“I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a room where 60-plus cans of soda are opened at the same time, but that is a trippy experience,” says Chris Conard, who is the technical director for the Frank Wo/Men Collective.
Conard is referring to a particular moment in “Tiskettasket,” Frank Wo/Men’s 2017 physical theater piece, in which the audience members, who had been given baskets of food and cans of soda at the start of the show, were all instructed to pop their tops at once. At another point, the audience was asked to add more sound effects by breaking carrots and celery stalks.
Founded in 2017 by artistic director Kelsey Oliver, Frank Wo/Men Collective has quickly become known for offering trippy experiences, creating provocative and experimental performances that blend forms and genres of dance and theater. Along with Oliver and Conard, the team of co-producers also includes physical theater artist Roberto Di Donato, and dancer/choreographer Alexa Capareda. An extended family of Frankies, as they affectionately refer to themselves, collaborates on a project-by-project basis.
When Oliver first assembled the group in 2017, her intention was simply to make a show with her friends, not to form a long-term company. She had met Capareda and Di Donato as students in the Theatre and Dance Department at the University of Texas, and was introduced to Conard, a stage designer, through a mutual friend. Yet as they began to work intently together, they discovered a real creative affinity, a “common language” between them, as Oliver describes it, accented by “punch lines or word jokes, [and] absurdist humor.”
Their first show “Loose Gravel,” was a series of short vignettes that foregrounded impressive physicality; a collage of as many ideas and costume changes as possible, staged in an unheated warehouse in the middle of winter. The success of that inaugural production sparked a commitment to keep going.
“It was really natural for the four of us to be like, ‘what if we tried doing this again?’” Oliver says.
Since then, in just over two and a half years, the Frankies have staged three more evening-length productions, as well as a handful of shorter pieces. They have also collaborated on events with Meow Wolf, Boss Babes ATX, and the Museum of Human Achievement. Each project has been a progressive step forward, enabling them to secure increased funding, elevating production and pushing craft to the next level.
Diving In, All the Way
Their most recent work, “Rub A Duck,” staged at Blue Genie in June 2019, is an immersive water-world escapade, tracing a surreal narrative about a group of participants who seek personal improvement at the Transformation House, where events and experiences are curated by a dominatrix overseer. Audience members had to sit in a designated dry-zone if they wanted to avoid the spray-hose and soaring water balloons.
“What’s interesting is that [the] trajectory, or journey of the show, also felt like a similar path that the collective is taking,” Di Donato reflects. Resonating with the theme of transformation, the artists are coming into their own, becoming established in different ways, and refining their personal styles.
The Frankies thrive on mixed perspectives and connect to the work in different ways. For Oliver, “Rub A Duck” was less narrative and more experiential.
“More of what it what was for me was an exploration of our tendencies in an unlimited space, or a space where anything can happen, nothing is too grotesque or absurd,” she says. “The Transformation House that we were in actually encouraged you to pursue your cravings and reveal your impulses.”
Capareda calls the piece, “an arrival” of sorts, having the longest performance run, the highest production value, and the largest multi-disciplinary cast and crew of any previous show. From a technical perspective, it has also been their most complex project to date, tasking Conard to integrate multiple lighting and water elements both safely and effectively.
“This company is an opportunity to push what I’m capable of from a design standpoint,” Conard says, “and also what I’m capable of implementing, so that’s really exciting to me.”
Di Donato shares in this excitement, commenting that he and Conard “have bonded over the DIY side of theater.” All of their shows have been produced in nontraditional performance spaces, transformed through vision and scrappy ingenuity.
“[We] love to think of it on a large scale,” says Di Donato. “How do you maximalize what you have rather than underplaying your work?”
This idea of maximalism permeates the group’s artistic approach. It is part of their overarching ethos; a full-out, all-encompassing embrace of possibilities and divergent thinking.
As Oliver explains, it is about being “overwhelming with ideas rather than under, making sense of it later, but running with a bunch of layers that inform each other for a long while.”
Being Seen, Being Heard
While their process evolves with the energy of each new show, the collective holds to a non-hierarchical structure with a multiplicity of diverse voices, devising work through open-ended questioning and investigation.
“Whoever is in charge of rehearsal that day will ask people what they want to try and haven’t seen,” explains Di Donato.
Everyone’s ideas, whims, or “genius cravings” as Capareda puts it, are given equal consideration, space to breathe, expand, or unravel.
“Everybody has the ability to throw everything into the pot and see what comes up,” Capareda says, a factor that each member values as integral to the work.
“What I love about working with them is I can come up with an idea and they don’t tell me no,” says Conard. “They say okay, do it, or try to do it. For me that’s one of the things that keeps me going.”
Oliver and Di Donato also devote a lot of time to reflection and verbal brainstorming in between rehearsals. With Di Donato based primarily in New York and now Ohio, that has often meant hours spent together on the telephone, engaged in what Oliver refers to as “what if-ing” about ideas that have surfaced and how they might apply to other concepts or aspects of the show.
While not every idea can ultimately be incorporated into the final production, the artists maintain what Capareda calls “a lack of preciousness with how things come together.” They also keep an ongoing list of sorts, a grab-bag bank of possibilities or threads to pull from one project to the next.
For example, in creating “Loose Gravel,” Conard was compelled by the thought of throwing a cupcake on stage. Though that scene did not end up making it into the show, they held on to the idea, and throwing food became one of the core concepts for “Tiskettasket.”
Such symbols and motifs connect each distinct production to its creative genealogy.
“I love having seed baby ideas and watching them snowball into weird multi-faceted children because of the other people,” Oliver says, “and also contributing to others’ seed baby ideas.”
As the ideas keep growing, the Frankies are interested in remounting “Rub A Duck” this winter, with a new work in conversation for early next summer. They also have an eye turned outside of Austin, hoping to travel or produce projects elsewhere, while also bringing in new collaborators and exploring new methods for devising. That being said, they are not thinking too far into the future, wary of getting ahead of themselves.
For now, they will continue to water “seed baby ideas,” ask what if, and take what comes to the maximum.