Acts peculiar: Asheville Fringe Festival celebrates the curious and unusual

Image 1. Shrouded in mystery: The theater and performance-art festival celebrates the unorthodox: Here, Sarah Ruth Bonner in “Fibers.”

Image 2. Love is strange: Playwrights like John Crutchfield use Fringe to showcase their more eccentric works. Here, Eric Moellering and Laura Tratnik in Crutchfield’s “Come Thick Night.”

Image 3. Oogly boogly odyssey: Don’t you want to find out what this crazy thing is? You can, at Toybox Theatre and Cripps Puppets’ “Shitfarmer.”

Image 4. Unabashed and over the top: Jack Kirven & Annie Vereen of Viscera Dance Theatre, from Charlotte.

The Fringe fundamentals:

What: The 11th Annual Fringe Festival!
Where: BeBe Theater, 35 Below, LaZoom and The ARTery
When: Thursday, January 24 to Sunday, January 27.
How (Much): Shows are $12 at the door. Advance tickets available online, at the venue before showtime and at Fringe Central (BeBe Theater box office) from noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and noon to 3 p.m. Sunday. Shows have limited seating, so buy early or get there early. And, Freak Passes, if there are any left, are $50 and allow access to all shows and the end of festival party at MG Road. More at

Fringe revels in the theatrically unordinary. It takes up traditional theater’s would-be discards, the supposed refuse turned away for being too out-there, off-kilter or debaucherous. It takes these and ties them together in a weekend of citywide programming. These plays, street-theater scenes, purple-bus cabarets and performances by humans and marionettes alike will descend on the city this weekend, all in the name of the 11th annual Asheville Fringe Arts Festival.

“It’s an experimental realm,” Sarah Ruth Bonner tells Xpress.

The Asheville native makes her Fringe debut with “Fibers,” a 10-minute mixed-media piece featured during the 7 p.m. Artery Variety Show.

“This piece is one in a long line of works,” says Bonner. “It started with the idea of wanting to represent texture and movement in an environmental setting.” Bonner says that it’s continued to change with each performance.

The piece features an “organic structure,” that of her body beneath a cloth form, manipulated with subtle movements. She’s furthered the abstraction by projecting a variety of textural images ranging from cloth to milk that she filmed.

“It combines more formal aspects of [visual] art,” she says, “that doesn’t always work with performance.”

In keeping with the collaborative nature of many Fringe works, she’s partnered with experimental musician Kimathi Moore. Moore will provide audio to add to the altered atmosphere and ultimately connect that atmosphere with the audience.

While Asheville fringe is a solid but still-youthful 11 years old, the festival’s origins have deeper roots. The original Fringe Festival formed when eight theater groups performed a series of unscheduled shows during the 1947 Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland. In other words, the groups crashed the festival by showing up unannounced and performing in venues unaffiliated with the main event. A year later, the newly minted fete earned its name when a reporter referred to the events occurring “’round the fringe of the official festival.”

The Asheville-based showcase returns this year with additions and new ideas reaped from an international stock of Fringe Festivals.

Last fall, Asheville Fringe directors Jim Julien and Jocelyn Reese traveled to Edinburgh for the World Fringe Congress. (In this case, congress is our English brethren's placeholder for conference.) Julien and Reese were invited to talk about all things Fringe with representatives of the roughly 40 other Fringe Festivals from around the world. The exchange, they say, has refreshed their own work.

“The festival naturally fosters the avant garde,” Reese says. “And this year we’ve shifted, and so we’ve had more folks coming from outside of Asheville.”

A new grant has allowed more out-of-towners to perform, and the shift to longer-format pieces makes that trip more worthwhile. That said, the bulk of the lineup is still from Asheville. A few artists are traveling from within North Carolina, and still more are coming from Tennessee, Florida, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. To help with the costs, AFAF earned a Grassroots grant from the N.C. Arts Council to help accommodate the traveling artists. And (unlike prior Fringes), a percentage of this year’s ticket sales will go to the artists.

Among the festival’s new additions are the Random Acts of Fringe (intermittent street theater), Fringe Features (long-format acts for the stage) and a program dedicated to family-friendly content. Here’s a look at the weekend ahead.

Some longer Fringe

If you’ve been to Fringe Festivals (in Asheville, across the U.S., or the world if you’re dedicated enough), then you know that many Fringe performances are of an abbreviated nature — focussed, perhaps, on one character, idea or situation. Take several of these, group them together, and you have the BeBe and ARTery Variety Shows, as they’ve been dubbed.

“We want to provide this opportunity for the artists to push the audience and to push themselves,” Reese says.

It’s a win-win, Julien and Reese say. The artists get a greater window of time to work and the audience departs having digested nearly half of a traditional play. Some of the acts are 45-minutes long, like Julian Vorus’ “Red Black White,” which debuted at The Magnetic Field theater last year. “I’ve written a lot of five- to 10-minute pieces,” Vorus told Xpress. For Vorus, the Fringe Features allow a break from those brief but high-energy performances. “I wanted to write something less about the performance persona and more about the acting.”

Anam Cara Theater Company’s “Petroleum Sundaes for Everyone” uses 25 minutes in BeBe’s black-box atmosphere to piece together, as they’ve put it, a dark, non-linear and abstract representation of our world to-be. The piece draws attention to impending consequences of worldly human action, interaction or inaction. It’s both dystopic and utopian, light and dark. But without any socio-political or environmental overtones.

“We try not to answer any of the question,” ACTD’s Erinn Huntley says. “We’re avoiding the preachiness.”

Huntley and her fellow cast member Kim Hartman hope that the piece will elicit relevant dialogues and put the company’s name further into the social stratosphere.

The festival’s latest show is aptly dubbed The BeBe Late Late Show. And it would appear to be appropriately so, based on the performance’s title. Madison J. Cripps and Keith Shubert have pooled their creative efforts in the fields of puppetry and marionettes to create “Shitfarmer,” a feature with a surprisingly clean register of words. That’s because it’s a non-verbal performance.

“Shitfarmer” is a 45-minute-long performance that utilizes multiple forms of puppetry to tell the story of a custodian that is taken away from his daily duties to search for higher purpose. Or at the least, a better way of life. Cripps and Shubert recently debuted the piece at the 2012 New Orleans Fringe Festival.

“It was conceived in the car ride back from the 2011 New Orleans Fringe Festival,” Shubert says. “I got to work on the character as soon as I got in the door.”

The duo is using the silence to a greater advantage. Their intentions are to take it farther than Asheville Fringe. “With a non-verbal show, you have the opportunity of becoming an international show,” he says. No language barrier means the play is accessible to all, including those in foreign countries.

Where it’s at

BeBe Theater (20 Commerce St., downtown) is home to the Asheville Contemporary Dance Theater and the old-fashioned black-box style beginnings of Asheville Fringe. The narrow theater will host 7, 9 and 11 p.m. shows Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2, 4 and 6 p.m. shows on Sunday.

35below (35 Walnut St., downtown) is Asheville Community Theater’s black-box theater, located below the main stage It will feature 7 and 9 p.m. shows Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and 2 and 4 p.m. shows on Sunday.

The LaZoom bus will board at the corner of Coxe Avenue and Commerce Street, just down the street from the BeBe Theater. The bus hosts its traveling shows at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday.

The Artery (346 Depot St., River Arts District), houses the Asheville Area Arts Council. It will host a 7 p.m. show on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and a 2 p.m. show on Sunday. The Artery will also be the home of family-friendly Fringe programming — the kid-friendly alternative to some of the festivals risqué performances.

The kids can come?

While Fringe performances past have often included warnings about foul language, adult content and other things maybe not appropriate for the kiddos, this year, there’s a place where all ages can be comfortable in all content.The ARTery Variety Show offers family-friendly sessions featuring videos and performances by Amy Hamilton, Hank and Barbara Eder, Sarah Ruth Bonner, Kristin Pedemonti, students from ArtSpace Charter School and The Nut House Theater.

Random acts of Fringe

Also new? “Random Acts of Fringe.” Think of it as Asheville Fringe’s take on street theater. Mini-acts will amass around downtown, particularly around Commerce Street, Pritchard Park and the North Lexington Avenue corridor. Some are musical, others will feature site-specific improvisations to involve passersby in the festival’s atmosphere.

Watch out on Thursday for Amy Hamilton’s “Improv with Teacup,” showing at a particular Lexington tea house. Also on Lexington, but on Friday, look for “Butopia,” a dance performance by Julie Becton Gillum and the Local Butoads. There will be other improv, as well as face painting.

“We’re trying to offer opportunities for folks in town,” Reese says, adding that “Folks don’t have to pay for these aspects of the event.”

Happily ever after-parties

Add nightly after parties to this year’s extras. Each night, as the festivities draw to their respective closings, the after-parties will ensue. On Thursday, the Dirty South Lounge (tucked behind The Southern in downtown Asheville), will hold the first night’s event. Friday will move the crowd up the street to 5 Walnut Wine Bar. And on Saturday, Asheville Brewing Company on Coxe Avenue will play host to the night’s post-programming.

All of the after-parties start and 10 p.m. and go until 2 a.m.

About Kyle Sherard
Book lover, arts reporter, passerby…..

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