Onstage, as in life, the impulse to be adventurous is often curbed by Practical Concerns. You're seized by an urge to do something creatively risky, perhaps even reckless -- say, create and star in a one-actor original musical adaptation of Carl Sandburg's Lincoln -- but before you can act on it, your mind is overrun with considerations about the time it would require to produce, the energy, the cost, and even the possibility that when all is said and done, it -- gulp -- really might not be very good. A voice in your head, sounding like one of those cartoon angels or maybe your mom, insists on asking: "How would you put it together? Would anyone help you? Would anyone come see such a thing? And if it were to be a bust, what then? Would you lose your shirt? Your artistic credibility? Your friends?" Thus do Practical Concerns, like saw-toothed little rats, gnaw at our sense of daring until we retreat from our audacious ideas.
That, my friends, is one reason why FronteraFest is a blessing on our cultural scene.
This annual performance jamboree, which kicks off its ninth year on January 15, takes most of those Practical Concerns on itself. The host theatre company -- initially called Frontera Productions, headed by Vicky Boone; now Hyde Park Theatre, headed by Ken Webster -- coordinates all those pesky technical and administrative details typically involved in a stage production, from opening the theatre to getting butts into the seats. It provides the venue for performances and schedules the dates and times when they occur. It supplies the personnel to put up the sets and take them down and to run lights and sound for the shows. It takes care of the publicity, fields the reservation calls, and operates the box office. In short, the company behind FronteraFest cages the rats and keeps them from eating away your daredevil spirit.
Which means that all the artists really have to worry about is the art itself. And at this festival, there's no approval process for that art: no audition the artist has to pass, no jury to decide what is aesthetically worthy and what isn't, no judging of content against some standard of what's morally acceptable and what's not. Each artist is free -- wonderfully, gloriously free, free as a bird -- to do whatever he or she wants.
Oh, there are a few restrictions dictated by the festival structure: In order to schedule at least four pieces per evening, entries are limited to a maximum of 25 minutes stage time; whatever sets are used must be simple enough that they can be put up in five minutes and taken down in five; and lighting and sound design must be compatible with the technical equipment already in place at Hyde Park Theatre.
But having to work within boundaries doesn't always inhibit creativity. Sometimes it challenges artists to be more creative, to devise means of expression that do more with less. That's true here, but there's also something about the FronteraFest restrictions that are even helpful to the artist seeking to try something new. That 25-minute limit, for instance. Let's say your artistic freedom was absolute, that you could have as much time as you wanted to produce your wild hair performance project -- "The all-singing, all-dancing solo Sandburg Lincoln needs 13 hours? No problem." -- then that allows room for some of those rats to get back in your head. You're committed to producing the whole shebang, and how will you pull that off? And will people sit through it? And what if it turns out to be an unholy horror?
With no more than 25 minutes on the line, those pressures evaporate. Something about that span of time seems eminently manageable: It's long enough to develop a story but not so long that it can become inordinately complicated, long enough to create something theatrically intriguing or even jarring to the senses but not so long that your audience is numbed by whatever you've assaulted them with. You can experiment with things in a short piece that you might never have the nerve to try in a full-length, fully produced show. Nudity. Interpretive dance. Cooking onstage. Rap. Audience participation. All of the above.
And if it's a bust, if your attempts at Abstract Expressionist movement or slam poetry or stripping are greeted with appalling, uncomfortable silence or inappropriate laughter, well then, what have you lost? A little pride, maybe, the money you paid to enter the festival, sure, but mostly you just lost 25 minutes. Most audiences won't hold a grudge for a failed experiment if it cost them less than half an hour; the FronteraFest audiences certainly won't. They're among the most forgiving audiences you'll find. They're excited by the possibility of discovery and by the variety of the work, even when it's strange or unsettling or awkwardly presented. For them, the Fest is a carnival encompassing everything that performance has to offer, from personal monologues to esoteric verse to grade-school pageants to puppetry to show tunes. Your piece, disastrous or not, is just one more part of the colorful, exhilarating mix, the party, the circus.
So at FronteraFest, you have safety in numbers, in the crowd of playwrights and poets and dancers and storytellers and comedians who are doing just what you're doing, taking advantage of the freedom that FronteraFest offers to make something new, something different, something risky and maybe a little weird, to be adventurous.
And do they really do that, you may be wondering, do the artists at FronteraFest really take their 25 minutes and go for broke?
Ask the couple that appeared onstage nude, their bodies covered with white powder, and enacted a Butoh-esque performance in which they posed as statues, vomited fake blood, performed a tea ceremony, and lighted candles.
Ask the woman who took a survey of the audience, then went through the crowd and whispered a secret in each person's ear.
Ask the playwright who handed out chocolate cookies to the audience before smashing to pieces a micro-cassette recorder.
Ask the cook who prepared a meal of chicken, rice, tofu, and vegetables seasoned with sesame and garlic.
Ask the guy who combined skating and fire or the woman who combined eggs, feathers, confetti, and fans.
Ask the guy who got four women to surround him and cheer him on as he did a strip routine.
Ask the guy who got the audience to come onstage and dance with him.
The history of FronteraFest is loaded with examples of artists who realized they had 25 minutes and nothing to lose. This year will be no different. A survey of the Short Fringe schedule -- the full descriptions of which can be easily accessed at www.hydeparktheatre.org -- reveals that there will be improvised dramas and songs about cancer, lip-synching to heavy metal and dance about Viking Runes, a version of Macbeth in the style of anime and a fairy-tale piece created by 15 middle-school girls, magic, tangos, feet-washing, and the manipulation of food. And that's just for starters. There are always surprises at FronteraFest.
If you knew that already, this is just preaching to the choir. But if you didn't, you might sample one of the Short Fringe shows. Just one. After all, it's 25 minutes, and there's nothing to lose.
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