Fringe benefits

Kyle, played by fiddler Ian Moore, and Valerie Meiss on accordion, from the Tiny Wonder Alphabet Show! at The Odditorium, Friday and Sunday. Photo by Paul Holland

“Asheville Fringe Festival is an invaluable resource for performers and writers,” says playwright and actor Julian Vorus, whose full-length show The Bog will premiere at The Bebe Theater during Fringe 2014. The organizers, he notes, say, “Try anything: We’ll not only support you, but we’ll make a big deal about it. The Fringe Festival pushes artists to not only do something that challenges the audience, but which challenges the artist her- or himself.”

Vorus knows a thing or two about challenging audiences. His dark, often uncomfortable creations are the sort of things that make you wonder if you’re supposed to laugh or shudder, but they always keep you tethered to whatever happens next. To say say they’re not mainstream is an understatement, but they’re precisely the kind of work the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival was founded to encourage.

And after a dozen years of functioning quite well on its own, the local celebration of edgy creativity joined the United States Association of Fringe Festivals last year, sending Artistic Co-Directors Jim Julien and Jocelyn Reese to Edinburgh, Scotland, the closest thing Fringe fans have to a mother ship.

Growing the footprint

It was in Scotland where, in 1947, the concept of dedicating an entire festival to outside-the-mainstream performances emerged. The format quickly caught on, and sibling events have continued to proliferate. Fringe enables artists to be maximally imaginative, thinking way outside the box on everything from content to space, audience involvement and delivery. Here in the States, Fringe festivals have included everything from dance to standup and sketch comedy to full-length theater productions to creations that are just, well, odd. Or, as participants style it, “fringe-y.”

The Asheville Fringe began in 2002 as a self-contained affair thrown by Susan and Giles Collard of The BeBe Theater. Within a year, it spread to other venues, occupying spaces as diverse as the Future of Tradition: Center for Folkloric Arts (formerly in the Wedge Building) and NC Stage. Until now, however, the event has kept itself mostly confined to downtown and a bit of the River Arts District.

But this year, says Reese, “Our festival has doubled in size, so it’s just more. There are more people from out of town, there’s more local work that will be premiering.”

Among the pieces debuting this year are full-length shows by three local theater companies. A dance/music troupe from Maryland called Tia Nina will do an all-girl punk band “concert” using only choreography. The LaZoom bus, hosted by Andrew Benjamin of self-described “psycho cabaret group” Hellblinki, will cart audiences around town and drop them off at random locations (“in the middle of nowhere,” says Reese) for special surprise performances.

Perhaps more notably, Julien and Reese have enlisted new venues in West Asheville and Biltmore Village, teaming up with Toy Boat Community Art Space, The Odditorium and The Mothlight. Because Bromelia Aerial Dance Collective is in the lineup, Reese explains, “We were looking for really good beams. We walked into the Mothlight one night and [said], ‘Look at the beams! We were practically taking out a tape measure and measuring for curtains.”

The connection with the Odditorium was equally immediate. “We walked in last year when they were still renovating,” Reese recalls. “Terrific — so Fringe-y. We’d gone to Edinburgh and went to a show in a similar space, so it brought us back to this scene we’d experienced.”

Beyond the farthest fringes

In addition to the new venues, Reese and Julien picked up a few pointers from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, like the concept of Fringe Central — a box office/artist hangout/information station that will occupy the Firestorm Café. There’ll be more parties this year, including an opening-night affair at the Odditorium and a number of late-night afterparties. Inspired by Magnetic Midnight — the open mic-style show that encourages performance pieces under five minutes — Magnetic Fringe Night will be hosted by Julien and Magnetic Theatre co-founder Steven Samuels (who’ll also be doing an autobiographical monologue, The Man with the Birdcage on His Head, at the Odditorium). The Toy Boat space will host large dance performances, and The Bebe Theater will feature, among other things, the Wham, Bam! Puppet Slam, augmented by a convoy of puppeteers from the University of Connecticut.

Though Reese and Julien are jazzed about how many people are coming from out of town, they’re even more excited about how their membership in the USAFF may embolden Asheville creators to branch out. “We’ve always encouraged collaboration between different artists and genres,” says Julien. “We’ve had dancers working with sculptors, and musicians working with puppeteers. … But we’re also trying to expose local artists to a broader performance community and [encourage them] to go out into the world.”

The Puppet Slam, for example, has participated in the New Orleans Fringe Festival, and Samuels has taken shows to two separate New York City Fringes. A longtime participant in the Asheville and New York theater communities, Samuels knows the benefits of branching out: “It’s a way to help get Asheville known for something other than, say, Biltmore Estate, the Christmas Jam and beer.” Besides, he continues, making a piece that will be seen only at the Asheville Fringe “is really a great deal of effort for just two performances. Thinking in terms of creating work that can potentially be taken elsewhere gives hope of a longer life for these creations; makes our local artists more visible to funders nationwide; and can, perhaps eventually, make it possible for our artists to devote more time to their work than [they must] work to support their art.”

But even as the Asheville Fringe spreads throughout Asheville, its artistic co-directors are careful to make sure the festival doesn’t outgrow itself. “We try to stay within what’s right for this town,” says Reese. “We’re trying to be something that nurtures the homegrown and handcrafted. One of our missions is to encourage artists to explore their creative boundaries. We provide them with a playground to explore.”

what: The Asheville Fringe Arts Festival
where: See sidebar for schedule
when: Thursday-Sunday, Jan. 23-26.
Individual show tickets are $12, all-access Fringe Freak Passes are $50.

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