Cultivating Creativity

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

In wake of pandemic’s devastation to cultural sector, Texas Performing Arts partners with Fusebox Festival to create a residency program to help Austin artists develop new works

A stage with a structure comprised off ladders, with dancers in black and white hoods and masks.

Professor Charles O. Anderson's residency culminated in a livestream of (Re)current Unrest from the Bass Concert Hall stage in October 2020.

By Alicia Dietrich
Photos by Fabian Villa

In March 2020, COVID-19 hit Austin and the performing arts industry with the force of a Category 5 hurricane. Theatres and performance spaces all over the country went dark, seemingly overnight, with no idea when they’d be able to return to live performance.

But even during these dark times—or perhaps because of them—Texas Performing Arts Executive Director Bob Bursey wanted to think big. How might Texas Performing Arts (TPA) radically rethink partnerships with the Austin community to support local artists in a year when so many gigs dried up or disappeared overnight?

“The pandemic really presented the perfect opportunity for us to move boldly into doing something different,” said Bursey, who had only stepped into his role in January 2020. “Of course, because we're not able to hold in-person performances, that leaves us with our incredible spaces and our amazing team available in a way that would never ordinarily happen, and that created space for us to think differently about the kind of work that we do.”

Even before moving to Austin, Bursey had already been in conversation with Fusebox Festival leaders Ron Berry and Anna Gallagher-Ross about how they might collaborate. They’d discussed the idea of a residency program, and the pandemic created an even greater sense of urgency to make it happen. The teams pulled together a plan to identify a group of Austin artists or ensembles to offer them a residency opportunity. Beginning with a set of values—including diversity, equity and inclusion, alongside excellence, ambition and rigor—they hoped to find artists based in Austin who could significantly benefit from this type of support, who were at a stage of their careers where it would be impactful and who were making excellent, thoughtful and imaginative work.

“What are all the different ways that we can get money, get resources, get opportunities in the hands of artists right now? Maybe in a way that we had always wanted to, but hadn't been able to do previously,” said Berry, founding director of Fusebox Festival. “And does this moment allow us to look at how we support not just the presentation of work, but the creation of work and that process? Can we, perhaps, imagine a new way of supporting artists so that they're not the ones that are always having to shoulder the majority of that work and the financial burden of building a piece?”

The team identified three individual artists and one ensemble for the initiative’s inaugural year and offered them up to $20,000 each in project funding for technical support and artist fees, plus access to the theaters, studios and production shops at Texas Performing Arts, valued at $30,000, to create a total award of $50,000 for each residency.

“This is an unprecedented opportunity for artists living in our city, specifically for performing artists,” said Fusebox Co-Artistic Director Gallagher-Ross. “This program really bridges TPA to the local community. These are magnificent theater spaces, and TPA is really being generous and opening its doors to allow artists to work in them. It's very rare that Austin artists—especially the ones that we work with—get to work at this scale and with these kinds of resources at their disposal.”

In its inaugural year, the selected artists include two Dance faculty members—Professor Charles O. Anderson and Associate Professor Gesel Mason—as well as playwright, director and performer Rudy Ramirez (M.A., Performance as Public Practice, 2012) and the Frank Wo/Men Collective, an intersectional performance collective that counts many Theatre and Dance alumni in their core group.

“We're approaching each project and each collaboration with our resident artist with the question, ‘How can we help?’” said Bursey. “And so each of these four residencies is completely different and responsive to the needs of the artist and the project.”

Dancers in white costumes perform on a stage with low lights and a tall structure in the center of the stage.

When the pandemic derailed a national tour of Anderson's evening-length work (Re)current Unrest, he was able to use the residency to adapt his show to a format that could be filmed and streamed anywhere.

A PIVOT TO DIGITAL

Charles O. Anderson, head of the Dance division in the Department of Theatre and Dance, had big plans for 2020. His work (Re)current Unrest, which had been in development for years, was set to launch a national tour.

(Re)current Unrest, an evening-length dance performance, deals directly and unflinchingly with America’s history of racism, violence against Black people, police brutality and Anderson’s own family history. These themes have always felt urgent for Anderson, but they took on a new resonance in 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s death and a national reckoning on racial injustice.

When it became obvious a physical tour wasn’t in the cards for 2020, Anderson began thinking about how he could pivot to a digital performance of the work, and the residency offered the perfect opportunity.

A student dancer dressed in white interacts with Charles O. Anderson, dressed in black.

The production included more than 30 dancers, who were test weekly for COVID-19.

Anderson recruited more than 30 student and alumni dancers, who rehearsed in pods of six to maintain safe social distancing. He hired director of photography Maggie Bailey, who had filmed an earlier iteration of (Re)current Unrest at Fusebox Festival in 2018.

The team rehearsed over four weeks—taking a two-week break before the performance after one dancer tested positive in the project’s weekly proactive COVID-19 testing regimen—and performed the work in two performances livestreamed from Bass Concert Hall.

The livestreams drew almost 1,000 viewers and much positive critical acclaim. (Re)current Unrest is now on a virtual tour, with livestreams hosted by other organizations across the country, including Dance Place in Washington, D.C.

A masked dancer rehearses in a dim rehearsal space.

Associate Professor Gesel Mason's residency supported her project Yes/And. As part of her residency, Mason explored different performance personas.

CREATING TIME, SPACE AND FREEDOM TO BE AND CREATE

For Associate Professor of Dance Gesel Mason, the residency program provided her both time and space to develop a new project she’d been working on for a few years: Yes/And.

“Yes/And is organized around a question of who would you be and what would you do if, as a Black woman, you didn’t have anything to worry about?” said Mason. “That’s been the guiding question around it. What would you create? How might you be in community with others? And what does that free up in your mind and body without these other burdens?”

Mason traveled to Florida in 2019 for a five-week Robert Rauschenberg Residency on Captiva Island, and she used the time to play with these questions of Yes/And. It took a few weeks to relax into the space and freedom of the residency, and as she began to explore and play, a new persona organically emerged. Mason refers to these characters or personas as “performance avatars” that allow her “portals into other ways of being.”

“It’s a methodology,” said Mason. “Yes/And is a methodology of undoing. To get to this moment of freedom.”

A camera person films a performer looking out from a stage to a large, empty auditorium.

Mason invited Black women from the Austin community onto the Bass Concert Hall stage for filmed interviews.

For her Austin residency, she’s been working to connect with a community of Black women in Austin and setting up regular conversations in a virtual space for group members to check in on one another’s well-being and explore the questions around Yes/And. The group includes fellow dancers, musicians, hip hop artists, poets, academics, students and even her mother.

Mason set aside time and space in Texas Performing Arts’ facilities to explore what emerges. Using the open space of the Bass Concert Hall stage, she filmed a series of interviews with Black female-identifying Austin residents to create a series of video portraits. She also partnered with the ICOSA artist collective for a livestreamed, five-hour New Year’s Eve “durational performance mediation” to mark the transition from 2020 to 2021. Mason used the video portraits she created and brought works by local Black women-identifying visual artists into the ICOSA gallery space and used embodied performance states to access her performance avatars.

A masked dancer is flanked by a balloon sculpture.

Mason's residency culminated in a live-streamed, five-hour performance of burst! from Austin’s ICOSA Gallery on New Year's Eve.

Mason has taken a process-oriented approach to the project, and each iteration of Yes/And is specific to the community in which it’s developed, and she continues to document each iteration of the project on her website. Although Mason doesn’t know what the ultimate outcome will be, she says she knows that this process is exactly the right approach for this project at this time and in this place.

A performer with a helmet and mask squeezes in between horizontal shelves.

For their residency, Frank Wo/Men Collective built a multi-room set in the McCullough Theatre and drew upon childhood cravings and nostalgia to create characters in the space. Here, company member Alexa Capareda rehearses inside the set.

JUMPSTARTING PLAY AND EXPLORATIOIN

In spring 2020, the Frank Wo/Men Collective was gearing up to perform Jiggle Pets at Fusebox Festival when COVID-19 hit. The young collective creates highly physical devised works that have drawn rave reviews from local critics. The residency offered the group a chance to regroup and spark new ideas.

“I feel like it just was the right place and right time for us to have our artistic energy snowball,” said founder and artistic director Kelsey Oliver (B.F.A., Dance, 2015). “The fire has been real in a way that I don't think we would have just mustered up our own. The timing of it reinvigorated our spirits and our artistic desires in a way that feels really nice right now.”

A costumed performer smashes an object on the floor.

Frank Wo/Men Collective co-founder Kelsey Oliver rehearses as her character in K ! :D D: Ö on the McCullough Theatre stage. This residency marked the first time the company had performed in a traditional theater space, even though they didn't have an in-person live audience. 

For their residency, Frank Wo/Men found themselves in a real theater space for the first time, and they explored how they could best take advantage of the space to create an interactive livestreamed experience for audiences. Set up in the McCullough Theatre for a month, their set included multiple rooms and an overhead rig with cameras and lights. At the end of their residency, the collective invited audience members to sign up for hourlong time slots over two days in early December to workshop the work through a streaming platform.

Two masked production crew members manage the sound board and livestream feed from their laptops.

For their interactive, live-streamed performance of K ! :D D: Ö, Frank Wo/Men Collective allowed audience members to choose their own adventures by toggling between live video feeds from different rooms in the set.

For this project—dubbed K ! :D D: Ö—the ensemble explored childhood cravings, desires and play. The set featured five rooms, with 11 cameras livestreaming an actor in each space. On the livestream platform, the audience members could toggle between different rooms and vote to guide the actors’ interactions by clicking on “Jiggle Pet” icons of different colors on the screen. Sometimes the audience view switched to multiple simultaneous camera views or an overhead camera view, where they could see all of the rooms at once as the actors interacted and played with one another.

“We are so interested in how to engage with the audience, and interactivity has always been a main interest of ours and transforming spaces in different ways,” said Chris Conard, technical director and M.F.A. candidate in Theatrical Design. “And so especially with the restrictions of the pandemic, that's something that is kind of top on our minds.”

A NEW SPIN ON A CLASSIC

A black and white photo of a bearded person.

Actor, writer and director Rudy Ramirez is leading a team of collaborators who are adapting Federico Garcia Lorca's "Rural Trilogy" during their residency. Photo courtesy by Steve Rogers.

Playwright, director and actor Rudy Ramirez plans to use the support from the residency to collaborate with writers Victor Cazares, Krysta Gonzales and Jesús Valles to adapt Federico Garcia Lorca’s “Rural Trilogy.” The queer Spanish writer survived the influenza pandemic of 1918 but is believed to have been killed by fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War.

“Like so many great things, it started with a conversation on the bus,” said Ramirez. On a bus ride with Valles, the two started riffing on what it would be like to adapt Lorca’s most famous trilogy of plays to create Mexican versions. “We started making these jokes about it, and you know that it planted the idea in my head. I thought, gosh, that would be really fun to do. You take that trilogy of very dramatic, powerful, profound dark plays and imagine them as these Mexican wild, absurdist, raucous comedies.”

The team is developing the trilogy of plays under the moniker “The Ruining Lorca Trilogy: Quinces de Sangre, Yrma and La Tamalada de Bernarda Alba.” They hope to have the plays completed and ready for a public reading in
late spring or early summer.

‘NO OTHER PROGRAMS LIKE THIS’

The TPA and Fusebox residency filled a true need in the Austin performing arts community that existed even before the pandemic disrupted performances and income streams for artists. Many residencies have a fairly rigid structure—an artist comes in for a set period, with the expectation it culminate in a finished product.

“There is no other program like this in Austin,” said Bursey. “We're giving artists in our community access to our stages and our technical capabilities, our shops and our crew to help them experiment. And that's very, very rare in this country. Our field doesn't resource new work well at all, in part because organizations are so constrained. It's difficult to provide support for process without rushing toward a premiere.”

As Bursey considered the possibilities for the residency program, he kept returning to the university’s mission of creating new knowledge and new discoveries. For the performing arts, the equivalent is the development of new works, and the facilities in Texas Performing Arts are our creative research laboratories.

“UT's motto is ‘What starts here changes the world,’ and that's what we're going for with this program,” said Bursey. “We want to create work that goes out into the world and is impactful on American culture. So we hope that this program will establish a strong reputation through the projects that come out of it.”

TPA hopes to raise $2.5 million for an endowment to sustain the residency program in perpetuity.

“This opportunity is meaningful to me because it's a statement by Texas Performing Arts and Fusebox Festival that art by artists of color in Austin is worth not only producing, but cultivating,” said Ramirez. “This is saying, ‘Let's value the work of these artists enough to give them money and time and space to create.’ This is the first time I've been aware of Austin artists being invited into Texas Performing Arts’ space, with a lot of resources, with a lot of great facilities and saying that your work needs to be seen alongside and in conversation with the shows that are touring from Broadway and large-scale ballet or opera pieces.”

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