It's a Family Affair

A Helping Hand

"From the time he was a little boy, Jason always wanted to do the housework and the cooking. He was so helpful around the house, I wanted to pay him."

- Ms. Terry Lehmberg, mother of Jason Lehmberg

Indeed, the nurturing quality of the festival - the formation of a family from the numerous small companies - most distinguishes MOMFEST from its peers. Instead of each company retreating into its own little fiefdom and drawing up its bridge, MOMFEST encourages cooperation and asks theatre companies to let down their bridges and come out to celebrate interdependence.

"There doesn't have to be an every-man-for-himself feel," says Frank. "In New York, where I was coming from, it's so competitive that companies grab their people and hold on to them and that's it. In this town, it doesn't have to be that way."

"Exactly," begins Williams, speaking over Frank. "There doesn't seem to be a sense of unity to the overall fringe theatre scene. So we started talking about family, about what makes a family, and that's how the moniker 'Mom' came about. We wanted to put on a festival that was accessible to the community at large (ticket prices are only $5 for a double-bill or you can buy an all-access MOMFEST pass for $15), and we wanted to incorporate as many companies as possible into this family."

Willing to Try Anything

"As a boy, he was very open with food; he was open to new and different kinds of food."

- Ms. Marsha Frank

The family that the coordinators have assembled on their theatrical smorgasbord is nothing if not diverse. Thirty-three companies have crossed their respective moats to join in the festivities, with work ranging from puppetry (Egg Family Puppet Troupe) to sketch comedy (Only 90% Effective) to, well, however you want to categorize the performance of Blue High Machine, a band in which the members wrestle while they play. Acknowledging that not all the work is going to glisten with professional polish, Frank says, "For better or worse, we're hoping people will be open-minded."

The all-inclusive nature of the festival has attracted com-panies from all over the region. The Gateway Players and Destiny's Destiny come from Dripping Springs, and Script and Wine and Viva La Vulva hail from Southwestern University in Georgetown. And naturally plenty of hometown heroes will be taking part.

True to its mission of nurturing fledgling artists, MOMFEST will include several first-timers making their Austin debuts: Funky Boy Productions, the Fabulous and Ridiculous Theatre Company, and Pegasus 51. Since companies gain access to a venue and free publicity, in the years to come MOMFEST will likely serve as fertile soil for new companies to grow. Lehmberg says, "It takes all the extra stress of producing a show off the artists, so they can come in and do the artistic work."

Frank, who moved to town and started the company, Theatre'less Theatre Corps, a scant eight months ago, is particularly proud that he's been able to help out other beginning companies. "One of the things I wanted to do with MOMFEST was to provide something where anyone could move to town and get help."

MOMFEST isn't made up of all first-timers, though. Established alternative companies such as Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre, Kairos, and Rude Mechanicals are also taking part in the festival. Sarah Richardson, a founding member of the theatre collective Rude Mechanicals, says, "It's our general belief that the more theatre companies work together, the more we support each other, the better our theatre gets. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot gained by being competitive with each other." Rude Mechanicals will be presenting Kirk Lynn's full-length play Salivation as a part of MOMFEST, and Richardson says the Mechanicals are happy to lend their name to a good cause: "If it helps something get rolling, then we support it. Anytime there's a festival, it generates interest in the larger community."

The larger community of theatre patrons is a group that MOMFEST opens her arms to embrace. The MOMFEST coordinators have designed the festival bill to feature two companies, in the hope that patrons might come see a show from a company they regularly follow and will stay to see a show by a company they didn't know existed before. Lehmberg says, "In each bill we've tried to combine the shows and companies to give as much variety as possible, so that in a two-hour period we'll expose the audience to a variety of different performances. At the end, a certain company might grab someone, and they might become interested in this new company."

Given MOMFEST's use of non-traditional theatrical venues (the Caucus Club, the Victory Grill, the Electric Lounge, the Atomic Cafe, and other bar spaces as well as some traditional theatrical venues), the organizers are also aiming to generate interest in a group that normally wouldn't be caught dead in a traditional theatre on a Saturday night. "For example," Williams says, "if you're a regular at Ruta Maya and you walk in and go: 'Whoa ... okay, here's a show.' You sit down, you watch it, and you might be interested in seeing something that particular company performs later."

Mind Over Money

"He'd spend hours in his room thinking about what he wanted to do with some particular theatre piece. Once he starts talking about it he just goes on and on - the love is so plain to see."

- Ms. Eddie Lam, mother of Daniel Lam

MOMFEST is more than just putting on a bunch of shows. "This is more about an artistic endeavor than it is about being successful financially," notes Williams, who wants people to remember: "The mind can overcome any obstacle. It's the Mind Over Money Festival." The acronym provides the philosophical underpinning for MOMFEST and was what got the four co-producers (as well as Dan Bonfitto from Flame Failure and Eric Love from Bent Spectacles Theatre Company - both were involved in the conceptualization process of MOM) talking in the first place.

For young theatre companies, the task of getting started can be an overwhelming and costly process, but "it can also be so simple," says Frank. "A lot of times people skip out on opportunities because they think, 'Oh, it will cost too much money' or, 'Oh, it's too big,' but it doesn't have to be." And showing people that theatre can be done anywhere is what MOMFEST aspires to achieve. Lehmberg sums it up: "It's creativity over cash."

Cash, though, is an inescapable reality. The producers of MOMFEST hope to see enough profit from this year's festival to help pay for a year-round office space and a head start on MOMFEST 1999. If the money comes through, Lam says, "we would like MOMFEST to become a network for people that will be year-round." Frank adds, "We'd like a fax machine, access to the Web, a database of actors, designers, media - a co-op where small companies can share resources." Without competing with the Austin Circle of Theatres and becoming an umbrella organization, Williams says MOM would like "to be an information port for all these smaller companies." Like any good mom, a place to go for answers, guidance, and support.

As for the producers' real mothers, are they coming to support their sons? "I wouldn't miss it for the world," says Terry Williams. "If I have to hitchhike, I'll be there."

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