Hyde Park Theatre opens doors for FronteraFest

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Thomas Allison

Jason Kruger practices a short monologue from the play “The Grind,” by Harry Truong before the play’s debut Tuesday night at the Hyde Park Theatre. The play is one of many works part of the 19th annual FronteraFest, which showcases non-mainstream theatrical productions. Be

Michael Fraser

Walking past Hyde Park Theatre, you might never guess that the squat, plain brick building is an incubator for fledging theatrical works. Tucked a half-block down 43rd Street from Guadalupe Street, the only clue to its purpose is the no-frills marquee above the entrance, upon which the Spanglish mashup phrase “FronteraFest” is currently posted.

For 19 years, the theatre, in association with ScriptWorks (a service organization for playwrights), has produced this “fringe” theatre festival to showcase previously untried and unpublished works. The month-long event, which this year began on Jan. 17 and runs through Feb. 18, features hundreds of performers each year, with first-timers and veterans equally welcome.

“Vicky Boone [former artistic director of HPT] was the person who came up with the idea for FronteraFest,” said Ken Webster, current artistic director for Hyde Park Theatre. “It’s an opportunity for established performers in the community and in the country, as well as people who are just getting started, to try out new material. I think that’s the main reason she started it, to make it affordable to produce new work,” Webster said.

“In the foyer of the box office, the evidence of HPT’s extensive production history is plastered all over the walls. A preponderance of the posters feature barely clad performers.

Peripheral near-nudity aside, there’s no denying that Webster has played a fundamental role in countless of the theatre’s productions, whether by acting, directing or otherwise. For FronteraFest, however, he takes a decidedly behind-the-scenes role. It’s all about facilitating the ventures of other artists.

A $40 entry fee is all that’s required for performers to score a slot the festival. This unjuried and affordable approach is intended to open the door for entrants otherwise unable or unlikely to be sponsored, which is ideal considering Hyde Park Theatre’s goal of “making theater accessible and essential across lines of income, class, race, gender and sexual preference.”

Hyde Park Theatre isn’t the only establishment involved in FronteraFest. In collaboration with Blue Theatre and Salvage Vanguard Theater, they produce around 100 performances, with 80 25-minute pieces featured in the “Short Fringe” series at HPT and 17 full-length shows shared between the other two venues in the “Long Fringe.” While the former tends to feature new and experimental works, the Long Fringe frequently attract pieces that have been more extensively developed over longer periods of time.

The third component of the festival, “Mi Casa Es Su Teatro,” may be the most structurally radical. On Feb. 11, numerous performances will be held throughout the day in the homes and businesses of the Bouldin Creek neighborhood. The locations were chosen prior to creation of the pieces, which were written in reflection of their respective environments. Curation changes with each festival, and this year, Sam Webber, a “maven” of the Austin theater community as described by HPT’s website, volunteered to head the event.

While “Casa” may still be a ways off and the Long Fringe is just starting up, the Short Fringe kicks off the festival and will carry on longest of all. Each evening of the Short Fringe features five pieces. On Jan. 19, a dancer performed on an aerial ring to Mr. Little Jeans-does-Arcade Fire (the cover of the band’s “The Suburbs” that adds a sultry feminine edge). Also performing were two improv groups that pulled surprisingly lucid narratives out of all but thin air, a Shakespearian troupe tackling “Macbeth” in 25 minutes and a one-woman act’s tongue-in-cheek “live recorded” public access call-in show addressing the issue “teenage daughters … troubled waters.”

With the $3 to $5 donation exchange rate for bottles of Shiner that audiences members can take into the black box with them and the chihuahua that camps out in visitors’ laps before the show, it is easy to figure HPT’s place in Austin. You just can’t have an event in the city without finding a dog indoors, service animals or otherwise.

Despite sparse indication from the front entrance, Hyde Park Theatre’s real calling card, a mural of the Austin evening skyline, can be found spanning the entirety of its alleyway wall. It’s fitting. After all, a matinee in the full force of sunlight may be convenient, but what time is more appropriate for the underground artist to surface than at night?

Printed on Wednesday, January 25, 2012 as: FronteraFest opens doors