A burgeoning obscurity

Sure, you know art — you check out the gallery crawls, hold season tickets to the local community theater. You’ve even dabbled a little in modern dance.

But what happens when you encounter something that breaks away from the art you know? Art that shucks off the confines of tradition, escaping to the edge of the canvas or the perimeter of the stage — that’s where the Asheville Fringe Festival wants you to be.

And if you find yourself surprised, know that the performers are probably right there with you.

Now in its third season, the locally produced event is once again promising to push the boundaries of art and convention, with performances and displays at five venues around town. After expanding from just one theater in its first year, the festival looks now to have gained the momentum it needs to continue opening passageways into art’s more mysterious recesses.

And as the Asheville festival grows, it joins a worldwide tradition of fringe that began well over 50 years ago.

Initially, such festivals in the U.S. were confined to cities with an already mature theater scene, such as New York and Chicago. But the past few years finds it spreading into other, unlikelier locales.

“The fringe movement is very, very strong,” confirms festival co-director Jim Julien, who’s also a performer. In Asheville, where the art scene can accurately be described as restless, the emergence of Fringe was probably inevitable. “Theater has been stewing over the past few years. It began reaching critical mass to begin some kind of festival,” Julien says.

While many festivals are held in the spring and summer, winter in Asheville renders an opening in a city already crowded with arts-minded events.

“This time of year, a lot of theaters are in between performances,” Julien explains. That kind of down time provides an opportunity for artists to turn their attention to the things they may not have had the chance to explore during the rest of the year. It also supplies a larger selection of both venues and performers.

Fringe, legendarily coined by a Scottish journalist covering the Edinburgh International Festival, initially got its name because performance artists were looking for venues to showcase experimental work. With the established festival taking up all the theaters and hotels in the city proper, these renegade troupes sought out locations on the outskirts of town — along the fringe of the city.

But the name implies something more than physical location. As the original fringe performers probed the edges of the city, they also dove into the unexplored regions of their art, finding unexpected results — and responses.

Even fringe artists need direction

“I have no idea,” exclaims first-time festival participant DeWayne Barton when asked of his expectations. “It’s going to be a learning experience.” For artists like Barton, remaining open to the possibilities is crucial. “I’m curious what kind of response I’m going to get. There are a few displays I’ve never shown in public before.”

Barton, who most recently showed his found-object assemblages at Wedge Gallery, accents his work by reading poetry. Combined, the two mediums explore heavyweight issues like AIDS, prisons, drugs and war. “There’s a little bit of everything,” Barton says. “I feel sometimes like I am a puzzle maker.” Barton’s choice of topics is an accurate sampler of the festival lineup. From an exploration of the current presidential election to the war in Iraq to a newly adapted version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, shows will be soaked in current events.

But fear not, fun-lovers. It’s not all so heavy. Take, for example, the reappearance of the Accidental Circus (complete with fire eating and extreme hula-hooping), or disco-fusion belly dancing. In its first year, the event was without an adjudication process: In an attempt to foster an uncensored artistic environment, festival organizers let anyone play who wanted to. More recently, they have begun a selection process, but it’s not intended to impose limits. Quite the contrary — the idea is to increase the intensity of the festival. “We’ve tried not to be too self-censoring,” says Julien, adding that viewers can certainly expect some adult content. “I probably wouldn’t recommend all the shows for little children.”

But don’t confuse risk with risque. A main goal at the festival is to get artists into an atmosphere where they will take risks — and do things they themselves might even be unsure of.

Julien last year premiered a performance piece that consisted entirely of him sitting at a table eating pudding while music played in the background. “It got a really strong response,” he claims.

This year, he’ll break his own personal envelope and expose his vulnerability by doing something he’s never done before: sing in public. For a guy who’s appeared before an audience rolling on the floor in a loincloth while being painted from head to toe, such a move may seem like small potatoes.

But for this performer, singing publicly is the equivalent of stripping naked on the street.

The smaller the town, the bigger the fringe

Julien, a veteran of well-established fringe festivals in Canada, reminds us that Asheville is new to the movement. “One of the biggest differences here is the level of experience. It maybe not be as broad as you would find in New York City.”

On the other hand, a fatter resume doesn’t always equal more guts — artists in smaller cities, who may only get to show off their fringe side once a year, have more to prove. They know that every move counts.

“You find more people [here] willing to go beyond their normal comfort level,” Julien concedes.

Moreover, Asheville artists, he says, have evinced a natural willingness to collaborate. Festival co-creator Susan Collard of Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre first ran into fringe in San Francisco. The first festival in Asheville, though, was slow to take hold, and there wasn’t much response until the days right before the event began.

But any doubts cast by the tentative beginnings were soon shed as artists took bigger and bigger risks at each performance. “We pushed hard,” Collard says. “And performers picked up a philosophy that there is always farther to go, more to explore.”

This year, the festival will open with a parade, led by an unlikely troupe of Butoh dancers. The Japanese postmodern dance form, in which dancers are nearly naked and painted white, was largely influenced by the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dancers move slowly and silently, promising to give the parade a unique tone. As the procession moves through the streets, organizers hope to collect passersby and random onlookers to join in, their numbers swelling as the parade makes its way through town. From a few daring souls baring their vulnerabilities comes a movement of the people.

Ticket holders, too, must likewise shed their baggage before entering the theater.

“Audiences have to be open to see this as fringe art and not as tradition,” Collard says. “If you come to see classical ballet, well, that’s not going to happen.”

Is it still fringe if everybody’s doing it?

From France to Italy, Prague to Philly, fringe is no longer, well, on the fringes.

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