Celebrity chefs and reality TV, fringe style

The local restaurant scene, like most of Asheville culture, could use a good-natured ribbing every now and then. And who better to take up the task than the Magnetic Theatre, another group of passionate locals?

When the Theatre, founded in 2009, shut down its physical location in the River Arts District last March, some worried it might spell the company’s doom. But although they are still on the tricky hunt to find a permanent home, they have no plans to stop performing original shows born of the Asheville community.

The Theatre will premiere The Caro Savanti Experience for the next two weekends. The show is a comedy written by Jim Julien, puppeteer, performance artist and co-director of the Asheville Fringe Festival.

The play, which is set in Asheville, tells the story of Caro Savanti, a fictitious master chef suffering from a bout of megalomania, whose restaurant is being filmed for a reality TV pilot. In addition to jabs at local culture, the play holds a mirror to celebrity chef and reality television culture.

“Jim did a lot of research,” says Katie Anne Towner, the play’s director, who has worked with the theater since 2010. “His scripts are really great about that. He likes to geek out, so he’s researched all these really crazy exotic foods and who uses them and how they use them. And there’s definitely some digs at Andrew Zimmern, Alton Brown, and Anthony Bourdain.”

Although these are some big targets, Julien’s show came from humble beginnings. In a way, it is a fitting show for the Magnetic Theatre’s return, because it evolved into its current form with guidance from the theatre’s strong collaborators.

“It originally started as a five-minute piece and then expanded to a 15-20 minute piece, and its now a full-length play,” says Chall Gray, the Magnetic Theatre’s co-founder. “[Julien’s] done a fabulous job of really explicating and bringing out some of the nuances of the humor of it. It’s a very funny show.”

Julien debuted the original five-minute piece as part of the Magnetic Midnight series, a recurring event established by the theater to foster local talent.

“It’s an open performance venue where people can come in with original pieces,” Gray says of the Magnetic Midnight series. “As long as they’re five minutes or less and original, they can pretty much do whatever they want, so it’s a great way for people to try out once.”

When the short piece went over well, Gray and others helped convince Julien that the piece needed to go on to bigger and better things.

“We really encouraged him and said, ‘Jim, this piece was really dynamite. The audience really loved it,” Gray says.

Julien expanded the piece to a one-act play for the Theatre’s Brief Encounters festival, a summer showcase for original, short pieces. It was there that Towner became a part of The Caro Savanti Experience’s maturation.

“I was the co-producer of that little festival and I was helping to organize the directors,” Towner says,  “and, honestly, that was the one that nobody else picked, which I was secretly really happy about because it was the one I liked the best.”

When the expanded show was once again a hit with audiences, Julien decided to work with Towner to expand it to a full-length affair. Towner assisted Julien with the arduous process of script revamping and expansion.

“This is version 2.9,” Towner says. “Version 2.1 was the one-act we saw last summer. It’s gone through about eight more revisions since then.”

Towner says she has helped with creative input, but that the process has been carefully collaborative so as not to damage the show’s core identity as “Julien’s baby.”

“That’s just been working with Jim really closely, saying, ‘Okay, what if we play this moment this way? Is that something that’s still in line with your vision?’ We’re just kind of melding our two visions together,” Towner says.

This type of approach meshes with Towner’s directing style, which she describes as a sort of gentle guidance based on knowing who she is working with in order to get the best results.

“I’ve worked with most of these actors before, so we’ve developed a working relationship,” Towner says. “For the most part, I’ve tried to stay pretty hands-off and let them do a lot of the creating and help guide the direction of the show. I’m not the kind of director who goes home and writes out all the blocking. There’s some of that to help get the comedic timing right, so I help them find that, but for the most part, I let them play.”

The Caro Savanti Experience will be performed for two weekends. Between the show’s limited engagement and increased local interest in the Magnetic Theatre’s first major comeback production, Gray recommends purchasing advance tickets.

And on July 13 after the play, a new installment of Magnetic Midnight will be held at the BeBe. Both Gray and Towner encourage Asheville’s budding playwrights and actors to check out the experience and become a part of their enthusiastic and supportive local group.

“Over the last two years, we’ve definitely been trying to broaden our pool of actors, designers, directors, and playwrights,” Towner says. “We’re always looking for more people. If people want to be involved with us, I think the best way is to contact us, come to a Magnetic Midnight, or start volunteering as an usher. There’s a lot of ways to get involved.”

who: Magnetic Theatre
what: The Caro Savanti Experience and Magnetic Midnight
where: BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce St. (Thursday, July 11 to Saturday, July 13 and Thursday, July 18 to Saturday, July 20. Shows at 7:30 p.m. all nights, 9:30 p.m. on July 19 and 20. $15/$12 for students and seniors. More at themagnetictheatre.org)


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