Texas Performing Arts and Fusebox Make Space to Create

The two organizations partner on a residency program to support Austin artists making adventurous new work

Ron Berry (l) and Bob Bursey (Bursey photo by Lawrence Peart)

Money is tight. Spaces are dark. Companies can't produce. The resources for performing artists to create new work are scarce and getting scarcer. So the idea that in this time someone would say, "Here's $50,000 in cash and access to a bunch of high-quality spaces; take a year to make whatever you want," is beyond surprising; it's almost unbelievable. And yet it happened – and not just once but four times. And right here in Austin.

The "someone" was Texas Performing Arts and Fusebox Festival working in partnership, and their benevolence came in the form of a residency program they've initiated to support local performing artists developing new work. Each artist selected for the program receives $20,000 in funds for professional and technical assistance and artist compensation, plus an additional $30,000 worth of access to the stages, studios, and production shops in the TPA complex on the University of Texas campus (whose venues include Bass Concert Hall, McCullough Theatre, Bates Recital Hall, B. Iden Payne Theatre, and Oscar Brockett Theatre). The artists are free to design the residency to suit their needs and those of whatever project they're working on, with process taking precedence over product. Whatever state the project is in at the end of the yearlong residency, TPA and Fusebox will continue to provide support through the subsequent stages of development to the work's premiere. In August, they announced the first artists to receive residencies: Charles O. Anderson, Gesel Mason, Rudy Ramirez, and Frank Wo/Men Collective.

The program is a bit of a departure for both partners, since they're primarily presenters of work that's already been made. But Bob Bursey, who joined TPA as executive director in January of this year, saw the opportunity in his new position to expand on the role of the organization. "The University of Texas is one of the great research institutions in the world," he says. "Its motto is: What starts here changes the world. So what does that mean for the performing arts? I think it means we create work here. And I really wanted to make that a priority from the beginning."

Even before the pandemic shutdown, Bursey had begun meeting with Fusebox spark and leading light Ron Berry to talk about partnerships. Berry knew of Bursey through his highly praised programming of the Fisher Center for Performing Arts at Bard College, and Bursey had come to Austin several times to see work Fusebox was programming. Now that the two were in the same city and given their "shared sets of values," as Bursey puts it, a collaboration seemed a natural thing to do.

"When Bob got the job, we had a series of informal conversations about things that would be interesting to explore together," says Berry. "A residency program was one of the first things that emerged. We were both interested in contributing more to the creation of work, not just the presenting of already finished work."

So the two began working out the particulars of a program. Both agreed that it should serve Austin artists, who Bursey believes don't always get the recognition they deserve. "Presenters typically bring in the best from far afield, and TPA has done a pretty great job of that," he says. But with these residencies, the organization would be "expanding that to nationally significant work happening in Austin." To identify that work requires an intimate knowledge of this creative community, he adds, and that's where "the partnership with Fusebox is really key." TPA could provide the funding and the place for the residencies, which Berry saw as vital. "Being able to offer local artists access to these spaces on campus, as well as real financial resources, [is] so exciting and meaningful. Especially right now. Artists have been hit so hard by this pandemic. As a community, we need to be doing as much as possible to get money and resources into artists' hands right now." Finally, the program would leave it to the artists to define the terms of their residency. "Unlike some residencies that are prescribed, this is quite open­-ended," Bursey says. No set parameters for what needs to be done and when. No show-your-work presentations to the funders along the way. Rather, the TPA-Fusebox model institutional role would be one of service, characterized by Bursey in a series of questions: How can we help? What do you need?

The program might not have been set in motion as soon as this fall, but as performance spaces throughout the TPA complex began to go dark in the spring, Bursey felt "the push to do it now." The shutdown also accelerated the partners' desire to assist local performing artists, but launching the program soon also forced the question of who those artists would be. "Ultimately, we want to create a submission process for local artists to apply for this," says Berry. "But we wanted to pilot the program first and learn from it – also we wanted to move quickly and get these resources in the hands of artists. So for this first iteration, we decided to select artists that we know and admire who we also thought could especially benefit from this program right now." With Fusebox taking the lead on the selection process, Berry and Associate Artistic Director Anna Gallagher-Ross settled on four recipients – three individuals and one ensemble – all of whom had a history with the festival. "We reached out to each of them, first to see if this was of interest and see if the timing worked out for them," says Berry. "Then we set up joint calls with the artists, TPA, and Fusebox to dive into logistics and learn more about each artist's individual project and how best the residency program could help them." That's how the pilot year residencies were given to Anderson, Mason, Ramirez, and Frank Wo/Men.

Looking over the artists and their projects, it's clear they reflect the program's goal of supporting local artists who push the boundaries of performance and further the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In (Re)current Unrest, Anderson speaks to social conditions experienced by Black Americans throughout the nation's history and today. In Yes, And, Mason removes all restrictions set on Black womanhood, resetting it from a place of total freedom and allowing new discoveries of community. With the Ruining Lorca Trilogy, Ramirez takes three of Federico García Lorca's major dramas and reimagines them as comedies through the lens of four queer Mexicans: himself and playwrights Victor Cazares, Krysta Gonzales, and Jesús Valles. Frank Wo/Men's untitled project explores attitudes and agency in internet culture through an online-oriented work that gives viewers control of the performers as they move through three interlocking environments.

The residency program's recognition of local artists who are taking creative risks and being ambitious has not gone unnoticed by the recipients, especially in the case of Texas Performing Arts. "I feel like there has traditionally been a separation between TPA and the greater Austin theatre community," says Ramirez, "and it is wonderful to have Bob Bursey there as a new leader with an investment in showcasing local artists alongside the national tours and connecting us to international artists for guidance and dialogue.

"Most companies in Austin don't have the funding to commission playwrights to spend a year developing work, much less a team of three, and a lot of artists – especially artists of color – often wind up developing their work without compensation. Funding like this makes me feel like I'm not leaning on my collaborators to work for free for a hopeful payday sometime in the future. It means I can acknowledge that their creative labor is just that: labor that deserves compensation. With this grant, we can take the time we need to take these classic works apart, mix the pieces up with shiny objects of our cultural landscape as Latinx artists, and put them back together into three new plays that stand on their own and work together as a whole."

That strikes a chord in Berry, who considers compensation for artists a cornerstone of the new program. "I hope that as a field we can find more ways to support the creation process. This financial burden all too often falls entirely on artists. So I hope this residency is a glimpse of a future in which artists are better supported and have more time to dream and create without necessarily having to worry about an immediate product."

The Residency Program Artists and Their projects

(l-r): Gesel Mason, Charles O. Anderson, Frank Wo/Men Collective, Rudy Ramirez

Charles O. Anderson – (Re)current Unrest

Anderson, head of the dance program in the UT Department of Theatre & Dance and artistic director of Dance Theatre X, took inspiration from James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, and current and historical Black protest movements and created a work that he says "reflects the state of unrest caused by Black America's social condition amidst the pursuit of the American Dream" and is driven by his compelling Afro-contemporary choreography. Developed over several years, (Re)current Unrest was performed at Fusebox 2018 and was scheduled to tour across the country this fall. When the pandemic made that impossible, Anderson adapted the dance for film so it can tour virtually.

Frank Wo/Men Collective – Untitled Project

Frank Wo/Men quickly established itself as a group to watch with devised ensemble works that include daring and strenuous physical activity, bold visuals, absurdist humor, and complex concepts. This new work examines gaming and online culture and the attitudes and issues of agency that inform it. Through a user interface, viewers will connect to the work and be able to influence both the environment and live performers. The environment will consist of three spaces – an arctic tundra, an alternate universe bounce house inhabited by jiggle pets, and a postapocalyptic parkour obstacle course – that are separated by walls but porous enough for characters to move between. Cameras allow viewers to alternate between close-up and omniscient perspectives.

Gesel Mason – Yes, And

Mason, artistic director for Gesel Mason Performance Projects and associate professor of dance at UT-Austin, follows her epic solo performance/archive NO BOUNDARIES: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers – a work she spent 15 years making – with this new vision of Black womanhood rooted in the questions, "Who would you be and what would you do if, as a Black woman, you had nothing to worry about? What would you create and how might you be in community with others?" Through public engagement "chapters" – both virtual and live – with each presentation tailored to its location and their communities, Yes, And creates "a methodology of undoing and of freedom."

Rudy Ramirez – The Ruining García Lorca Trilogy

Ramirez, associate artistic director of Vortex Repertory Company and founding artistic director of Avante Theatre Project, as well as an active collaborator with numerous companies in the Austin theatre community, teams with three local playwrights – all, like Ramirez, identifying as queer Mexicans – to reinvent three classic dramas by Federico García Lorca, "a queer Spaniard who survived a pandemic but lost his life to fascism." Together, Ramirez and Victor Cazares, Krysta Gonzales, and Jesús Valles will explode the "Rural Trilogy" of Quinces de Sangre, Yrma, and La Tamalada de Bernarda Alba into "three comedies that revel in our tragedies, contradictions, and survival."

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Texas Performing Arts, Fusebox Festival, Bob Bursey, Ron Berry, Charles O. Anderson, Gesel Mason, Rude Ramirez, Frank Wo / Men Collective, Victor Casares, Krysta Gonzales, Jesus Valles, UT Department of Theatre & Dance, Vortex Repertory Company, Avante Theatre Project

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