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FronteraFest lets artists spread wings

Cate Blouke
Sam Brewer and Clay Avery in 'Schadenfreude' by Jason Rainey, part of FronteraFest 2011's Short Fringe.

Fringe festivals are hothouses for unexpected and exciting projects to sprout and blossom. They're a place where ideas are planted by playwrights and fertilized by followers. Though sometimes those ideas wither and die, or even occasionally give off a bad smell, fringe festivals often allow new pieces to grow into full and glorious bloom.

And at Austin's annual FronteraFest at Hyde Park Theatre, plays and performers get a chance to flourish in the middle of winter.

In its 18th year, one of the longest-running fringe festivals in the country, Frontera has finally come of age. As it has matured, it also has also done a lot of growing, and the greenhouse has expanded in a variety of directions. Among the 80 participants in this year's five-week Short Fringe, which focuses on short performances, are people from coast to coast — the Bitter Poet from New York and Keira McDonald from Seattle, just to name a couple.

With "Bring Your Own Venue" shows and Long Fringe performances at Salvage Vanguard and the Blue Theatre, FronteraFest is now featuring more exotic fruit than ever. Teresa Harrison has trekked out from Colorado, and artists all over Texas are taking advantage of this slow-season oasis.

Not merely a playground for young creators and companies, the festival employs more artists than any other time of year, bridging generations of theater practitioners and producers. John Boulanger, author of the award-winning "House of Several Stories," jumped at the unique opportunity Frontera offers a starting playwright.

Speaking with Equity actor Lauren Lane back in September, Boulanger realized that Frontera, with its low production costs and short run, is a great chance to enlist as much talent as possible. His Long Fringe show, "A Writer's Vision," will be an extravaganza of Austin's acting talent, employing 13 cast members (instead of the seven that a "normal" full production would employ). And as the writer and director, he has tailored it specifically to them.

Though he recently graduated from Texas State University with his master's in playwriting, Boulanger's bachelor's degree is in directing, and he thinks of himself as "a director who accidentally wrote a good play."

"Vision's" cast runs the gamut of experience, from students to teachers, ingénues to experts, and Boulanger is thrilled to be working with so many talented actors (Lauren Lane, Jill Blackwood, Martin Burke, Babs George and Ian Scott, just for starters).

An evolution of an old-school project (three one-act plays that all happened to involve the same character), Boulanger's comedy is at least semi-autobiographical. The show revolves around Jerome (Michael Amendola), a young writer who is visited by various figures during the course of the evening. But other than that basic premise, "Vision" is shrouded in anticipation-building mystery. Boulanger prefers to keep his audience guessing, but he revealed that in order to tie the three pieces together he had to introduce a narrator figure into the piece ... a narrator who just happens to speak in Dr. Seuss-style verse.

Boulanger's plays are never entirely straightforward or realistic, but if "House of Several Stories" is any indication, "A Writer's Vision" promises to be a great ride. The wacky and absurd comedy about life, love and laughter will bring together an array of Austin's talent for a unique and exciting adventure on the fringe.

This year's fringe is extending its fingers of influence outward, however, with the most entries for the Bring Your Own Venue portion that the festival has ever had. Despite some familiar spaces (Applied Mechanics will be performing at the Vortex and VSA Texas at the Dougherty Arts Center), the venues (and artists) aren't limited to the Austin area. This year, BYOV is stretching all the way up to Round Rock, and Penfold Theatre is producing a play by a nationally recognized, Waco-based playwright, and they're doing it in a library.

Aside from artistic excellence, Penfold's mission is to bring more theater to Round Rock and the other under-served, northerly areas of Austin.

They've been working directly with the City of Round Rock to increase support for the arts, including plans for a new theater venue as part of the Round Rock Downtown Redevelopment Plan. After the success of their first performance up north, "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged," artistic director Ryan Crowder is excited about their upcoming experiment — this is the first production for which they'll be charging for tickets.

"Going With Jenny" is a contemporary comedy about love, marriage and the turning points in people's lives. The show follows an evening in a couple's life, focusing on a husband's reflections about his past relationships with five or six women who all happened to be named Jenny. Written by husband and wife Thomas and Sherry Jo Ward, faculty members in the theater department at Baylor University, the play has transformed as part of Penfold's production.

It started as a one-man, stand-up comedy routine, but when Thomas Ward was asked to expand the piece into a full-length production, he volunteered his wife to write a response (without asking her first). Though the show's premiere at the Theatrical Outfit in Atlanta in 2009 had the two characters talking separately, this version is much more integrated. Crowder has enjoyed directing his first show with living playwrights, and the show has grown and developed in a collaborative and fruitful process.

An opportunity for artists to both plant new seeds and nurture young saplings, Frontera is also the chance for artists to revisit and revive works of previous generations.

Teresa Harrison, a recent graduate of Naropa University, home of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, is bringing Austin into the world of Allen Ginsberg's inflammatory masterpiece, "Howl."

Harrison hopes to help audiences see the ways in which Ginsberg's piece of spontaneous prose has taken on new relevance for a generation of minds destroyed by the madness of multimedia. As she puts it, her piece digs in to the question of how we communicate as a culture, looking back to find a mirror for our own "Facebook walls and Twittered souls."

The Beat poets were committed to action, to reaching out in a physical way to a small or large public with or without approval. While the Internet set off a nuclear explosion of creativity and freedom, Harrison sees a different sense of risk involved in sitting behind a computer screen. She wants us to think about how different (or not) our times really are with our gated communities and Patriot Act.

Harrison describes the poem as a nesting of images with a purposeful abandonment of smooth transitions. It gives people the opportunity to have a reaction, to make a discovery about themselves and about the nature of theater and storytelling. Her "HOWL" is an offering up to our consciousness, a rhythmic and cadenced attempt to commune with others, to pierce through to the divinity of ourselves.

From brand new works to once-banned books, from solo performances to casts of 12 and 13, this year's FronteraFest is a cornucopia of creative talent.

The festival is a playground and a laboratory, a greenhouse and a nursery. It's a grab-bag of dance, improv, performance art, multimedia and madness. It's an exercise in going out on a limb and hoping it holds firm. And the FronteraFest forest is growing taller and broader every year.

Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Teresa Harrison's name.

Critics' Picks

  • "Going with Jenny"

Penfold Theatre Co.

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 21-22, 3 p.m. Jan. 23 and 29

Where: Round Rock Public Library, 216 E. Main St., Round Rock

Tickets: $15

  • "A Writer's Vision(s)"

When: 7 p.m. Jan. 21, 1 p.m. Jan. 22, 10:15 p.m. Jan. 28 and 5:15 p.m. Jan. 30

Where: Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Road

Tickets: $10

  • "Howl"

When: 7 p.m. Jan. 26, 9:15 p.m. Jan. 27, 1 p.m. Jan. 29, 5:15 p.m. Jan. 30

Where: Blue Theatre, 916 Springdale Road

Tickets: $10

What: Five weeks of new alternative theater and performance