When I think back on the most thrilling experiences of my life as theatergoer, an inordinate number can be traced to a common source: Austin’s Fusebox Festival. For those who have never attended Fusebox, it’s hard to succinctly describe what’s so special about the annual five-day, multivenue gathering of theater and dance creators from around the world. A given day might include a robotics-based dance piece, an opera cobbled together out of Lionel Richie songs, a heartfelt monologue based on snippets of home videos, a choral reading of the sexual biographies of a half-dozen elderly volunteers, a sunset orchestral performance atop a Highland Lakes dam, and a late-night dance party where drag meets hip-hop meets elaborate trans-human costumes.
At its best, Fusebox is an ongoing inquiry into the furthest and deepest possibilities of live artistic performance. So what happens when, thanks to COVID-19, in-person experiences of all sorts are suddenly against the rules? That was the rather depressing question last Friday, when Fusebox executive and artistic director Ron Berry took to the internet, broadcasting from his home to Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms to introduce a shrunken and virtual edition of Fusebox Festival 2020.
Berry began his opening toast by referencing the wave of cancellations that waylaid Austin’s cultural sector beginning in early March with South by Southwest. “We felt like we were in a position to respond creatively, and there was meaning in that,” Berry said. “That wave of cancellations did not have to totally define us. We felt like, ‘Hey, we still have our imaginations, and our imaginations have a role to play right now.’”
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A typical Fusebox Festival, according to associate artistic director and curator Anna Gallagher-Ross, takes two years to program and develop. This virtual version was thrown together in just four weeks, both to meet the moment Berry described and to provide a much-needed platform and paid gig for artists. I can attest that the virtual festival felt just as necessary as an audience member, providing a welcome change after weeks stuck at home with Netflix and other prerecorded fare.
The virtual festival was conceived and presented as a riff on public-access TV, with a single-channel stream featuring a few dozen consecutive virtual performances over the course of three days. A few of these “shows” felt pitch-perfect for the current social distancing moment, speaking to our cloistered and anxious lives under COVID-19 shutdown. For instance, Alexa Capareda’s solo piece Alexa… featured the performer, a ballet master, as an embodiment of the Amazon artificial intelligence of the same name. Wearing a futuristic gray skullcap, black clothing, and blue lipstick, Capareda acted the automaton as audience members were invited to ask her questions and give her instructions, with results ranging from “Swiffer the floor with your head” to “Dance the dying swan.” Flitting around a too-small enclosure, performing lonely physical acts both absurd and sublime, Capareda spoke not only to the undertone of captivity in the voice of technology circa 2020, but also to our present digitally abetted confinement.
A small number of festival performances took place on Zoom and other platforms according to the interactive needs of the piece. Perhaps the most topical such performance was Erica Nix’s Sweet Dreams. This Zoom experience offered participants the chance to fall asleep while quietly gazing into each other’s eyes. Most of those who signed on were single people sheltering alone. “There was something so sweet and honest about staring at complete strangers in bed,” Gallagher-Ross wrote in an email afterward. “It kind of felt like everyone needed a little human contact and a hug, and this felt close to that.”
Other pandemic-themed artworks were more lighthearted. In Fusebox’s take on a cooking show, chef Fiore Tedesco of Austin restaurant L’Oca d’Oro offered LET’S MAKE MEATLOAF! : An Existential Crisis and Tutorial. Tedesco, better known for his culinary creations for refined palates, appeared onscreen in his bathrobe to instruct the locked-down masses in how to make a “rustic yet delightful lump of cheesy baked meat.”
Despite these and other inspiringly creative responses to the shutdown, there was no escaping a sense of loss around this virtual Fusebox—in particular, the important stage shows that proved too challenging to adapt into virtual space. One such sorely missed production was Is This a Room, a docudrama by Tina Satter drawn from a verbatim transcript of the FBI interrogation of former U.S. intelligence contractor Reality Winner. Winner, who grew up in Kingsville, was arrested in 2017 after leaking an intelligence report about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Satter, Winner’s mother Billie Winner-Davis, and Winner’s attorney joined the virtual edition of Fusebox for a discussion of the case, though Texas audiences will sadly have to wait to catch the play, which earned rave reviews in New York. It’s a missed opportunity. Winner-Davis clearly hoped that the play’s Texas debut could galvanize local activism on behalf of her daughter, who remains incarcerated in the longest-ever sentence for a government leaker.
Two of the best performances of the weekend—Songs at the End of the World, by Dutch collective Wunderbaum, and NO BOUNDARIES: The Journey to Embody and Archive the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers by Gesel Mason Performance Projects—had been filmed from staged productions mounted in the pre-COVID-19 era. These professionally shot and edited videos might not have looked out of place on PBS. The fact that these two entries in the virtual Fusebox lineup stood out so much only underlined the limitations of performances made from home during the shutdown, such as grainy cameras, bad lighting, and a lack of audience reactions. As lip-synch artist Dickie Beau put it in his livestreamed-from-home festival workshop, “As many of you are aware—if indeed anyone is watching—it’s so strange to have no feedback.”
Some of the most poignant moments of the virtual Fusebox Festival came at moments like that one, when performers stopped trying to put on a show and instead simply bared their souls about the present predicament. Playwright, performer, and erstwhile Austinite Daniel Alexander Jones brought to the festival a live solo reading of his in-progress play about the quasi-friendship between first lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her formerly enslaved dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley—an intriguing project. But what stuck with me most, and what might finally sum up the ethos of this strange and compelling virtual festival, is something Jones said during a livestreamed, impromptu conversation on the topic of theater artists mourning canceled projects and closed venues.
“I grew up on a street where people sang as they were walking down the street, ’cause they had to sing it, and there was a transmission in that,” Jones said. “I’m not minimizing the loss of income and the loss of opportunity and the tremendous grief that people are feeling … But I am saying: We are in an urgent time. It was already urgent, and now it’s more urgent, and things are falling apart. And so, am I gonna wait for those things to return which may not return? Or am I gonna sing on the street?”