Asheville Fringe Arts Festival expands to a full week

NO BOUNDARIES: The Asheville Fringe Arts Festival returns Jan. 20-27 with its biggest lineup yet. Clockwise from top left are participating performers The Accidentals, Edwin Salas, Anam Cara Theatre's "Bread Riot" and Judy Calabrese. Photos by JenBen Media, Mario Patiño and courtesy of Anam Cara and Calabrese, respectively

The Asheville Fringe Arts Festival has been a city staple since 2003, bringing creative and experimental performance pieces to a variety of local venues. But while curating boundary-pushing works is an annual treat for Jocelyn Reese (who produces the event alongside fellow artistic co-director Jim Julien and managing festival director Katie Jones), she’s also noticed a troubling pattern in recent years while stationed at the festival’s information and ticketing station.

“The saddest thing that happens — to me — is on Saturday night, somebody comes running into Fringe Central and goes, ‘I didn’t know about this! What tickets are left?’” she says. “There’s this panic in their eyes as if they’ve found their long-lost cousin and didn’t know we existed. And we’re always like, ‘We tried to be out there!’”

In an effort to reach such attendees sooner so they can be more involved beyond ticketed weekend shows, Asheville Fringe has grown to a full week for 2019, spanning Sunday, Jan. 20, to Sunday, Jan. 27. The organizers say the expansion is a goal they’ve had for a while, and with a record number of applicants this year, as well as more volunteers and available spaces than ever before, it made sense for the 17th iteration to take the next step.

Key to making the weeklong schedule feasible was moving the festival’s free activities, dubbed Random Acts of Fringe, from being clustered around ticketed performances to having their own dedicated time slots earlier in the week. Following the free festival kickoff party at The Lazy Diamond, these spotlit events — ranging from a roundtable discussion about experiences at other Fringe Festivals around the world to Professor Whizzpop’s Fantastic Fleas — aim to provide a tempting appetizer for the fee-based shows that begin Thursday, Jan. 24.

“We’ve all been to lots of other Fringes as well, and what we kept hearing is that a lot of shows get audiences based on word-of-mouth,” Jones says. “If the festival starts earlier, then there’s the chance for that buildup to happen by the end.”

The bulk of the Random Acts of Fringe takes place at the LaZoom Room, aka Fringe Central, also the spot from which the iconic purple LaZoom bus that Julien calls “the Fringe mobile venue” will make its rounds. On Tuesday, Jan. 22, at 7 p.m., Fringe Central will host local movement-based company The Accidentals (an acronym for “Asheville’s Creative Collective of Improvisational Dancers Exploring Noise Time Audience Levels and Space”). Reese refers to the troupe as the week’s “Fringe ambassadors,” and adds, “Their spirit and aesthetic seem to encapsulate what we are all about — much more of the fun and silly vibe.”

Though cagey on revealing specific plans, Sharon Cooper and Raj Bowers-Racine, company members of The Accidentals, share that the group will be presenting “three new bespoke performance pieces in a variety of unexpected spaces.” The collective has become known for bringing its talents to locations not typically affiliated with dance, such as a 2019 Fringe stop at the Realta Salon.

“We use improvisation to develop a structure for each piece. Then we incorporate elements like sound, costumes, props and space,” Cooper and Bowers-Racine say in a joint statement. “The constraints of these unusual spaces definitely direct the development of our work. We love how performing somewhere like a bar or [hair] salon allows us to make the audience part of the show.”

The Accidentals’ on-the-spot creations align with the festival’s commitment to testing imaginative limits, which often manifest in exciting interdisciplinary work. Along those lines, Reese points to Asheville-based Todd Weakley, whom she calls “a traditional actor who decided this year to do a movement piece.” His company, The Cardboard Sea, will present Psyche on Thursday, Jan. 24, and Friday, Jan. 25, at The Mothlight, a performance that Reese says stems from the organizers placing Weakley on the same bill as dancers at past Fringes. “It’s a nice, safe petri dish for artists to experiment and try different things,” she says.

The support that the organizers offer and other standout perks that Asheville Fringe provides — including lodging for out-of-town artists at Sweet Peas Hostel, no application cost and an unusually low $30 acceptance fee (that’s guaranteed back in the artist’s pocket) — have earned it a reputation as one of the more welcoming Fringes. At the same time, the festival’s commitment to taking risks on notably unusual performances — such as improvisational throat singing inspired by scrolling paintings from Jackson Pollock’s catalog — has proudly merited it being labeled one of the fringier fringes by other U.S. Fringe leaders.

“There are usually a few pieces each year where we don’t know anything about [the artist(s)]. Sometimes they’re local and sometimes they’re not, but we take a chance,’” Julien says. “We consider artist development as a critical part of our mission. We give opportunities to artists to try out stuff, even if they’re not as successful as we’d all hope it would be.”

WHAT: Asheville Fringe Arts Festival
WHERE: Various venues, AshevilleFringe.org
WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 20, to Sunday, Jan. 27. $13-$16 per show or $65 for an all-access Freak Pass

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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