Not so long ago, Austin was the Texas capital of farmers’ markets, hippie soup peddlers, anarchist freegans, and grocery co-ops. They embodied the city’s prevalent anti-consumerist ethos: many Austinites once looked askance at big box stores and food sold in layer after layer of plastic. After all, Whole Foods, a grocer dedicated to providing eco-friendly, organic produce, was born out of that scene. But in the era of Amazon, which now owns Whole Foods, and a proliferation of venture capital–funded fast-casual restaurant chains, not to mention the local population’s dorkily overstated enthusiasm for supermarket behemoth H-E-B, Austin has lately forgotten one of the better parts of itself.
It takes an artist to remind us that there are other, more radical ways to think about what we eat and how we acquire it. To set foot in The Plastic Bag Store, Robin Frohardt’s unclassifiable mash-up of multiroom installation artwork, puppet theatre, film, and immersive performance, is to enter a portal into a less dissociative mode of engagement with our unsustainable, nonbiodegradable-waste-ridden era. Frohardt uses satire, imagination, and the occasional flourish of astonishing beauty to invite viewers into a frame of mind that is both playful and unabashedly critical of our consumer-packaged American way of life.
The customer experience begins in a fake supermarket, the titular store, in which all items are hand-sculpted out of single-use plastic bags. Frohardt, whose attention to detail verges on the obsessive, has crafted many hundreds of intricate garlic bulbs, onions, potatoes, watermelons, endives, lobsters, chicken drumsticks, and so forth, all from used bags she’s collected. She and her collaborators have also designed and printed boxes, labels, and advertisements for knockoff satirical products like Bagweiser beer, Pacific Gyre polluted bottled water, and Yucky Charms breakfast cereal, which stock the shelves complete with packaging copy. (“The ocean is full of billions of plastic shards. Sea turtles and birds eat them for breakfast. Now you can too!”) The freezer case offers up delights such as Fisherman’s Catch (a sandy flip-flop on a TV-dinner tray, with a side of bottle caps). A magazine rack contains, beneath the other glossies, Baggs magazine—“the dirtiest bag-mag in the world.” The cumulative effect is that of inhabiting a self-contained, whacked-out alternate reality with a tightly repetitive critical focus.
Where the show goes from there is difficult to explain without spoiling the fun. Suffice it to say that there are other rooms to explore, including a visually alluring cavern overhung with bag-handle icicles, and a narrative that propels viewers through the spaces and is told mostly through filmed puppetry. The puppet story begins with the ancient invention of single-use disposable water containers, employing puppets based on figures from Grecian urns. The story eventually winds through the present and ends up in the far-off future—but not nearly far enough off for our era’s plastic waste to have decomposed. By the end of the show, viewers are asked to reimagine the fake supermarket as a sort of shrine at which our civilization, known to distant future generations as the Customers, once practiced a mysterious and exotic religion of consumption.
The Plastic Bag Store is indeed a shrine of sorts, though not so much to consumerism as to its opposite. For an Austin cityscape that has lost so many affordable theaters, art studios, and otherwise not-maximized-for-profit creative spaces in the past few years, the project feels like a breath of fresh, uncommercialized air. It’s fitting, then, that the show’s opening marks the arrival of the first in-person iteration of the Fusebox International Performing Arts Festival since 2019. Fusebox has a long-standing reputation, going back to 2005, for delivering to Austin the best in weird, fun theater, dance, and performing arts from around the country and the world. It’s served up over a week or so each April for free, with all admissions gratis. (The Plastic Bag Store is selling tickets for now through April 12 for $15–$25 through Texas Performing Arts, then offering free entry April 13–17 for reserved ticket holders through Fusebox.)
Austin is lucky to have Fusebox, and to have it back despite massive recent disruptions. Austin’s theater scene—edgy, always inventive but scarcely professionalized—has experienced the coronavirus pandemic and the tech boom as a double gut punch, with performance opportunities derailed just as rent and producing shows in town grew much more expensive. Yet this year’s Fusebox lineup is characteristically full of intriguing draws. Local composer Graham Reynolds, who has scored several Richard Linklater films, is set to unveil a cross-border collaboration, called MXTX, with more than forty DJ-producers and composers from Texas and Mexico. The project will culminate in an album and an open-source audio sample library as well as a series of live concerts, which kicks off at Austin’s new outdoor Moody Amphitheater in Waterloo Park on April 16. Japan-based sound artist ASUNA is presenting a new immersive work composed with one hundred keyboards. Austin artist Michael Anthony Garcia is guest-curating a visual arts component to Fusebox, a satire of an art fair called “The It’s NOT Fair,” in partnership with eight local galleries. And erstwhile Austin-based drag-rock icon CHRISTEENE will play the late-night Festival Hub, alongside a newer glam-influenced performance art band, Princess Goes to the Butterfly Museum, fronted by actor Michael C. Hall of Dexter and Six Feet Under fame.
Frohardt, who is based in New York City, says she was first inspired to make The Plastic Bag Store while standing at the checkout of a supermarket, watching a bag within a bag being stuffed into a bag. Her show was set to make its U.S. debut in Times Square on March 18, 2020, but that run was canceled by social distancing rules, and her grocery sculptures and puppets sat in suspended animation in her fake storefront for several months. Eventually, she decided to film the puppetry sequences to make pandemic-era collaboration easier. When it finally opened in November 2020, it made the New York Times’ best theater of 2020 list and then toured to Los Angeles and Chicago before landing in Austin.
In addition to Fusebox, Texas Performing Arts (TPA) at the University of Texas at Austin was vital in bringing The Plastic Bag Store to the city. Like Fusebox, TPA has been hamstrung by the pandemic in its mission to bring cutting-edge theater experiences to Austinites. A few months ago, TPA mounted a touring production of a Texas-themed show by the Wooster Group, the legendary experimental theater company in New York, only to see a member of the company quarantined as a result of a positive COVID-19 test. The Plastic Bag Store feels like a key marker, then, of the performing arts in Austin getting back on track and showing what might be in store for a changing and more expensive but (one might hope) more big-league arts city.
There’s a scene early in The Plastic Bag Store’s puppet film where the ancient inventor of single-use water jugs explains to his mother what is to be done with them after they’ve been consumed. “We throw them away,” he says.
“What’s ‘away?’” his mother asks. “Where’s that?”
One use of art is to amuse and to distract us from our quandaries, the things we witness constantly but are at a loss for what to do about. Another use is to clarify those problems, so that we come to see our usual willful ignorance as a kind of “away” that is actually a nowhere, a nonsolution, avoidant and illusory. The Plastic Bag Store is a threshold between those two realms in Austin—the here and the away, the world of trash and the world of reality, whichever we begin from or think we belong to. It’s an opening well worth stepping through.