According to local artist and Asheville Fringe Arts Festival board member Alli Marshall, the concept for the original Fringe festival was created to fill a void. “It got its start in Edinburgh, Scotland,” she says. “There was already an arts festival there, but a number of artists weren’t invited to perform. So they created their own alternative festival, on the ‘fringes’ of the big one.”
Launched in 1947, the Fringe festival concept soon caught on worldwide. Over the last 75 years, more than 100 cities around the globe — primarily in North America, Europe and Australasia — have had or continue to host Fringe festivals of their own.
Susan and Giles Collard of Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre brought the concept to Asheville in 2001. Artist Jim Julien, a former festival director, also played a key role in developing the local gathering.
“When I participated in the first Fringe at the BeBe Theatre, I never could have anticipated all the magic and delight that it still provides to this day,” he says.
Entering its 20th year, the 2022 Asheville Fringe Arts Festival returns after having to postpone all live performances originally set for January due to concerns over COVID-19.
The latest iteration takes place in multiple venues, Thursday, March 24-Sunday, March 27. The event’s continued success — especially amid ongoing challenges created by the pandemic — is a “Fringe miracle,” says Julien.
Along with being a board member, Marshall has been a regular performer at the festival for several years. For the upcoming happening, she and local musician Ryan Glass will perform The Top-Ten Superpowers of All Time at Story Parlor, 227 Haywood Road, Friday and Saturday, March 25 and 26, at 9 p.m. A spoken-word poem set to music, the collaboration explores the ways an individual’s weaknesses can serve as strengths.
Looking at the festival as a whole, Marshall emphasizes that Asheville Fringe is as important as ever to the arts community, particularly as the local creative sector feels the effects of gentrification and COVID-19. “As we see more and more of the incubators — smaller theaters and affordable practice spaces — go away, it becomes more and more difficult for artists to be able to stage their work,” she says.
But unlike many of the Fringe festivals hosted worldwide, Asheville Fringe does not select performers via lottery. Instead, the annual gathering takes a more deliberate approach. Of the 100-plus submissions for this year’s celebration, board members selected 45 acts; due to the postponed schedule, 25 live acts are set for this year’s gathering.
“It’s juried,” explains Marshall, noting that not every applicant is suited for inclusion. “Maybe they’re not experienced enough, maybe they live too far away, or maybe they don’t realize what sort of budget it’ll take.”
New companies and familiar names
Michelle Troszak is among the local creatives participating in this year’s event. Troszak, who goes by gender-neutral pronouns, is the co-founder of Skysail Theatre — a queer Asheville-based company. Tithonia: A Lesbian Space Opera, is scheduled for Friday and Sunday, March 25 and 27, 7 p.m. and 4 p.m., respectively, at The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St. It is the company’s first production.
According to Troszak, they and fellow co-founders Lea Gilbert and Terran Wanderer “all came together with a love for storytelling, music and theater, and a desire to tell interesting new stories in a queer space.”
Describing the work as “DIY lesbian media,” Wanderer adds, “We looked for a lesbian space opera and we couldn’t find one, so we had to make one.”
Along with the new company, this year’s festival also welcomes back several veteran artists. On Friday, March 25, at 9 p.m., and Sunday, March 27, at 6 p.m., Phillipe Andre Coquet will take the stage at The Magnetic Theatre for his latest one-man musical, Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off to Work I Go.
A project 10 years in the making, Coquet describes it as the story of his life as a performer, as well as his experiences on the streets and in his bedroom — all to a curated selection of Broadway songs about prostitutes.
“Hi Ho is still being created and probably will be until opening night,” Coquet reveals. “It keeps shifting as I play and explore, and it reveals itself to me.”
Fighting the cold
Because Asheville Fringe traditionally takes place in January, it often attracts the attention of national artists interested in performing new material for a live audience prior to submitting to other festivals scheduled later in the year. Such premieres can be exciting for both the performer and audience, but the local gathering also brings established productions.
“We have shows that have already won awards and have been successful in other places,” notes Marshall.
Comedian Ike Avelli’s 50 Shades of Gay is one example on this year’s schedule. Taking place at The Magnetic Theatre, Thursday, March 24, at 9 p.m., and Saturday, March 26, at 7 p.m., the act features music, comedy, drag and audience participation.
With last year’s performances held exclusively online due to the pandemic, and this year’s gathering postponed due to a January uptick in COVID-19 cases, it’s been a difficult few years. Marshall acknowledges that the obstacles of late, combined with the day-to-day demands of organizing the festival, can take its toll. “It’s hard to keep any sort of artistic venture going for a long time,” she says.
Yet, the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival continues to thrive. And a big part of that is thanks to its quirky, offbeat, outside-the-box character. “It might be weird,” says Marshall with a mischievous grin. “But it’s all going to be of quality.”
Tickets for the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival are $60-$70. For a complete list of performances and locations, visit ashevillefringe.org.