Sometimes it seems that in the arts there are two certainties: death and festivals. That’s one impression I took away from a recent visit to the festival-obsessed South Texas city of Austin, where South by Southwest (SXSW), a massive 25-year-old music event that has grown to encompass film and technology, garners worldwide attention every spring. SXSW was over by the time I arrived in late April, but no fewer than seven other fêtes were simmering: the Moontower Comedy & Oddity Fest, Austin Food and Wine festival, Austin Reggae Festival, Austin Psych Fest (celebrating psychedelic music), Texas Community Music Festival, Capital City Salsa Festival and No Pants Day Austin. While I kept my pants on, I took part in yet another jollification: Fusebox, a 12-day performance marathon featuring an abundance of hybrid work theatre, music, film and a line-up of culinary events called “Digestible Feats.”
In a city of so many festivals, why have another? On the opening page of Fusebox’s program booklet, a 155-page pocket compendium, festival artistic director Ron Berry responds conscientiously to devil’s advocates: “What sorts of things can festivals do that other events can’t do? What can our festival do that other festivals can’t or aren’t doing? How can we leverage the mechanism of ‘festival’ to discover new things about our city and the world?” he inquires in Socratic fashion.
This open kind of inquiry is a good indication of what Fusebox is all about: experimentation, conversation and innovation. “We encourage artists to break things,” Berry ventures. “Not just to do weird shit—which I like, too—but get at something more vital and alive.” His opening notes also include advice on speaking with strangers: “Please do this.”
Talking to strangers may sound like a deceptively simple suggestion. But so often at festivals, where colleagues from across the country and the globe catch up with each other and jockey for limited amounts of networking time, regular chitchat can be hard to come by. At these pressure-cookers, artists gather in one corner, presenters talk amongst themselves, and festival staffs, exhausted from long days of work, do their best to remain standing. For younger artists—not to mention audiences—this who’s talking-to-whom vibe can be rather isolating. But Fusebox manages to avoid this problem. With its mishmash of theatre, music, film and culinary programming, Fusebox attracts swaths of humanity keen on communicating across disciplinary borders.
Playwright Sibyl Kempson, who presented River of Gruel: The Requirement(s) of Narrow Approach(es) as part of Fusebox’s developmental “Machine Shop” series (more on that later), describes the ambience: “Everyone stands in the dirt eating snow cones and hashing it out until very late at night.” She points out how chatter at the festival hub—a raft of picnic tables on a craggy lawn beside an enormous empty warehouse, where bands played late into the night—“manages to cut through the mumbo-jumbo of posturing and one-upmanship and glad-handing and ‘hate-partying’ I’ve felt at other festivals. There is a feeling of real friendship and love about Fusebox. You really get to know other humans.”
She’s not just waxing poetic. True exchange was a major goal when Berry and a few colleagues began Fusebox in 2004. These founders wanted to address two primary concerns. “It felt like there was a lack of conversation between different art forms—even while running my own venue, conversations about art could be pretty siloed,” Berry says. Fusebox, he figured, would create a platform for dialogue about various art forms and their relationships to each other—and not just feel-good exchange vis-à-vis interdisciplinary work, but tough talk, too, especially during a series of art-focused meetings dubbed “Chewing the Fat.”
The Fusebox team was also interested in addressing the fact that while a lot of energy and momentum was being poured into Austin’s artistic scene, the majority of local work wasn’t traveling outside of the city (with the exception of a few groups like the 17-year-old Rude Mechanicals, which has found a place on national and international touring circuits). “Sometimes amazing things can happen in a vacuum,” Berry allows. “But for the long-term health and growth of any community, you also want to be engaging with the world of ideas beyond, and see what’s happening elsewhere.”
Fusebox’s current model imports U.S.-made and international work to Austin while also featuring shows and installations by local artists. The promise of such a balance attracts such artists as New York City-based Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, who presented This Great Country, an adaptation of Death of a Salesman, in this year’s Machine Shop series. “Having a mix of people keeps the festival focused on an even dialogue between foreign and local artists, as opposed to a hierarchy of out-of-towners swooping in to instruct the local-yokels in ‘how to make art,’” notes Browde. Their company, 600 Highwaymen, held six weeks of auditions in Austin to gather local performers for This Great Country. The show premiered in the still-functioning Lucky Lady Bingo Hall, just off Interstate-35, which cuts vertically through the city.
“One gets the feeling that Ron [Berry] curates on impulse, and that he’s looking more at the spirit and heart of how artists are conducting themselves and engaging with their work, as opposed to just the aesthetics of the work itself,” Browde observes. She says Berry and his team—managing director Brad Carlin and producing director Natalie George—were unfazed when she and Silverstone asked if they could present This Great Country at a bingo hall. “They have a laid-back, thumbs-up approach,” adds Browde. “They generally say yes first and then figure details out later, an attitude that sadly has become increasingly rare in producing structures.”
Her partner Silverstone declares, “Fusebox is the only festival I know that has the guts to program eating and drinking as a performance event.” The “Digestible Feats” component of the festival, curated by Hank Cathey, pairs food and performance with curious combinations of artists—for example, an afternoon event on the patio of the city’s Whole Foods mother ship led by composer Graham Reynolds and chef Sonya Coté. As Coté presented a vegan feast of unexpected flavors—who knew pickled radish with strawberries could be so tasty?—Reynolds played experimental piano music.
At that sensory picnic I sat beside Jenny Larson, artistic director of Austin’s Salvage Vanguard Theater. Later, I attended a “Digestible Feats” collaboration at Larson’s own theatre: Sweet Betrayal combined live painting by Kaci Beeler, text layered on cards and walls by writer David Fruchter, and four flavorful confections by pastry chef Jodi Elliott. Moving from sweet to sour, I detected a love story gone wrong amid a mouthful of lemon-burst explosions; later, I wrapped my tongue around a chocolate mousse–like creation while reading the words, “In your mind you take her in your arms, you assure her that everything is going to be OK. This is a lie, even in your mind.”
“I sometimes think that the structure or the form of telling a story can get in the way—we sometimes become so familiar with the form, it’s hard to tell a good story,” Berry noted to me at this event, between bites of raspberry zest. Larson chimed in, “Fusebox is a goulash of entertainment. The whole thing is about fusion and playfulness.”
Libations led to loquaciousness at Bottled-in-Bond: The Decline and Fall of a Thug as Told in Five Drinks, a creation of playwrights Steve Moore and Zeb L. West, with bartender Jason Stevens. A sequence of five superlative cocktails was presented, while a story about love and prison escapes unfolded. Audience members were asked to don various bits of costumery, wield props and proclaim lines of dialogue whispered to them by West (your correspondent even took a role as a jailbird). By the end of the performance, spectators-turned-performers were patting each other on the back for their fine turns as the heroine in act one or the villain in act four.
The audience-member-turned-performer is just one example of the unexpected role-swapping that goes on at Fusebox. Consider the Austin Pig Pile, which generated the aforementioned show River of Gruel. Helmed by New York City-based Sibyl Kempson, the Pig Pile involved the participation of Austin ScriptWorks, Physical Plant Theater, Rubber Repertory, the Rude Mechs, Salvage Vanguard and local artists Connor Hopkins, Graham Reynolds and others. According to Kempson, “It’s sort of a hive experience.” She describes massive brainstorming sessions and group field trips that have grown into a kind of mythology for the piece being developed. As artists bring in text and ideas to rehearsal, Kempson weaves these threads with additions of her own text. A goulash indeed.
“We are emulating the way we made things as kids—making it up as we go along, with everyone contributing in the way that feels right to them. We’ve had to accept that confusion and frustration and everyone talking at once is a part of that,” says Kempson with a hearty laugh. The Pig Pile will continue to meet and work in Austin and New York, presenting the next stage of River of Gruel at Fusebox 2013 and its first fully realized production at Fusebox 2014.
Austin playwright Steve Moore, part of Pig Pile, also benefited from the Machine Shop series, which showcased his own in-development piece, Adam Sultan. A speculative biography of the Austin theatre scene, Adam Sultan is set in 2051; its title character is a real-life actor/composer/dancer in the Austin community who plays a stage version of himself. The 25-minute show encompassed a love story interspliced with imagined obituaries of actual Austin artists; death descriptions ranged from the personal and silly to the realistically mundane, producing an eerie and meditative effect. (Adam Sultan, already well-poised for performance, will continue to evolve leading up
Austin playwright Steve Moore, part of Pig Pile, also benefited from the Machine Shop series, which showcased his own in-development piece, Adam Sultan. A speculative biography of the Austin theatre scene, Adam Sultan is set in 2051; its title character is a real-life actor/composer/dancer in the Austin community who plays a stage version of himself. The 25-minute show encompassed a love story interspliced with imagined obituaries of actual Austin artists; death descriptions ranged from the personal and silly to the realistically mundane, producing an eerie and meditative effect. (Adam Sultan, already well-poised for performance, will continue to evolve leading up to its final presentation at next year’s Fusebox.) At another point during Adam Sultan, an Adam Sultan lookalike puppet appeared alongside the real-life Sultan.
Such metatheatrical moments cropped up throughout Fusebox. At Elvis Machine, by Austin-based ensemble the Duplicates, the King was a talking robot, and audiences sat in parked cars drive-in style. At one point spectators were urged to honk their horns while actors ran among the vehicles, gleefully joining the tumult by banging on hoods and doors. In Dayna Hanson’s Gloria’s Cause, a delicious dance-theatre exploration of the ironies inherent in the American Revolution, actors dropped character mid-show for a vital segment in which they ate cherry pie and swapped real-life anecdotes about racism before returning to a freewheeling corporeal romp.
One of the strangest and most adventurous pieces at this year’s Fusebox was Phil Soltanoff’s An Evening with William Shatner Asterisk, in which an actress pushes around a TV atop a rolling cart. On its screen, a brooding Shatner spouts philosophy (“But what is the difference between art and science?”) spliced from archival “Star Trek” episodes, creating a choppy, epileptic effect while also nodding to the possibility of a post-human theatre.
“Fusebox allows someone like me—a hybrid artist who has a lot of ideas that don’t necessarily fit into the prescribed theatre system—a place to flourish,” writes Soltanoff in a post-fest e-mail. He goes on, “Ron and I share an interest in ideas. Particularly ideas that challenge theatrical form. What can happen in a space? Not so much what can be represented, but what can actually happen?”
For me, nothing at Fusebox happened more unexpectedly than David Zambrano’s Soul Project. My first viewing (it was so good I saw it twice) took place during a particularly humid afternoon in the festival hub, a cavernous, un-air-conditioned warehouse. Zambrano, who bears a striking resemblance to Harry Houdini, joined the audience barefoot and laid out some parameters: events would happen around us on the cement floor; we should only offer seats to people who really needed them. Out of nowhere, it seemed, a dancer began to writhe and thrash to an indiscernible monologue; after a blast of very loud soul music (and some nervous audience wandering) another dancer launched into an outlandish mix of postmodern funk and homespun groove. It was as if the audience had been transported into the dancers’ bedrooms as they jammed to a favorite tune. No sooner had you moved to get another angle on the action than a change in the music would propel another dancer into herky-jerky-jive-pop. (That is not a technical term.)
So what can a festival do that other events can’t? Fusebox participants offered me clues. One of my favorites came from Moore: “The Fusebox team has a keen eye for work that starts with formal ideas, but which gives way at some point to things like gusto, generosity and grief. Fusebox wants to see the future and make the future.” This isn’t pure hyperbole: Berry and company are pursuing a series for 2013 that would investigate our relationship to technology by pairing techno-nerds with artists, similar to the foodie/artist mix of “Digestible Feats.”
A festival can also provide more access to Austin talent. This year Berry and company held an open submission process for local artists, and the results paid off. Bridget Quinn’s Pay Phone Revival Project was part of Fusebox’s “Free Range Art,” which features installation work. Quinn commissioned various artists to transform abandoned pay phone booths into objects of interaction for the public. Meanwhile, under the same rubric, Travis Weller’s Willow-Spence handed audience members maps and asked them to tune into an FM-radio chamber concert while walking around the East Austin neighborhood.
While chatting with Berry post-festival, I remarked, “I definitely saw a lot of theatre at Fusebox, but it all felt very far from the kitchen sink.” Another note from Moore confirmed my impression: “The stories getting told are about the edges of possibility, particularly conceptual possibility,” as he puts it. “The scale of the work is conceptually very large and adventurous, even if the work itself sometimes happens on a very small scale.”
Already, in its present form, Fusebox is no mean achievement: It brings together disparate people and artists; it creates a platform for dialogue and celebration; and it offers that rare chance to eat a snow cone in the dirt while hashing it all out.
Bent’s trip to Austin was made possible by TCG’s Leadership U[niversity]: Continuing Ed staff program.
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