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The FronteraFest Way

Christi Moore's top rule for producing the annual festival: Just say 'yes'

By Robert Faires, Fri., Jan. 8, 2010

The FronteraFest Way
Photo by John Anderson

Congratulations! You've just won the plum job of producing a long-running, much-loved performance festival that takes place annually at the start of the year. All you have to coordinate is this: five weeks of performances, five nights a week, five performances a night, with each one unique and having its own distinctive light plot, sound, set – which must be able to be set up in no more than five minutes and struck in the same – and, of course, its own performer or performers, who have been given 25 minutes to do whatever the hell they want and who frequently take full advantage of that freedom to do things that, let's say, push the envelope of conventional theatrical practice. And in the middle of that five weeks, you also have to oversee 18 other completely different shows running at two other theatres, each show playing four times, but they're spread randomly over two weeks, so each of those distinctive light plots, sets, yadda yadda yadda have to be changed out anywhere from two to six times a day. And you're responsible for one day of performances that aren't in any of these theatres but are in people's homes scattered all across the city. Oh, and in addition to the performances themselves, you have to work out the scheduling and techs for them all. And get the personnel to run them. And answer questions from the scores of participants and deal with their cancellations and snafus. And update information on them and get it disseminated to all pertinent parties in a timely fashion.

Sound like herding cats? Underwater? To do a synchronized swimming routine?

Welcome to Christi Moore's world. For nine years now, the secretary and executive director of playwrights service organization Austin Script Works has shouldered this Atlas-like burden as the producer of FronteraFest. It is a position that requires the organizational capabilities and forbearance of someone who has planned, oh, I don't know, D-Day (with the caveat that D-Day only had to be planned once and it involved people who were trained to follow orders, as opposed to actors). It also sucks all of Moore's time for not only the 33 days from the opening of the Short Fringe to the last night of Best of Fest but pretty much the six weeks before that as well. (Those holidays you just enjoyed so don't really exist for Moore. Ask her about the umpteen e-mails she received from festival participants on Christmas Day.) And it demands that she be patient and more flexible than a Cirque du Soleil contortionist, because the only constant in FronteraFest is change: people dropping out, people being added in, shows getting new titles, schedules developing conflicts. "It is a moving target all the time," says Moore. "That is one of the challenges about it."

Fortunately for Moore, an infrastructure for handling those challenges was already in place when she inherited the producing mantle from Vicky Boone, who founded the festival in 1993 while artistic director of Frontera Productions. Boone and the original FronteraFest teams had worked out when applications should go out (the festival is open to anyone who signs up and pays the entry fee), when and how techs should be organized for the dozens of separate Short Fringe performances (and later, the dozen-plus Long Fringe shows), and how many bodies are necessary to propel this unwieldy train down the tracks. Moore has made some modifications over the years – no matter how much information is packed in the application materials, there are invariably incidents that make Moore think, "I need to be clearer about that" – but the structure she was handed was so sound, Moore hasn't needed to invent ways to run it. She just gets in and makes it go.

For Moore, that process starts every year in August, when she prepares the applications (with those inevitable elaborations on the process). Once those go out in September, Moore can count on spending much of the fall fielding questions from folks who still need a bit more info before they commit to applying. When she isn't answering queries from applicants, Moore is lining up her staff, the front line that will provide technical support and management services to the participants. Her lieutenants are the coordinators, each of whom oversees a venue for the Short Fringe (always at Hyde Park Theatre) or Long Fringe (this year at the Blue Theater and Salvage Vanguard Theater), maintaining communication with the participants in his or her space, managing their schedules and information flow, and overseeing the crews. Because it's such a complicated job, Moore works hard to keep coordinators from year to year, and she feels lucky to have both Austin Sheffield and Kate Kampschroeder back for a third year. (In a touching show of loyalty, Kampschroeder, who moved away from Austin last year, even came back from Hawaii to work the festival.)

Working alongside the coordinators are the stage managers, who work from the light booth and ride herd on the many varied sound and lighting plots, and the assistant stage managers, who work from the stage and make all those myriad set changes with nothing more than notes made in the individual techs and measurements made with their own feet. It's as simple as a system gets, but year in and year out, whether it's dealing with the slam poet who needs a music stand or the budding O'Neill whose scene necessitates a full-scale diner – with drive-through lane! – it works.

What makes the backstage personnel so key with FronteraFest is just that: the diverse needs of the festival participants. The hallmark of the festival has always been the freedom it offers, its "anything goes" approach. ("As long as it's legal," says Moore, it's a go.) So you have monologists, slam poets, modern dancers, improv troupes, hip-hop artists, classical musicians, Butoh dancers, filmmakers; you have kitchen-sink realism, absurdist comedy, musical theatre, therapeutic theatre, cooking shows, stage combat, audience surveys, lectures, rituals; you have experienced theatre artists, children and teens seeking stage experience, seniors who have never set foot on a stage; you have music onstage, food onstage, blood onstage, and occasionally group masturbation onstage (only simulated); and you have nudity, nudity, and more nudity (though, to be fair, lately not so much). Any festival this open, in terms of both content and experience, needs to be run by people who are themselves open: broad-minded, nonjudgmental, and willing to set aside their personal aesthetics to assist everyone who has brought a project to their stage. Without them, it can't be what it was created to be.

See, when Moore inherited FronteraFest, she didn't inherit just the structure of performances and procedures; she inherited a philosophy that is the festival's foundation. She inherited the FronteraFest Way. This is "a Vicky [Boone] creation," Moore says, "and it's very much a reflection of Vicky's personality, which is kind and gentle and helpful and supportive. Basically, we try to figure out a way for people to do what they want to do. It's about supporting people's creative impulses. I really, really emphasize with my people: This is a customer service job. We're here to make people feel comfortable, to give them everything that they need. It will happen maybe twice during the whole festival that somebody will want to do something that is just not possible for us to do. But we always try. So if somebody brings their whole diner set onstage, we say, 'All my crew, strike.' We plan it out. And I get out the stopwatch and I time them. The same with light cues and all that stuff. We'll try anything three times, and if we can't get it right, then we'll ask people to [change it]. It's about saying 'yes' as much as we possibly can."

That's especially important for participants who are not regulars in the local performing arts scene, who may be using FronteraFest's openness to do something they've never done before. "I think we really honor the fact of how brave they are to do that," says Moore. "I know what it's like to be up there and going, 'What am I doing here?' That's another reason why, whether they're performers or not, we want to support them."

Ultimately, it's that underpinning philosophy that makes the mammoth task of running FronteraFest something that Moore came back to do a second time, a third time, a seventh, eighth, and now ninth time. The FronteraFest Way takes her out of the spotlight, that position of most important consideration, and puts someone else there, someone who needs help to realize a dream. That's the part of the job description for FronteraFest producer that doesn't get much play: You get to help make people's dreams come true.

Can't say that about herding cats.

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