Faith.” Ropes were followed by archery and something called “Gaga Ball” which is kind of like an easier version of dodgeball, a “You The Conqueror” personal empowerment workshop led by the wonderful Sharon Glasswell who came all the way from Australia, and then it was time for the cosplay competition.
I was nervous to show off my (very homemade) Xena cosplay to these experts, but everyone was so supportive, I had to go for it. I even ended up earning Tap points for my team by co-winning for “Best in Character Performance.” I decided to play up the fact that I am considerably older than Xena and happened to be rocking purple hair. I introduced myself as “Purple-Haired Mid-Life Crisis Xena,” and tried to maintain Resting Xena Face throughout the performance. Later, when a group of Valkyries surrounded a Gabrielle cosplayer who was trapped in the spirit world, I got to “rescue” Gabrielle and even pretended to wake her with “true love’s kiss.” To my surprise, several of my fellow retreat attendees complimented me on my performance! In a nutshell, this experience encapsulated the Retreat for me and showed me the power of this fandom. I was welcomed, truly welcomed, and valued for me, not for my role as a professor, writer, mom, citizen. No, people actually seemed to enjoy and appreciate this academic, overly enthusiastic, coffee-guzzling, germaphobic, purple haired nutball just as she was — homemade, low budget cosplay and all.
Saturday night featured an impressive board game party with a twist — all the common games you know and love had been painstakingly altered to include Xena references and themes. I was pretty exhausted after the excitement of the cosplay competition and chose Trivial Pursuit. Although I’m usually good at this game, the Xena version was really difficult. My fellow nation member Sarah cleaned up. My favorite games (that I didn’t get to play) were a version of Operation, altered to look like Joxer and “Cards Against the Known World.”
I woke up Sunday thinking, it’s going to be hard to top that! But like so many times over the previous three days, Sunday’s experience would exceed my expectations. The day began with the traditional Charity Breakfast. The magnificent, movie-poster style banners that had decorated the main hall all weekend were auctioned off. Proceeds were split between several charities and included a fund for low-income children to attend summer camp at Canyon Creek and a group that aided the families of cancer patients with costs associated with care that are often not covered by insurance. Actors Adrienne Wilkinson and Brittany Powell and writer/producer Steven L. Sears autographed all of the banners and graciously donated items for the charity auction as well.
After famously becoming nervous at one of her first con appearances, Powell ended up creating an impromptu auction for her bra — one that she happened to be wearing at the time. The tradition continues at the Xenite Retreat’s auction, and to date the Bra Auction raised several thousand dollars for the families of cancer patients. Sears donated several draft scripts of beloved Xena episodes and if I’m being honest, I’m a wee bit envious of the folks that won these. Wilkinson brought autographed photos for all attendees and donated wardrobe items and a beautiful (and quite sexy) book of art photography featuring celebrities in various stages of undress in bathtubs. But the prize I had my eye on the most was the prop chakram, Xena’s famous weapon, signed by both Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor. Every year, Team Awesome raffles off the fostering rights for the chakram. One lucky winner gets to take that beauty home for a year with the promise to return the fabled weapon (just like Xena’s actual chakram always returned to her) to be re-homed with a loving fan the next year (Oh yes…it will be mine). Donations from the weekend’s charity breakfast totaled over $12,000.
After breakfast on Sunday, my amazing nation-mate, Veesa, gifted me with a one-of-a-kind gift that I will treasure forever. She had brought a beautiful banner to hang on our cabins as a part of the decorating contest. Unbeknownst to me, she’d decided it would go home with a first timer, signed by all of our nation members and the retreat special guests. I choked up when she gave it to me and said “That’s going straight to the pool room.” I then had to explain that means I really, really love it; the ‘pool room’ is a reference to a relatively obscure Australian movie from the 90s called The Castle (the Aussie at the table got it! Check it out, it’s a good one and will remind you to keep fighting!). The day after I returned from California, I hung the banner up next to my diplomas in my office. When I’m having a tough day, I can look at the banner and remember, I am a Warrior!
One of the highlights of Sunday for me was chatting sociology with writer and producer Steven L. Sears. He is a fantastic human and so wonderful with fans. I knew I wanted to speak with him all weekend but it took me a couple of days to work up the nerve. Sears loves the retreat and the Xenites as much as we love the show and he’s very approachable. But I’m notoriously awkward around people I admire. So, of course, the first actual chat I had with him I was wearing my Xena cosplay. Despite my awkwardness, I managed to say something about our research project and he mentioned that he minored in sociology as an undergraduate. We chatted about the Always Keep (Nerd) Fighting project, fandom, and sociological theorists Marx and Durkheim and their perspectives on deviance and well, I could have stayed there and talked about soc theory FOREVER. I said that I could totally tell he was a soc minor thinking about the episodes he’d written. I knew there was a reason those were my favorites!
Sunday night after an amazing dinner, Team Awesome announced the winner of the coveted nation championship. Congratulations to the Valkyries! And then — we DANCED. I have not had so much fun in a long, long time. I logged well over 30,000 steps on my Fitbit which will surprise no one who saw me there. What can I say? You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t stop her line dancing.
Monday morning was emotional. I was more than ready to see my husband and kids, but it was time to say goodbye to new friends and old. Thankfully social media makes it easier than ever to stay in touch and I met some Xenites who live near me. We plan to meet up in person over the next year and I’ll see many of my new Xenite friends at Fan X Salt Lake in September where we’ll meet icons Lucy Lawless and Renee O’Connor!
I went to the Xenite Retreat to better understand how fandoms sustain themselves and their charitable initiatives after their show has finished airing. The Xenite Retreat is an excellent example of what sociologist Randall Collins called a successful interaction ritual chain. I have written elsewhere about the important of conventions and in-real-life fan gatherings for creating the collective effervescence that fuels fandom-based social activism and charity work (for more on this stay tuned for our book and also watch for a forthcoming chapter in CONventional Wisdom). The Xenite Retreat creates an abundance of emotional energy that spurs charitable action and sustains fans throughout the year. The in-real-life interaction chains are furthered by online-interactions during the off-season, if you will. This sustained energy has continued to bolster fandom engagement long after the beloved show ended.
I knew that attending the retreat was important to understand how fandoms change over time. It wasn’t until after returning home from the retreat, however, that I realized how important and powerful the experience was for me, personally. I was fortunate to attend summer camp as a kid growing up in the 80s. I made friends and memories that will last a lifetime. Those experiences weren’t all positive, though. As you can imagine, young, geeky, overly enthusiastic Tanya was sometimes the target of bullying and a lot of that bullying happened at summer camp. Thank you, Xenites, for welcoming me and for helping me overwrite those negative experiences with new, positive memories I’ll treasure forever.
Click here for more information about Xenite Retreat. April 2019 too long to wait for an amazing experience like this? Team Awesome agrees — Check out their Adult Summer Camp focused on Women’s empowerment called Weekend of Women coming August 24–27, 2018 near Chicago, Illinois.