It's a Family Affair

The Draw of Austin for a Visiting Theatre Artist

Why would anyone come to Austin? To many people who have not visited our fair city, Austin means miserable summers, slacker-dom, over-the-hill hippies, and good-ol'-boy politicians. While there is some truth to these stereotypes, we know that Austin is also home to a thriving arts scene full to the brim with talent, energy, and support. The cultural options are almost limitless, whether you crave live jazz, Shakespeare, or bronze sculpture. For those with an art, theatre, or music jones, Austin is Mecca.

Ask Daniel Alexander Jones, the director that Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre Artistic Director Vicky Boone plucked from Minneapolis in 1994 to stage the group's production of Talking Bones. Since that experience, Jones can't seem to stay away from the city. He returned in the summer of 1995 to direct a double bill for Frontera -- Shay Youngblood's Black Power Barbie in Hotel de Dream and Jones' own Earthbirths, Jazz, and Raven's Wings -- and came back this past January to perform his piece Blood Shock Boogie in FronteraFest '96. Now, he's back again, directing the company's production of Unmerciful Good Fortune, opening July 11, preparing to revive Blood Shock Boogie for an August performance mini-fest that Frontera has dubbed the Roxanne Popsicle Explosion, and getting ready to perform in the new play Frontera has commissioned from Erik Ehn. It appears that this time Jones' stay may be permanent.

Why would anyone, especially a theatre director, come to Austin? In an interview with Jones and Boone, they share some reasons.

Austin Chronicle: How did your relationship start, Vicky? Did you just call one day and say, "Hey, Daniel, my name is Vicky. Why don't you come to Austin?"

Vicky Boone: I was looking for a director for Talking Bones, and I was doing an outreach, basically. I was trying to hook up with some young, early career directors that would have strong connection to this material and a passion for it and the ability to make it rock. I love the idea of doing outreaches. It's something I've done periodically. You just sort of throw it out there and see what comes back. I sent similar letters to a few large regional theatres and a number of top graduate programs, looking for early career directors. And got quite a bit of response. I had maybe five or six really strong candidates. I was talking to other people on the phone because I was just trying to connect to the outer world.

Daniel has a long-standing relationship with Shay [Youngblood, author of Talking Bones] as a friend, a collaborator, and a performer. What Daniel brought to it as an individual, plus an amazing recommendation from the playwright -- the things she said about Daniel were amazing -- made me want to bring him here. It was just sort of a Love Connection. This was cool. This was it. This was a meant-to-be.

Daniel Alexander Jones: It really felt like that on this end, too. Shay and I are like artistic family. We come from similar places with the work we do. We really wanted to have an opportunity to work professionally -- we had done a lot of work with either small professional or university-type stuff, but we had never had the chance to really play.

I was really thrilled and excited with the prospect of coming -- also, about coming to Austin because I had heard so much about what was going on.

VB: Remember your story? Your fortune teller...?

DJ: Oh yeah. I had my chart done right before I was about to leave graduate school. I am a big sucker for that stuff. I was asking about my next moment -- I had plans to go to San Francisco to do a program out there and I was all geared to the West Coast. I asked her what were some of the things I should expect? She's like, "You're not going there. You need to get back to basics. It's either somewhere in Colorado or Austin, Texas." Honest. I have it all on tape. And on the tape, I'm like, "Texas! I'm not going to no Texas! I don't know anyone in Texas. Why would I go down there with all the rednecks...?" I had all these misconceptions of what it was all about.

VB: Do you know what month that was?

DJ: It was April of '93.

VB: I'm just trying to remember if that script had arrived here yet. I think it had.

DJ: I ended up going to Minneapolis and was there for a while. Then this came. It was just one of those things. I felt really nervous and anxious about it. I really, really wanted to do it, but given the place I was, it was really difficult to look at it on paper and make a decision. Sometimes people need more credentials, which was what was exciting about Vicky giving me the opportunity to direct Talking Bones.

VB: Once we started talking, it felt like, "Great, this is what this was all about. This is why I wrote all of those letters. This is why I looked outside Austin for a director."

DJ: I firmly believe that you have a natural family and you have an artistic family. I think I found a part of my real artistic family here with Vicky and with Frontera. It was very natural. Since then, it's been this kind of incredible exploration on a number of levels with a lot of different things.

AC: Vicky, what has Frontera done to keep getting Daniel to come back?

VB: It's weirdly sort of organic. It's not like a huge plan. It just keeps sort of revealing itself. Last year, we were supposed to do a play called Police Boys. Then I got scared. I thought, "Maybe I don't want to do Police Boys because this play is way too big and we were having a very challenging financial season." Quite frankly, I was just scared to do it. So I was looking for something to replace it. I asked Daniel if he had any ideas. He sent me some stuff. And he also said, "Well, I've written a play."

DJ: I said to you, "I'm sending it to you just to read and give me some feedback."

VB: And I was like, "Okay, great!" I'm reading all of these plays and I thought, maybe I'll read Daniel's play because I would like to read something just to enjoy. I was not thinking of producing this play. So I started reading it and I went, "Wow, this is really good!" It just caught my imagination. I thought, "Am I just insane? Has Daniel drugged the pages and I've been hypnotized? Can I get the director" -- we had already made the arrangement that Daniel would direct -- "to direct his own play? Would that be nuts?"

So that was the evolution of that. They started out much smaller, Black Power Barbie and Earthbirths. Both seemed at the time like hour-long one-acts, but in the process they matured. It was like giving birth to twins. We had this huge evening that was incredibly dense and meaty. That was the second experience. Again, very organic in the way it occurred.

My family has this thing, they do this reunion. If somebody brings somebody with them, the first year that person gets teased. The second year they get teased a little more. The third year, the family asks them, "So, when are you going to become a member?" Daniel was working on Blood Shock Boogie already. We told him that he should come back and do it at FronteraFest. At that point, we were just reeling him in. Now, it becomes sort of intentional on Frontera's part.

AC: What keeps bringing you back here, Daniel? Is it just your Frontera connection?

DJ: One of the reasons is that the kind of work that I am interested in doing is not commercially viable work. I've been really lucky to have been raised and trained by a number of performance artists -- people who work in a non-traditional way -- all of whom are from major cities. It's really interesting for me to see these people who are generally 25-30 years older than me and at a similar place financially, who have committed themselves to an artform and basically been shown that there are very strict limitations about what commercial theatre is going to allow them to do inside their venues and that the freedom really exists outside of those places. Often, there's more freedom in the margins than in the center.

It's really clear to me that they themselves have been sort of looking at the ways prioritization happens in an urban environment. New York becomes the place to be doing work even though it is nearly impossible to do anything along the lines of what we have done here at Frontera. It would be impossible to do it because there is no support for it financially from major institutions. To produce something like a Black Power Barbie and an Earthbirths would be to take a great risk and almost ensure that you are going to lose money. It's not done.

Black Power Barbie was read at the Public. So was Talking Bones -- Shay's work has been read and read and read to death in New York. People are afraid to take a bite. In my mind, New York has made it very clear about who their black female writer is, who their Latino writer is, who their gay Asian writer is. They have one of them already.

VB: It's like a collector's plate set.

DJ: Exactly. And not to lessen the impact of their work but it means that your work is always going to be judged against them, not by its own merits. There are a lot of limitations on what can be done in terms of exploration.

I am more interested in the artform than I am in the commercial success of the artform. I'm more interested in the way people respond to the work and the way that the vocabulary around the work grows.

AC: How would you define the vocabulary that you are trying to develop, your aesthetic?

DJ: I don't know if I can define it because it keeps changing. The closest link I have to it is with music -- it's riding the line between avant-garde jazz and hip-hop. It is definitely about a multi-level way with text, movement, and the environment in which the play takes place. And stylistically hip-hopping between different ways of doing work so that there can be abstraction, naturalism, non-verbal communication, flat-out musical singing all in the same house, living together and having a good time.

It grows out of a performance art vocabulary that's been developing for the past 20, 25 years. It looks at text as a component of another thing, as opposed to the root source and/or the end of a piece of work. I also feel like it's working within a black cultural idiom, not exclusive to that because I think that that kind of attacks the larger culture, but definitely it comes from African-American cultural forms. That's where I draw a lot of my inspiration and language.

I'm astounded by the fact that Austin audiences that I have spoken to about all three projects really vibe off of it. The criticism is quite astute. After reading the reviews last year, I can't believe that people engaged truthfully with the material this way. So many people resist the way that I'm interested in working. As an artist who is working on developing and contributing to a vocabulary, I find Austin to be a place of immense freedom and support. It's very rare and I feel quite blessed to have found a home to work within. I can do work in Austin that I would never be able to do -- at this point in my career -- in a larger city.

VB: I feel that within Austin you don't feel the depression and isolation that you would someplace else. There's a real sense of community here, between the artists and the audience -- and the huge crossover among them -- that you feel good to be a part of the community. It keeps you from burning out. It keeps you feeling like you are connected to someone, that there is a dialogue going on. For me, that's a really valuable thing about Austin.

DJ: Being here, you can create things that look like what they look like. You're not fighting against it looking like that collector's plate. n

Unmerciful Good Fortune runs Jul 11-Aug 3 at Hyde Park Theatre. Preview performance Thu, Jul 10. The Roxanne Popsicle Explosion runs Aug 8-31 at Hyde Park Theatre.

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