'Pivoting halfway back': OUTSider Festival prepares for their first in-person gathering in two years
Austin’s OUTSider Festival was born in 2013, and since then, it’s been a yearly celebration of LGBTQ+ art and culture. Since it traditionally takes place in February, the 2020 festival was one of the last fests to happen in Austin before March 2020 happened and the world shut down for a while. Last year, the OUTSider team forged ahead and created an all-virtual version of the festival, which artistic director Curran Nault says had its pluses and minuses.
“Last year… ended up being, in some ways, a really fun and wonderful experiment to have,” he says. “But this year we’re kind of pivoting halfway back to a semi-hybrid format of the festival, which means that everything will be in person but we will have streaming opportunities for most of the showcases for people who still want to or need to watch them from their homes. But [for] those of us who want to gather in the space of the Vortex, which is our main theater space, this will be an opportunity – after two years – for us to really all come back together again.”
One silver lining to last year’s online-only festival was being able to extend OUTSider’s reach a bit, Nault says. “We [were able to] reach new audience members who maybe have heard about OUTSider before, have wanted to come, but haven’t’ been able to fly from, you know, Montreal or wherever they might be,” he says. “And so we did tap into, I think, new audience members. And we got a really large following throughout the  festival online, which was fantastic. And so we’re hoping that that momentum continues and that those people maybe are even more inspired now to either tune in again – because we’ll have that option for streaming again – but to maybe think about coming here in person, if not this year then in future years.”
The theme of this year’s festival is something of a reaction to last year’s streaming-only option (and to nearly two solid years of mostly onscreen interactions). They’re calling this year’s fest ‘OUTSider Unplugged’ and embracing a time before people communicated mostly through their devices. “We’re going for a more retro, DIY, ‘90s [feeling],” says associate artistic director Josh Tadeo. “Kind of, you know, bringing back DIY into the queer sphere. And I think it honestly came about last year – I think it was the end of the festival… it was a relief and it felt like a great accomplishment, but then I realized, ‘[performing on a computer screen] is really taxing. And so we had this idea of when are we going to have this next kind of revolt against technology? The novelty of being connected virtually… faded so fast.”
“The ‘90s is a really interesting moment here because it’s the decade before computers and particularly smartphones and social media really take hold, right? So it’s that last moment before our lives were subsumed by technology in a lot of ways,” Nault adds. “So we’re trying to bring people back aesthetically to that moment but also thematically to that moment of the before-times, when we had to connect by different means.”
This year’s fest, as always, will feature dozens of artists and conversations, but the simple act of gathering together in one space might be the thing that Nault and Tadeo are both most looking forward to. “I’m honestly mostly excited for just being in person,” Tadeo says with a laugh. “I mean, responsibly, safely, but just really… I mean, OUTSider has provided a space where artists and the audience members can just like awkwardly intermingle, and that… is what is normal for an arts festival. So I’m just really happy to be meeting in person.”
“If I had to list one thing that I’m most excited about, it’s our audience this year,” Nault agrees. “It’s being able to be in a room with our queerdo communities, enjoying art together and reconnecting and kind of bringing to the forefront the intimacy and togetherness that OUTSider has always been really good at fostering. Because it’s been two years, really, since we’ve all been able to gather.”
OUTSider Festival: Unplugged takes place February 16 - 20 at the Vortex.