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TBA Online: News & Features: June 2014

Home on the Free Range: Austin’s Fusebox Festival

Thursday, May 1, 2014   (0 Comments)
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By Robert Avila

Dog-eared and offbeat and surprisingly green despite the ubiquitous construction sites of the current real estate boom, the rapidly expanding metropolis of Austin, Texas still feels like a Richard Linklater film waiting to happen. A cruise around town offers an inspiring array of decaying mid-twentieth-century commercial signage, deserted parking lots, low-rent bungalows, storefront galleries, public swimming holes, curio shops, and languid patio bars.
Austin's artistically and geographically wide-ranging Fusebox festival showed it all off well, across multiple venues and site-specific events, as a local and international mix of artists and arts lovers convened for its 10th edition from April 16 to 27. While lesser known than the behemoth of SXSW, the relatively modest-sized Fusebox has developed a significant reputation in the visual and performing arts world as a pleasantly laid-back but serious platform for exceptional local, national and international work. At the heart of the programming is an eclectic mix of theatre, performance, dance and—perhaps more often—hybrid work that blurs disciplinary lines but often has a strong live or performative component.


Bay Area choreographer Larry/Laura Arrington's performance experiment SQUART! at Fusebox 2014. Photo: Robbie Sweeny

Fusebox founder and artistic director Ron Berry visited the Bay Area last November as part of an ongoing and informal series of Austin/Bay Area conversations, with which I've been involved, sponsored by the Center for International Theatre Development. In conjunction with these exchanges, several Bay Area theatre professionals traveled to Austin this April to take in some of the festival, joining a contingent of Bay Area artists who were already Austin-bound—including choreographer Larry/Laura Arrington, whose participatory performance experiment, SQUART!, was coproduced at Fusebox this year by Austin's House of Ia in one of many highlights of the festival's second week.

Among other memorable productions in that second week was an exceptional blues-infused, ensemble-based mediation on the life and death of a young African American man, Restless Natives, by Austin-based choreographer and dancer Charles Anderson and his Dance Theater X; a wonderfully inventive, wordless duet set entirely around the breath by Bulgarian theater artist Ida Daniel and her company, The Mighty Mighty Pressure Cooker (copresented with Salvage Vanguard Theater); and two exceptional pieces of live performance within projected animation by acclaimed multimedia artist Miwa Matreyek (also part of the Los Angeles–based group Cloud Eye Control), co-presented by Women & Their Work. The full slate of festival offerings can be found here.

Restless Natives at Fusebox, 2014. Photo: Sandy Carson, courtesy of UT Department of Theatre & Dance

Fusebox turned 10 this year. It also, for the first time (and for reasons described below), made all ticketed events free to the public. Festival goers simply made a reservation for a free ticket on the Fusebox website (although a policy of "respect the reservation" gently encouraged people who wanted to continue making reservations in the future to honor their commitment by letting the box office know at least two hours ahead of time if they couldn't make it. Some tickets were always set aside for walk-ups too).
In the spirit of Fusebox's apt theme this year of "Free Range Art," the following is part of a free-ranging conversation with Ron Berry about the festival and its vision, conducted on the fly in an Austin deli between a presenters' luncheon and a performance of Bulgarian artist Venelin Shurelov's impressive "cyber-lecture," Man Ex Machina, at Salvage Vanguard Theater.

Fusebox executive/artistic director Ron Berry.

Robert Avila: Tell me a little about the origins of Fusebox. I recall you said you started the festival in a period of frustration, or is that too strong a word?
Ron Berry: Well, I was a theatre artist, writing and directing and producing work here. And it did feel like I was operating in a vacuum. I was also really struggling with my work, I think. I loved the act of making the work. That was always very joyous. I love the community here. But I also felt sort of stuck.
RA: Were those things related, operating in a vacuum and feeling stuck creatively?
RB: Well, I don't know that I even necessarily put them together at the time, but they were, totally. But that was part of it. Part of it was wanting to engage in a larger conversation with artists living outside of Austin—both create a platform for local artists so their work could be seen, but then also inject new ideas and new thinking into the local community by bringing in artists from around the country and around the world. Especially with the live arts, with performance, even with certain visual arts projects—things you need to be in the room with. We think Austin has a pretty rich tradition of music and film, and I think those things travel easier anyway, and we have huge festivals that cater to those things. So we didn't really do that. At the same time, we also didn't want to just do a performance festival. I think the live event is at the heart of our festival, but it's truly a hybrid festival. We're really interested in this conversation across different art forms. One [reason for that is] so much of the work that I'm interested in feels very hybrid and blurry anyway. But also I'm a big believer in the unexpected and unlikely possibilities that arise from encountering different approaches and ideas from outside of your sphere. I feel like a good way to do that is encountering or collaborating with someone from a different art form. Or it can be just someone from a different geography. As an artist, I found that to be the case.

RA: It expanded your understanding of what you were doing, gave you a broader context?
RB: It's very exciting to realize there's this whole other conversation happening, and it's fun to start to tap into that. We often think of this festival ultimately as a platform for conversation and ideas. That's why we do a lot of stuff around food. Food is a natural facilitator of conversations. It's a great equalizer. It kind of takes the air out of it sometimes, when you can just sit across the table from each other and shoot the shit.
RA: Austin, like San Francisco, is a major food town. And at Fusebox food becomes a gateway into the culture of the city.
RB: We are very interested in place, and what does it mean to be doing a festival in Austin. That's why we have this roving festival hub each year. That's an opportunity to both explore different kinds of social spaces, but also to go into different parts of the city. Both for locals and for out-of-towners. It's a way to experience the city and the culture of this place. And the act of going free has both necessitated and also freed up some staff time to reach out to populations, organizations—people that were not really engaging with the festival and invite them in in new ways. And bring artists to their organization or their community.

Pieter Ampe (standing) and Guilherme Carrido in Still Standing You at Fusebox 2014. Photo: Phile Deprez

RA: Can you say more about how going free has fueled the festival's mission?
RB: I do think going free was a good first step. It erases a certain barrier. We have seen 40 percent of our tickets [this year] have come from people who have never come to the festival before. That's pretty significant. That's pretty great. But I also think that's just a first step. There's still work to be done creating [context for the work]. I mean, some of the work we do, kids and dogs would like. But some of it, it's helpful if you have a little bit of context. Especially work that's a little bit more conceptual. If it's a narrative play of some kind, maybe you don't have to have context. But there's certain work where I think it really helps because the context is part of the discussion, it's part of the work. So that's been both a challenge and kind of fun to create different windows into the work for people who maybe don't have a sense of [where it's coming from].
RA: Are there drawbacks to going free?
RB: I liked in some ways the challenge—I actually love going to free stuff—but there is this perception that free stuff is maybe lesser in quality, or it's lost some of its teeth or something; it's more accessible. At the same time that we want to invite more people in, we also don't want to dumb down our work. We still want to do really challenging work.
RA: How do you program the festival?
RB: Normally, in terms of programming the festival, there are a lot of factors, but I like to identify a couple of projects that I think are really exciting and then kind of build the festival around that: What would be interesting in proximity to this other thing? There's obviously logistical and financial considerations. It's an ongoing conversation with this community, in Austin, as well as an ongoing national conversation. We're always thinking about what's happening here, what's not happening here, what would be interesting to introduce here or inject here. So that sometimes means bringing a piece that's been around for three or four years nationally but has never been here, but that I think would be really interesting for people to see. But then I always try and make sure there are a couple of projects that my international colleagues maybe haven't seen or are less familiar with. I'm less concerned with premieres. I don't really care about premiering work. But I do like helping to throw some new ideas or perspectives or approaches into a bigger conversation.
RA: Can you say something about the Bay Area participation this year?
RB: I think we may have had one other Bay Area artist [in past years], but this was great. It was great having [Bay Area] people here attending the festival. And then SQUART! was great! I love the idea of creating a space within the festival for people to create with one another. It's so exciting. There were people there from Philadelphia, Pieter [Ampe] and Gui [Carrido] from Belgium and Portugal were in there. The judges—the judges were hilarious. Lovely. Strong. It felt great. It felt like we should do this every year. It felt so natural. And there were also some genuinely interesting moments. Making Deborah Hay dance! I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

For more information on Fusebox, visit the festival website