The Americana, Burlesque and Sideshow Fest, a variety arts extravaganza, summons troupes of sword swallowers, whip artists, magicians, burlesque dancers and vocalists. It also offers a handful of performance-focused workshops that teach sideshow skills and burlesque concepts. ABSFest returns to Asheville for its 13th year, Friday-Sunday, May 24-26, with events at The Orange Peel and The Grey Eagle.
“We love putting the full panacea of humanity and its glory on stage,” says Lauren O’Leary, aka Madame Onça, the festival’s executive director. “It makes me happy that people are still coming. It means we’ve built something that people want to be a part of year after year. We’ve established this show is always worth seeing.”
Onça, who has been part of Asheville’s art scene since 1995, originally created the festival as a for-Asheville, by-Asheville occasion. However, as ABSFest’s popularity expanded, Onça was able to bring in performers and fans from across the globe. She sees it as an opportunity to “challenge the paradigm at a larger level,” she says.
As the festival beckons what she describes as a larger pool of “passionate, polished and practiced artists with something to say,” Onça is proud to share the stage with nonconforming performers who represent ideals of body positivity, gender inclusivity and racial diversity. In that spirit, this year’s Artist Recognition Award winner, Talloolah Love, will bring her troupe The Candybox Revue to present an ensemble inspired by the #MeToo movement.
The performances kick off Friday evening with a FanDom show at The Grey Eagle, hosted by the Houston-based Tifa Tittlywinks, who according to Onça, will sport giant hairy eyebrows as the show explores themes of science fiction and fantasy. Tittlywinks will also host a Saturday workshop on how to use facial expressions effectively in burlesque performance.
“We all know burlesque is sexy, but for me, having a joyful pairing of sexy with comedy and other skills is really important,” Onça says. “So when someone like [Tittlywinks], who is blessed with natural sexiness, also chooses to be funny and gaudy, that’s amazing.”
Before Friday’s main show, legendary Old World carny James Taylor (not to be confused with the singer-songwriter of the same name) will release and discuss a collector’s edition of his “Shocked and Amazed” book series that’s dedicated to all manifestations of sideshows and weirdness. There will also be an after-party on Friday at The Grey Eagle, featuring live music from Dream Baby, described by Onça as “experimental, electronic witch music.”
The Saturday Spectacular features the largest number of burlesque and sideshow acts of the weekend, along with a charity raffle for the Asheville Humane Society and an after-party at Wicked Weed. On Sunday, the festival will close out with a Last Pasties Standing brunch and burlesque battle show at The Grey Eagle, hosted by Atlanta-based firebrand Sadie Hawkins.
Other headliners include the comedic whip artist Jacques Ze Whipper, who holds the Guinness World Record for Most Bullwhip Cracks in a Minute (289), and burlesque dancer May Hemmer, known as both “The Sassiest Thing in New Orleans” and “The Cocoa Barbie.”
Jacques Ze Whipper will also bring his 6-foot-long rope into the classroom for a workshop on basic tips and tricks of whip cracking. The same day, dancer Lottie Ellington will lead a special, 90-minute Twerkshop.
But not all the lessons offered are strictly for the stage. On Saturday afternoon, belly dancer, teacher and festival producer Nadira will host a free community discussion on marginalized people in performance in The Orange Peel’s community room. This will be the second time Nadira hosts this workshop for ABSFest, and she’ll be joined by her fellow dancer Yoni Biyé, a member of the LGBTQ community.
“Here’s a safe space where you can ask questions without judgment or reprisal. … If you’re sitting in this workshop and you are trying, I am here,” says Nadira. “We ask, ‘What does diversity mean? What does representation mean? And how do we approach that?’ And then I like to look at it practically — how you choose to advertise, cast, present your business cards. We thoughtfully approach diversity and representation in a very real way.”
Throughout the festival, Onça strives to expand the minds of anyone who walks through the door. “We try to give them a whole other portal to Asheville’s vitality and values,” she explains. “We’re very proud to say as the festival has grown, we’ve continued to expand its scope and commitment to justice.”
She adds, “The activist aspect of burlesque is important — keeping it joyful and authentic while exploring change.”
WHAT: ABSFest, absfest.com
WHERE: The Orange Peel, 101 Biltmore Ave., theorangepeel.net; and The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave, thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Friday, May 24-Sunday, May 26. See website for performance and workshop schedule and prices