Marfa- In the Trans-Pecos region of the Chihuahuan Desert in far West Texas, something strange has appeared on the horizon. It’s not the Marfa Lights or even Prada Marfa. Nor is it a Hollywood film crew in town to shoot a sequel to the 1956 Western Giant. Instead, it’s a theater festival that promises, at least for two days early next year, to draw the locals and tourists away from the routine sights just long enough to attend the inaugural Fringe Marfa, taking place January 10-11. Most of the performances are theater with an emphasis on physcial theater, but there is also dance and comedy, plus panels and workshops. The performers include:
- 9 in the Morning, Renegade Productions (Lubbock, Texas, and Oklahoma City)
- A Short History of Unfortunate Animals, Animal/Liminal (Albuquerque, NM)
- CRAPSHOOT! Or Why Al Voted for Trump: a love story (Todd Blakesley, San Diego)
- MyHEB, Raul Garza (Austin)
- Icarus was a Rookie, The Border Theatre (El Paso)
- Butcher Holler Here We Come, Ad Hoc Economy (New York and L.A.)
TheaterJones recently spoke by phone with Hope Lafferty and Christopher Dyer, Fringe Marfa’s key organizer and production manager, respectively. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
TheaterJones: For my first question, I was going to ask Why Fringe Marfa? Why now? But I think a better question might be How has Marfa managed to not have a fringe festival before now? It just seems that in some ways Marfa would be the ideal location for fringe.
Christopher Dyer: I think that the majority of the focus in Marfa has been on art with the Chinati Foundation, and that’s just been the natural, go-to focus. You know, art and art galleries. Film, theater, and things that would seem like a natural fit have just not been fully explored yet.
Hope Lafferty: We have had the Marfa Film Festival for a number of years, but it goes on and off depending on the organizers. That’s been kicking around for a while. Film is one of those things that people produce elsewhere, and you bring those things in. So they’re easier to manifest. You know, we’re a town of, according to the last census [estimate in 2016], a little over 1,700. People have to cook and pave the roads. There are infrastructure questions that have to happen before we can really figure out what we’re doing artistically. So that’s a lot of it: the size and how remote it is. This is the challenge we’re seeing just to promote the festival. It’s a challenge to get here. It’s not like we have this theater enclave where everybody’s hungry to put on their show. No, we’re importing the acts and we’re importing the audience. It’s very Marfa in that way.
What is your own background with theater and arts production?
HL: I’m a convert. No, I’m actually born again, I should say. I started out in the performing arts when I was young, but then I decided to study something else. When I turned 51, I was like, “I’m not living my truth,” which is this other thing, so I went back to performance. I came back to Marfa after studying in Washington, D.C., where we had such great theater. I thought, I need to bring that here now. Fortunately, Chris and I met last summer. He’s a playwright too. So now we’re producing Fringe Marfa together.
How long has the idea of Fringe Marfa been brewing? What inspired it?
HL: I came out of D.C. in the spring of 2018 with a handful of short plays, and I knew the next thing that had to happen was to become legit. And I was back in Marfa, where there wasn’t much of a theater environment where I could become legit. I thought, half of my friends do these fringe theater festivals, and it seemed like a good fit for me. So, I started to produce these shows. I formed a small theater company, the Dresden Collective [which played Fort Worth Fringe this past September], and established Marfa Theatre Incubator, an organization I’m able to raise funds through. Then I started submitting to fringe festivals around the country. I’m still fairly new to this. I’m still developing my voice as a playwright. But I got accepted at fringe festivals, like Capital Fringe. While creating our playbill, it hit me: why don’t I just throw one in Marfa?
Were the acts we’ll see at Fringe Marfa juried? How did you find them?
HL: A couple of friends of mine were doing stuff at Hollywood Fringe. They’d been working on this show called Butcher Holler, Here We Come as part of a group called Ad Hoc Economy. It’s a show about miners after a coal mine collapse in 1973. The staging is nothing but their headlamps. But it’s also physical theater crossed with Beckettian clowning. The lead guy I know, Michael Mason, is from Beaumont. He loves Marfa. We joked on Facebook that we needed to figure out a way to bring his show to Marfa. Why not? From there it just started building. I then met a couple of folks at Capital Fringe. That’s how it started happening. I had to stop seeing shows because the Fringe Marfa roster was getting filled. [Butcher Holler was seen in DFW in 2014, at WaterTower Theatre’s Out of the Loop Fringe Festival.]
How did you two meet and start working together?
CD: Last summer Hope and I met during a 24-hour play project. I had written a script, and it was one of those things where you’re randomly assigned actors. Luckily, we got Hope.
HL: It was through Marfa Live Arts. They’re a nonprofit here that develops theater. They bring in playwrights to teach at the high school every year. They’ve been doing that for a number of years. They produce a 24-hour play project every summer. They also produce one-act plays written by high schoolers every spring, and my group Dresden Collective was selected to do a staged reading of a really beautiful play written by an eleventh grader.
It sounds like Marfa does already have some basic theater infrastructure with Marfa Live Arts. How does the mission of Marfa Theatre Incubator differ from theirs?
HL: Marfa Live Arts has a lot to do with what theater we’ve had in town. They’re a not-for-profit. They have a different agenda than Marfa Theatre Incubator in that they’re all about making sure the community gets to see theater. We’re more about bringing great theater in and spurring the economy. They do great work.
What can you tell us about the venues? Are the different locations walkable?
HL: We really have one stage. Well, one stage and one hotel room. The main venue is the USO Hall. It’s a city property. We applied for city funding, so we wanted to also support the city that’s supporting us. We’re all just in this together here. We’ll also have a perpetual performance called 9 in the Morning by Renegade Productions that takes place at the Hotel Paisano. That’s the hotel that hosted the actors from Giant when it was filmed here in the fifties. The performance there is a 10-minute show in one of the rooms. It can fit five or six people at a time. The reason for such a small micro-performance is because it uses these bone-conduction headphones that were seventies technology called “bone fones.” A woman will be acting for 10 minutes, and you will hear her thoughts through these antique headphones while you watch her. This show runs continuously both days of the festival. So, one main venue with a couple of auxiliary spaces. And it’s all walkable.
What are your long-term goals for Fringe Marfa? Will this be a one-and-done event?
HL: I’ve been thinking about this because this is the question I get asked all the time. Honestly, I want to make it to January 12. I want to see how this works. The curious thing is that we have a number of festivals that come out — music festivals, film festivals, things like that — and there’s a little bit of a tension, I have to admit, between the local perception of what it means to bring people into town and the organizers’ perception of what it means. I’m very careful about wanting this to be a great experience for everyone involved, the people who come into town and the people who live here all the time. Without seeing what Fringe Marfa attracts and how Fringe Marge is perceived, it’s really hard for me to know what the right choice is next. And then we’ll build from there.
What non-Fringe Marfa things should I not miss while I’m in town?
CD: There’s the food. People are surprised by the quality of food options we have in such a small town. There’s Chinati [the contemporary art museum based around the work of Donald Judd and other artists involved in permanent large-scale installations]. And there’s the Marfa Lights.
HL: My recommendations always include Chinati. It’s one of my favorite places on the planet. But the thing I want everybody to do is to not just rely on the Marfa Lights. They can be capricious. But you can always look up. If we have a clear night, which we often do. We have like 300 clear nights a year out here. So that’s what I’d suggest. I just want people to stargaze a bit. Just look up.
In addition to performances from all over the United States, there will be panels Saturday afternoon that range in topics from playwriting to Juggling for Wellness. Friday the focus will be on solo performances, while Saturday it will be on ensemble work. Ticket information, including an early-bird discount, and an updated schedule are available here.