Around Town: Americana Burlesque & Sideshow Festival returns

SPIRIT OF VAUDEVILLE: From left, Madame Onça, Nadira, May Hemmer and Selia d’Katzmeow will be among those performing at the Americana Burlesque & Sideshow Festival. Photo courtesy of ABSFest

Unapologetic sultriness. A culture of empowerment. Representation of diverse bodies.

Audiences can expect all that and more when the Americana Burlesque & Sideshow Festival returns to Asheville from Thursday-Saturday, May 25-27, organizers say. The variety arts extravaganza had been on hiatus since 2019 due to COVID safety concerns.

“This is a collaboration of artists that have worked together before and are now ready to share what they’ve all been working on for the past few years in artistic isolation,” says Lauren O’Leary, aka Madame Onça, the festival’s executive director. “Our stripping comes with storytelling. It’s basically sexy, smart comedy with an overall uplifting message.”

The 14th ABSFest gets underway Thursday, May 25, with Onça leading a Tarot for Everyone workshop at Raven and Crone from 6-7:30 p.m.

On Friday, May 26, Brooklyn-based goth folk band Charming Disaster will play live music behind burlesque and variety acts at Friday Speakeasy Seance at The Grey Eagle, 8 p.m. VIPS will get early priority seating with entertainment by juggler Paolo Garbanzo.

Action shifts to The Orange Peel on Saturday, May 27, with a series of workshops from 12:30-3:30 p.m. Topics include burlesque improvisation, songwriting and introduction to veil poi, an art form that involves swinging tethered weights through a variety of rhythmical and geometric patterns.

The Saturday Spectacular will feature headliner May Hemmer, a burlesque artist known as the Cocoa Barbie, at 8 p.m. at The Orange Peel. Also on the bill will also be sword swallowing, aerials and live music.

Onça, who has been part of Asheville’s art scene since 1995, created the festival as a local event in 2007.

“Variety arts and gender fluidity have always been integral to our festival, and that’s unusual,” Onça says. “It’s important to us to honor the shared vaudevillian history of burlesque, gender-bending and sideshow.”

That is particularly true at a time when trans rights and drag shows are coming under fire in many states, Onça says.

“There is no more vital work we can do as artists than to be loud and clear in our actions and our art that we oppose the policing of bodies and those of our communities.”

Raven and Crone is at 640 Merrimon Ave., No. 207. The Grey Eagle is at 185 Clingman Ave. The Orange Peel is at 101 Biltmore Ave. For more information or to buy tickets, visit

Ghost (light) stories

Three months after Matthew Vollmer‘s mother died, his father started seeing strange lights in the rural Cherokee County cove where he lived.

“I began to document the appearance and evolution of these lights over the course of several months,” says Vollmer, a Virginia Tech English professor. “I also made inquiries, did research on ‘ghost lights,’ [and] consulted with a shaman and an Anglican priest, as well as friends and family.”

After that, he says, things got weirder and weirder.

Vollmer recounts these unusual experiences, explores his grief and delves into family secrets in his new memoir, All of Us Together in the End, published last month by Hub City Press.

The book originally focused on Vollmer’s experiences growing up in the Seventh-day Adventist church in the small town of Andrews. But when his mother died shortly after he delivered the manuscript to his agent in September 2019, he decided to revise it. The ghost lights near his father’s house provided inspiration.

Ghost lights are lights or fires that appear in the atmosphere without an obvious cause.

“I’ve always been interested in that which can’t be explained, perhaps because I was raised in a religion whose adherents seemed to believe everything could,” says Vollmer, the author of five other books. “I was always jealous of people in Bible stories who bore witness to burning bushes and water turning to wine. I wanted to experience something I couldn’t explain.”

He hopes readers will likewise see the value of embracing uncertainty.

“The world — and the universe — is probably a lot bigger and more complex than we can comprehend,” says Vollmer. “Paradoxes can be true: for instance, our loved ones are always with us, even after they’re gone.

For more information or to buy the book, go to

Schoolhouse rock

The Royal Suits will headline Time Machine Dance Party, a fundraiser for Asheville Music School, at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 18, at Salvage Station.

The bill also will include special guests and AMS’ flagship student band, Minør.

Money raised from the concert will provide scholarships and outreach and help fund the school’s new Sound Lab, which is used for teaching recording, engineering and composition production techniques. The lab opened in 2022 as part of AMS’ new West Asheville campus.

Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door.

Salvage Station is at 468 Riverside Drive. For more information, go to

Medieval times

First Presbyterian Church Asheville will present Julian, a one-woman show about the life of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, on Friday, May 19, 7 p.m.

The show will be the 100th and final performance by the Rev. Linda C. Loving, a Presbyterian minister and actor who has taken on the role for 26 years in the United States and England. The play was written by J. Janda.

Julian of Norwich was a mystic, writer and spiritual guide in the 14th century. She lived in a hermit cell in her hometown and survived the plague three times. Her book, Revelations of Divine Love, remains in print and is the first known book written in English by a woman.

First Presbyterian Church Asheville is at 40 Church St. For more information or to buy $10 tickets, go to

Dykeman residence

John Vercher, author of the award-winning 2019 novel Three-Fifths, will be UNC Asheville’s inaugural Wilma Dykeman writer-in-residence.

The writer-in-residence program is open to writers “whose work embodies a passion for equity and inclusion and demonstrates a commitment to social, racial, environmental and/or gender justice,” UNCA says in a press release. The residency, offered in conjunction with the Wilma Dykeman Legacy, offers the recipient four consecutive weeks to write in the late Dykeman’s home.

Dykeman was an environmentalist, civil rights reporter and bestselling novelist.

Vercher will collaborate with UNCA to plan an activity to engage with the campus and Asheville community.

“To say I’m inspired to have the opportunity to create and write in the home of a woman who dedicated her creative efforts to equity and social justice when I aspire to do the same with my own writing only begins to describe the enormity of emotion I’m experiencing in this moment,” he says in a press release.

In addition to Three-Fifths, Vercher is the author of 2022’s After the Lights Go Out. His third novel, Devil Is Fine, is due in 2024.

For more information, visit





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About Justin McGuire
Justin McGuire is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate with more than 30 years of experience as a writer and editor. His work has appeared in The Sporting News, the (Rock Hill, SC) Herald and various other publications. Follow me @jmcguireMLB

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One thought on “Around Town: Americana Burlesque & Sideshow Festival returns

  1. Curious

    “Vercher will collaborate with UNCA to plan an activity to engage with the campus and Asheville community.”
    What are the dates for the residence and the activities for the community?

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