'It can be anything': Frontera Fest offers a month of unexpected performances
Frontera Fest, Austin’s long-running fringe theater celebration, was launched 31 years ago and is just about to start its 29th festival (it took a couple of years off during the Covid pandemic). “The first one was in 1993,” says festival organizer Ken Webster, “And it was invented by Vicky Boon and Jason Phelps and Annie Suite. They were sitting at Ted's Greek [Corner] on Congress Avenue back in 1993, and they got the idea for this fantastic theater festival that would be affordable for everybody.”
Webster was a participant back in 1993 and has been a part of the festival ever since. “I probably thought I'd still be participating in Frontera Fest [back then, but] I didn't know that I'd be running the theater at that time. [And] I didn't know that I would be the… I'm the only person who's been involved in all of the Frontera Fests,” he says, adding with a laugh, “partly due to my advanced age.”
These days, Frontera Fest is a joint production of Hyde Park Theatre (the theater at which Webster is artistic director) and ScriptWorks.
“And every year, it's a fabulous combination of brand new people on the art scene and established writers and performers and directors who've been plying their trade for years and years and trying out some new material,” Webster says. “But it's a great way to get started in the local art scene.”
Playwright, poet, and performer Jennine Kreuger – who most people just call “Doc” – is a new board member of ScriptWorks and will be helping Webster organize the festival this year. She’ll also perform for the sixth time. “I had shows with some other poets where we had poems that got sort of scripted out into an actual show and thematic pieces,” she says, “And we made Best of the Fest the last five times I've done it. So we'll see what happens this year.”
Kreuger and Webster both say the most exciting thing about Frontera Fest every year is its unpredictability. “You know, I really enjoy the variety that the festival brings, because you never know what you're gonna see,” Kreuger says. “And you could have something very dramatic or you can have something funny or you can have the improv come in. So it's like a roller coaster. Frontera Fest is a box of chocolates.”
“It's just exciting to see the new talent every year,” Webster says, “working alongside the people who've been doing theater in Austin since dinosaurs roamed the earth. And it can be anything. It's not just plays — it's improv, stand up, movement pieces. There was a guy who did a cooking show one year. You can do whatever you want [for] twenty-five minutes or less, as long as you don't hurt anybody or break any laws.”
For four weeks starting on January 16, Hyde Park will host four or five performances a night every Tuesday through Friday, with a “Best of the Week” night on Saturdays and a “Best of the Fest” week February 13 – 17.
“People are always asking me what night should I go? What shows are good?” Webster says. “And I'll say, ‘We don't know until people have their tech rehearsals. We don't know.’ We have a slogan we've used for years: Expect the unexpected. And it's absolutely true.”
There’s no telling what you’ll see if you go, but you’ll definitely see Webster serving as the “bouncer and greeter” in the lobby, and you’ll possibly see him onstage as well. “I am the emergency fill in,” he says. “If somebody drops out at the very last minute, then I will do something for 25 minutes or less.”
And if you go on the right night, you’ll see Doc as well, though as of our January 4 interview she wasn’t sure what she’d be performing. “Well, it’s kind of a secret,” she says, laughing. “To me as well. We planned on working on it this weekend. Usually I’m a lot more organized, but I'm developing a couple of musicals right now at the same time.”
Turning to Webster, she adds, “You may see Ken Webster and Doc in a show! I might say, ‘Hey, Ken, you wanna help me out with this?’”