It’s a match made in theatrical heaven.
The Long Center for the Performing Arts needs high-quality, innovative shows. Fusebox Festival needs high-quality, flexible spaces. It makes sense that the two Austin arts groups have partnered on a regular basis during festival season — for Fusebox, that’s April — but also at times during the rest of the year. That’s when they team up to host touring acts, such as the upcoming multimedia show, "Zvizdal: Chernobyl, So Far So Close."
Staged by a Belgian collective named, confusingly, Berlin, it’s about a couple who live outside Chernobyl, the Ukrainian town that, in 1986, became the site of the worst nuclear accident in history. "Zvizdal" plays the Long Center for five performances, Feb. 8-10. Ron Berry, executive and artistic director of Fusebox Festival, first saw the show two years ago at the Noorderzon Performing Arts Festival in Groningen, The Netherlands.
“It’s a crazy story but a simple story,” Berry says. “And very moving.”
Combining film, performance and sculptural art, Berlin tries to approximate the experience of “live cinema.” The artists spent parts of five years hanging out with the subjects who live in the forbidden zone near Chernobyl with no utilities or neighbors.
“What does it mean to stay in a place when the world is telling you to leave?” Berry says. “In a place of the world's worst man-made disasters, and nature is taking over. They are close to being Chekhov characters — hilarious, tragic, doomed — you love them. They love each other and hate each other.”
He explains the "live cinema" approach: “They build the environment with the audience on two sides and a screen in the middle,” Berry says. “So we are watching a film, seeing each other, and under the screen are three meticulously created models of the farmhouse in different seasons. A robotic arm runs on a track under screen with a camera attached to it and those images are spliced onto the documentary film that you are watching. So, unlike something you might be watching on your personal screen, it looks like we are supposed to be watching this together.”
Rachel Watkins, assistant director of programming at the Long Center (who books the complex’s smaller, more flexible Rollins Studio Theatre), has seen clips of the show. She couldn’t wait to book it.
“It’s such a human story of survival," Watkins says. "Even though it’s so crazy, it’s also relatable. The interactive elements make it.”
Until she started booking the Rollins Studio Theatre, Watkins was unfamiliar with Fusebox’s history of presenting groundbreaking work that has made its performance festival one of the most respected on the international scene.
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“We’ve done Fusebox events almost every year for 10 years,” she says. “You don’t get to see these things elsewhere in town. The artists are often in Austin for the first time. So Fusebox is a huge asset to the community.”
Berry, a longtime Austin theater artist, attends more than 20 international festivals each year in order to hunt for new and unusual acts to present in Austin. Fusebox’s audiences tend to be as much fans of dance, club music or visual arts as theatergoers, the kind you might encounter at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, DiverseWorks in Houston, or the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio.
“Their audience is important to us,” Watkins says of Fusebox followers. “We know that their audience is younger, more progressive. If we are not reaching that audience, we are not really doing our jobs. It’s very important to our mission.”
The Long Center — originally planned to house Ballet Austin, Austin Symphony and Austin Opera, along with other established local groups and some touring shows — operates with a budget of between $11 million and $12 million a year. Fusebox is definitely the junior partner with a budget of $750,000.
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Yet Watkins and the Long Center have pushed hard to secure Fusebox partnerships like this one.
“It’s not just a rental,” Watkins says. “We are co-presenting it, which we don’t do very often. We don't have many open dates. It took some finagling to get this one on the calendar, especially not knowing when it would arrive. We had to use some magic to make it happen.”
Some of Fusebox’s acts offer pieces that are more artistically challenging for audiences. For the Rollins bookings, Berry and Watkins look for work that is “unique but accessible.” And it’s crucial during festival time that the center is near other performance spaces.
“I think for us, one of the exciting things about doing a festival in a city is the opportunity to use the festival as platform to explore a city,” Berry says. “We have stuff in funky warehouses, parks, bridges and neighborhoods, but also major cultural centers. The location of the Long Center is — physically, geographically — so right within the festival, with the city as a backdrop. We’ve held at least two of our kickoff events on the terrace. And certain artists need what the center can provide: height, equipment and flexibility. The space is well-supported and outfitted.”
Fusebox is no stranger to collaboration. They have partnered with the Contemporary Austin, Women & Their Work, and Ballet Austin during their free festival — production costs are covered through grants, gifts, crowd-funding and the Fusebox Eve gala fundraiser — and during the rest of the year with Canopy, Big Medium, Blanton Museum of Art, Austin Film Society and the Landmarks public art program at the University of Texas.