The annual Asheville Fringe Arts Festival takes place each January with a week of performances, installations and parties. To maintain the festival’s momentum, a summer series was scheduled at The Crow & Quill, where Asheville Fringe artists staged short performances.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic displaced the warm-weather shows, Fringe Digital Summer offers a virtual alternative. “We reached out to a few artists with the goal of collecting a diverse cast in a number of genres. Most of them have already been teaching and performing online,” says Jennifer Bennett, the festival’s media director. Most recently, the program took place on July 22, and it returns via the Zoom videoconferencing platform on Wednesday, Aug. 19.
That date’s lineup includes New York City-based Adventure Society’s choose-your-own-adventure show; new pieces by Yuhas & Dancers from Columbia, S.C., and local puppet show innovator Toybox Theatre; New Jersey-based Perspective Collective’s quirky, opera-based, historical storytelling; Asheville-based troupe The Accidentals sharing absurdist improvisational dance; work from local clown/puppeteer/musician Michael Woodward; and this writer showcasing a multimedia and spoken-word video short. Burlesque artist Millie van Illa will host. “About half of our performances are prerecorded performances, or are films,” Bennett says. “The other half are performed live.”
“It’s expanded our audience,” managing festival director Katie Jones says of the livestream shows. Some repeat Fringe performers, such as spoken-word artist Christian Prins Coen, have used The Magnetic Theatre’s space to stream productions. (Jones is also the artistic director of the Magnetic.) “When we did our first digital Fringe … my sister in LA was able to watch, so it does give opportunities we don’t have with in-person shows,” Jones says. She points out that differently abled audience members, who might not have the means to leave home, are also afforded the opportunity to watch online presentations.
And artists are accepting the challenge to experiment with different media. In the July show, for example, local puppeteer and dancer Edwin Salas debuted a spooky, puppet-centric short film while avant-guard music duo Cookie Tongue “dazzled us with a dreamy live musical performance that took place inside a self-created fantastical animated world,” says Bennett. “While virtual events have their own limitations, it certainly is the closest thing to getting that communal theater-style experience outside of an actual theater.”
She adds, “It was very cool to have artists all gathered watching each other’s shows. We hope to help performing artists across the country forge new relationships and share with each other the necessary skills to continue performing at this time.”
In previous years, Fringe Summer Nights at The Crow & Quill also served as the launch for the next January festival. True to form, Asheville Fringe organizers opened applications on July 22, in conjunction with Fringe Digital Summer Vol. 2. But plans for January 2021 are still far from finalized, with possibilities ranging from an all-digital event to streamed performances by out-of-town artists, and locals having the option to be onstage, in the flesh. “While we are open to creative ideas for safe, in-person live shows, we foresee that much of the festival will be virtual,” Bennett says. “Not only do we have in mind the safety of the artists, audiences, staff and volunteers, but several of our venues have permanently closed.”
“It’s been interesting to see different strategies,” Jones says of how other cities’ fringe festivals are handling social distancing measures. Orlando Fringe and Hollywood Fringe Festival (LA) canceled altogether, while Cincy Fringe Festival (Cincinnati) went entirely online. Jones will be performing in a toy theater piece called Trainwreck as part of the digital St Lou Fringe (St. Louis) in August. “There’s a group called Frigid Fringe [in New York] and they’re doing these Fringe Fridays where they interview different Fringe organizers and feature a different fringe performance from around the country,” Jones says.
It’s a collective learning curve, but the fringe arts — with their DIY aesthetic, risk taking and quirky sensibilities — are known for adaptability. “There are some nonstop conversation threads among all the U.S. Association of Fringe Festivals, and right now it seems like everyone who hasn’t canceled for the year is taking different approaches to virtual festivals, including Zoom, YouTube, Facebook Live, Facebook Premiere, Vimeo and Streamyard,” Bennett says. “This network is full of smart, creative folks who are all learning from each other as quickly as possible.”
WHAT: Fringe Digital Summer Vol. 3
WHERE: Online at ashevillefringe.org/fringe-digital-summer
WHEN: Wednesday, Aug. 19, 7:30 p.m. Registration required. Sliding scale: Free-$25