Building a Global Network: The Fusebox Universe at 20

The planets will align this spring for Fusebox Festival’s 20th anniversary. Yes, technically, our moon will align to block the sun over Austin on April 8 for a total eclipse. Still, Texas’s preeminent multidisciplinary performing arts festival couldn’t have asked for a more wondrous cosmic performance as opening act for a 20 year celebration.

“There was something kind of literally awesome with beginning the festival with an eclipse, especially since it’s our 20th anniversary, and we’re thinking about time and what’s come before and thinking about the future,” explains Fusebox founder and co-artistic director, Ron Berry. “The neat thing about an eclipse is that it does sort of connect you to all the other eclipses throughout time.”

In fact, the last time Austin lay in the path of totality was in 1397, before there was an Austin or a Texas, so Berry says they knew they wanted to add eclipse programming to this special Fusebox anniversary. They decided to open the Festival a few days early and partner with several local organizations to help produce two outdoor events.

The festival opens Sunday, April 7, at Waterloo Park with The Universe in Verse, created and hosted by Maria Popova. Billed as a celebration of science and wonder of reality, the event will feature stories of science and poetry readings from poets, cosmologists and musicians such as Joan as Police Woman and David Byrne. The next day, the Long Center will host an eclipse viewing party. NPR’s Radiolab will record a special episode of their show. The party will include music by Austin composer Graham Reynolds, who will also debut his new album later in the festival, and visual storytelling from writers Roxane Gay and Debbie Millman.

On view at Waterloo Park throughout the festival will be a new artwork by Fusebox alumni, Guadalupe Maravilla, titled Serpent of the Sun and the Moon. Commissioned by Waterloo Park and Fusebox, the bronze sculpture depicting a serpent holding a sun gong and moon gong will also act as a sound artwork, or as Maravilla describes, a vibrational healing instrument.

The Festival will take a break on Tuesday before presenting five more days of programming featuring local, national and international alumni artists of past festivals, as well as new faces.

“We definitely liked the idea of featuring some artists from our 20 year history and bringing them back with new projects. We also wanted to make sure there were new artists that folks in Austin had not gotten to experience.”

Several of the artists in this year’s festival are also part of Fusebox Presents, Fusebox’s new year-round performance series produced in partnership with Texas Performing Arts. Fusebox announced the series last year, while giving notice that the festival would move to a biennial schedule after 2024.

“We’ve been looking for ways to connect these artists that we love so much with our audiences throughout the year, instead of just the five days of the Festival,” explains Berry, adding “We were also wanting to take on some projects that were perhaps a little larger in scale and scope, projects that sprang to life in public spaces. We’ve always done some of that but it takes more time and planning.”

This scheduling means that Fusebox Presents and the Fusebox Festival will overlap for four distinct projects including an interactive immersive art installation by Tania El Khoury about family, borders and crossings; a genre-bending dance performance from Abby Z and the New Utility (choreographer Abby Zbikowski with dancers Fiona Lundie and Jennifer Meckley); and Sam Green’s 32 Sounds, an immersive documentary that will include live narration and music. The fourth Presents/Festival project will be playwright and UT professor Lisa B. Thompson’s The Black Feminist Guide to the Human Body, a performance piece that explores her research into Black women’s health disparities.

Another past partner, the Contemporary Austin will host a special exhibition surveying 20 years of Fusebox Festivals. While looking back through their festival archives for the project, Berry says they’ve noticed four “key pillars” or thematic threads that many of the performance art and projects seem to explore: hybridity, ritual, the human body and site, as in art created for a specific space inside or outside.

Berry says many of the works this year also connect to those concepts with an added theme of nature.

Of course, the outdoor eclipse programming is all about site and nature, but the Festival will also feature Austin’s Forklift Danceworks for The Way of Water: Onion Creek, a performance on a restored urban floodplain with municipal workers and community members participating.

Australian Justin Shoulder’s Anito performance will likely be one of the big projects that merges hybridity and the body in the festival. Berry is particularly excited about the piece as it was supposed to make its U.S debut in 2020 when COVID forced them to pivot to a digital festival with only a few weeks’ notice.

“[Shoulder] draws on different queer mythologies to create these otherworldly creatures, using prosthetics and costumes so you don’t even know what you’re looking at,” describes Berry on the need to see the performance live.

Several of the Fusebox Presents series projects also focus on the body and use hybrid mediums.

Singer and composer Dorian Wood’s 12 hour long Canto de Todes will likely touch upon many of those Fusebox core themes. Part pre-recorded immersive installation, part live concert of chamber pieces influenced by folk, popular and experimental music, Berry says this will only be the third time the complete work has been produced live.

Similar to last year, the lineup also includes several performances that use humor to engage and explore ideas. Berry’s expecting Chris Grace: As Scarlett Johansson to be a hit with audiences. Grace workshopped the show about Hollywood whitewashing at Fusebox last year, and it went on to become a smash at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest.

As we ended our talk, I asked Berry if he could go back in time and tell his 20 years younger self all about Fusebox 2024, what would most surprise him.

“I’m just surprised that we’re still doing this,” he laughs. “We didn’t know we were going to do this twice, much less 20 times.”

But getting a bit more contemplative, he says the fact that Fusebox could be his job and where that job would take him is a surprise.

“The global network that we have built and connected with over the past 20 years is in some ways one of the most special things to me. And that we’ve built relationships with and learned from and partnered with festivals, artists, art centers and cultural ministries all over the world, that part has been particularly exciting and rewarding.”

But perhaps his past self would be most surprised by just the number of artists out there creating art one performance, for one audience, at a time.

“There’s this strange, wonderful, interesting community of people that are making strange, wonderful, interesting live performances, that I didn’t know about, all over the world. It’s hard to hear about them unless you’re traveling around the world because so much of this work is live and designed to be experienced in the room. This work is pretty intimate, and I love that about it.”