The Big Cheap Theater movement
Fringe troupes band together to prove they can make it anywhere without Broadway
by Michael Barnes

Evolutionary shifts in American theater resemble bamboo leaves unbending from a central stem.

Broadway remains, in the popular imagination, the chief locus of our country's theater. Yet the site of real creativity moved off-Broadway in the '50s, further off-off-Broadway in the '60s, and then to regional theaters outside New York City by the '70s.

Now the action is rattling around the fringe theaters of America's more vibrant cities: Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and, yes, Austin.

If this alternative theater movement, with its shoestring budgets and fresh forms, has a spiritual leader, it is Bay Area playwright Erik Ehn. Best known for his hallucinatory Saint Plays, Ehn calls the fringe's low-cost, high-concept approach "Big Cheap Theater."

That label is beginning to stick. A month ago, Ehn joined leaders of this nascent movement in Iowa City, Iowa, for a conference sponsored by the University of Iowa. Participants hailed from mega-markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Washington, but also from emerging arts communities in San Diego, Atlanta, Tampa, Fla, and Dallas.

Five of the 17 attending producers came from Austin.

"It was terrifically exhilarating," said the Public Domain's helmsman Robi Polgar. "You have an idea that other people are out there doing similar theater, but until you meet them, you are in the dark.

"Now we're talking about sharing ideas, plays, personnel, without invading each other's artistic space," Polgar said.

"It was extraordinary," agreed Jason Neulander, director of Salvage Vanguard Theater. "This could change the terrain of American theater today."

"We felt isolated before," said Steve Moore of Physical Plant Theater. "The conference brought our common goals - challenging, innovative performance - into focus. In Iowa, I felt the possibility of possibility."

Back in town, the Austin producers are newly energized. You can see the promise of Big Cheap Theater when the Public Domain, Physical Plant, Troupe Texas, Different Stages, Salvage Vanguard, Frontera, Subterranean and Vortex jumpstart their winter seasons soon. (Keep an eye on the XL theater listing for fringe activities.)

Ehn, the subject of a soon-to-be-published cover story in American Theatre magazine, makes an unlikely guru for these fringesters. In Austin for a recent symposium, Ehn looked more like an earnest Jesuit novice than a firebrand, tossing his ideas out in disconnected aphorisms. Ehn might be viewed as a sane Antonin Artaud, a less ideological Bertolt Brecht, a sweeter Samuel Beckett.

No Patrick Henry on the dais, Ehn's written notes on Big Cheap Theater justify his inspirational status.

On the high burnout rate among fringe groups, Ehn writes: "Experimental theaters, geographically and financially isolated form one another, struggle separately when they could be struggling together; not in less pain perhaps, but in common and revivifying pain."

While Ehn does not reject money-making, he is dismayed by the staunchly middle-class aspirations of traditional theater workers; a condition which often leads to market-driven products stamped out by fear-stricken institutions.

"We want an engine, outside the marketplace, built low enough to the ground and out of such measly materials that repairs are worked in a wind," he writes.

Regarding the current funding panic in institutional theater: "Since continuance and accountability are built into their missions, they come to crisis when the world stops or skips."

Instead, Ehn hopes to join "theaters that choose to operate under the radar, below the market... not institutional. They exist from incarnation to incarnation; they are in and out of chaos."

An ancillary project for the Big Cheap Theater movement is the Art Workers Hostelry, a web of artists traveling between performance scenes. In the future, Hostelry facilitators will negotiate food, shelter and transportation exchanges for visiting artist.

Already producer Don Howell and Frontera director Vicky Boone bring far-flung artists to Austin.

"You want to reach out when you are doing exciting work," says Howell, who led the Austin contingent to Iowa City. "We don't want a formalized structure, and instead we are seeking a fellowship of like-minded theater artists connected in a nationwide environment."

Expanding this loose fellowship could be as groundshaking as the 1961 founding of Theatre Communications Group was for larger nonprofit theaters, and the 1965 birth of the League of Resident Theatres was for the largest regional companies. Some adherents of the Big Cheap Theater and Art Workers Hostelry will meet during workshops in Austin and Dallas in April. Discussions will continue; a publication is planned.

"If you are looking for a model, Esther's Follies is a big and grant as they come. It's also cheap as it can be, yet it makes its point," Howell said.

Think of countless versions of Esther's, with hundreds of different aesthetic missions, everywhere.

While dreaming, catch Physical Plant's Tiller at DogStar Lounge, the Public Domain's Sherlock Holmes at Synergy Studio, Subterranean's Alabama Rain at Hyde Park Theatre, Vortex's Beirut and As the Beaver at Planet Theatre and Different Stages The Triumph of Love at the Acting Studio.

No shirker of history, Ehn wants to build on accomplished fact: "American's signal achievement is accessible theater, affordably priced."

Big Cheap Theater could vouchsafe that achievement into the next century.