FronteraFest Is Back to Push New Boundaries
The theatrical fringe festival proves there’s still space to experiment in a crowded Austin
Roaring back like some plague-repressed lion ready to rule the greasepaint jungle once again, Austin's longest-running and most beloved performance festival returns after a two-year pandemic hiatus. In 2023, FronteraFest will be a collaboration between Hyde Park Theatre and ScriptWorks, a joyous joint venture celebrating its 28th year of presenting the work – maybe cheesy, maybe brilliant, maybe goofy, maybe badass, always unique – of actors, artists, poets, dancers, and performers of all types from Austin and Texas and beyond.
Many faces familiar to the local scene return, including Erik Ott ("Big Poppa E," known from HBO's Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry), as well as veteran performers Lowell Bartholomee, Christine Hoang, Hank Schwemmer, Maggie Gallant, Jomo & the Possum Posse, Joy Cunningham, and Bernadette Nason.
This year's festival features two different showcases. The Short Fringe (works of 25 minutes or less) will run the entirety of the festival, Tue.-Sat., Jan. 17-Feb. 18, at Hyde Park Theatre (511 W. 43rd). The BYOV (Bring Your Own Venue) showcase runs Jan. 29-Feb. 4, at two places that aren't HPT.
Note: While the spirit of the festival is collaborative rather than competitive, there are weekly three-person voting panels as well as audience voting in the Short Fringe. The highest-ranked performances each week get to return to the stage on Saturday for a Best of the Week showcase. The final week of the Short Fringe is reserved for Best of the Fest, which are pieces selected from each Best of the Week. (This is why you need to reserve tickets for the final week now.) There's also a Wild Card night of pieces that final week, selected by FronteraFeststaff and crew.
What can you expect to see at this Short Fringe thing, citizen? Well, the weeknights (Tuesday to Friday) are always an unpredictable assortment – and the house tends to be packed with the various performers' friends and supporters. The Saturday shows, though? At this point there's no telling what they'll turn out to contain, but we reckon you won't find better – or weirder – stagework anywhere in town on those Best of the Week nights. And we already warned you about making reservations for the final Best of the Fest week: There's performance gold in them thar hills.
But let's not forget the BYOV part, and this year offers a pair of shows away from HPT. Rebecca Maag's Flood of Spirits features a séance in the year 1900, for which guests will be given a short family history of a deceased loved one and will be invited to participate in the séance with the small cast of Robyn Beckham, Justin Beckham, Greg Buis, and the playwright. (Jan. 31-Feb. 2. Tue., 6 & 8:45pm; Wed.-Thu., 6:30 & 8:30pm. Hillside Farmacy, 1209 E. 11th. floodofspirits.com.) Brooke McCarthy's How to Be an Ethical Slut is, ah, just what it says on the tin, presenting "topics that are often unseen onstage, like sexual health and nonconventional relationship styles like polyamory and swinging." (Jan. 29-30 & Feb. 4. Sun.-Mon., 8pm; Sat., 6pm. The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd. vortexrep.org.)
But we wanted to go past the basics on this thing, to engage a little with the wizards behind the curtain. So we asked HPT's Katherine Catmull, and Christina J. Moore, executive artistic director of ScriptWorks, "Why should Austinites be excited that FronteraFest is back?"
"For most of the 40-plus years I've lived here," said Catmull, "I've rolled my eyes at the whole Oh-Sure-But-If-You-Knew-What-Austin-Was-Like-Five-Minutes-Before-You-Got-Here thing. But the huge influx of well-off folks and subsequent insane housing costs have changed Austin enough that even I have to admit that, where I used to find funky cheap weirdo delightful places – cafes, vintage shops, Tex-Mex places, theatres, art shacks, comedy rooms, etc. – on practically every street, now everywhere I go things are trendy, shiny, pricey, and franchised. So if you miss old Austin or want a peek at what it was, FronteraFest is the place. Hyde Park Theatre is cheap, funky, and aggressively non-shiny."
"There's nothing else in Austin like it," Moore told us. "Even though I've been producing it for 20 years, there's always something that surprises me. It's also rare among fringe festivals in the country because the pieces aren't selected by a jury or by lottery, but slots are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis."
And, out of all the diverse antics and explorations, what might be the freakiest thing onstage this year?
"That's always impossible to say," said Catmull, "but I am super intrigued by the description and photo for 'Tooth'n'Hare' by Will Schutze and Zac Carr on Feb. 2. 'A dumbshow presented by Mr. Bonetangles and Picklehead the Clown. A puppet-clown collaboration by Will Schutze and Zac Carr. A dull spectacle of the state of suffering, a toothache, and a rabbit doctor named Philippe making house calls.' I'm also intrigued by the musician Adam Sultan's piece that same night, 'Buried in Grey Flannel,' where he 'leads you on a journey of olfaction and old habits' that's 'part TED Talk, part memoir, part madness.' And anything Matt Hislope does is going to be freaky and likely excellent. His 'A Disagreeable Object' dance happens on Feb. 8."
"Yes," said Moore, smiling, "Matt Hislope. Because who ever knows what he'll do?"
FronteraFest 2023, Tue.-Sat., Jan. 17-Feb. 18. Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd. Tickets and schedules at hydeparktheatre.org.