The show must go on — that’s a given. But what happens when the funding runs out or was never there to start with? Or the audiences don’t show up because the work is too edgy, too experimental, too uncomfortable? Or the space where said show was to be staged is co-opted by the short-term rental market or a brewery tasting room? While some of Asheville’s beloved theaters have built dedicated fan bases and brick-and-mortar spaces, other performance art groups and initiatives, especially those performing untested works by new and/or boundary-pushing artists, are fighting for survival.
Good while it lasted
When the lease of the Toy Boat Community Art Space, formerly housed in the same building as French Broad Brewery, was suddenly terminated by the brewery’s new owners (“Toy Boat seeks a new harbor,” Xpress, Nov. 15, 2017), a number of local arts collectives that had used the space also found themselves in the breeze. Those included performance collective Asheville Vaudeville and juggling troupe Forty Fingers and a Missing Tooth. Among those housed under the Toy Boat umbrella was Anam Cara Theatre Company and its experimental arm, Accordion Time Machine.
While the ousting of Toy Boat didn’t come as a surprise to Anam Cara artistic director Erinn Hartley — “It was really good while it lasted,” she says — it did rattle her trust in the Asheville community.
“The way we do ensemble-created theater, the heart of what we do is being community-minded,” she says. “It’s hard to be in a city that claims to be all about that [but where] it no longer feels like that’s even tangible.”
Part of the barrier is the cost of real estate and rentals — a hurdle Toy Boat co-founder Nina Ruffini found when searching for a new place to base her business. “Everything was really expensive,” she says of the hunt, which has her currently considering a move to Marshall. But for now, “Toy Boat is in hibernation.”
The former fringe art space launched in 2012 following a Kickstarter campaign and lots of organizing. It was intended to house shows and events, rehearsals and a circus school. Ruffini was affiliated with performance troupe Runaway Circus and the Loose Caboose, which “always performed in different places, and it was tough to find places that suited our needs,” she says. The dream was to have a home, to be able to teach classes and exhibit 2-D art and offer maker space. Toy Boat was the answer to that vision.
And now for something different
Anam Cara, too, has moved around. Hartley founded it soon after relocating to Asheville from Minneapolis. The first show for the company (which Hartley runs with her partner Kim Hartley, the theater’s development director), was a 2009 staging of The Vagina Monologues at The BeBe Theatre — a longtime supporter of fringe and independent performances.“I really felt like Asheville would be accepting of the work Anam Cara is doing,” Erinn Hartley says. “We have such a great response, and I’m constantly getting people thanking me for bringing what we bring to the community and doing something that’s different.” That includes new and experimental works and LGBT-focused productions.
The theater was located, for a few years, on Haywood Road, in a space that seated 25. “We used to sell out all the time, and it felt great,” Hartley says of the intimate setting. But the affordable location came at a cost: The roof leaked, it lacked working plumbing and was cold in the winter.
“We’d love to have our own space, but we’ve never been able to make it work,” says Hartley. She spent a lot of time tracking down the owners of empty storefronts around Asheville, baffled that a location could sit unused for years while artists such as herself remained shut out of affordable rehearsal and performance space. But when Anam Cara moved into Toy Boat in 2013, that problem was, at least temporarily, solved.
After Toy Boat left the French Broad Brewery building, Ruffini moved her circus props into storage in the former Madison County Arts Council building at 90 S. Main St. in Marshall. That location, currently under the auspices of photographer and retired biology professor Michael Torres, is in the early stages of becoming a center for various arts- and community-related endeavors.
Torres and his wife moved to Asheville because they fell in love with the energy of the city’s downtown. But when Torres and his business partner Carroll Hauptle, a retired lawyer with a background in theater, started looking for a location for their initiative NexGen Legacy, a nonprofit accelerator, they settled on Marshall.
The town, says Torres, “is thinking about how to manage growth and change. … [People] in Marshall say, ‘We want to rejuvenate, but we don’t want high-rises.’”
Torres and Hauptle hope to attract other like-minded people — especially those who are locally based — to invest in the building, which they are currently leasing for six months with the option to buy. “Once we found this building, we realized it could be used for special events, for art gallery [space]. … It lends itself really well to art studio spaces, shows and art classes,” Torres says. Other requests from Marshall residents are for co-working accommodations, which Torres would like to offer. What he hopes to focus on, he says, is arts and education, family and culture, and health and wellness initiatives.
“The whole idea for us is collaboration and cooperation — any way that we can work with others and others can work with us,” says Torres. “We all bring resources. My philosophy is if we share them, they can go a lot farther than if we don’t.”
But finding room for fringe and experimental performances and artistic development has long been a challenge, one Jocelyn Reese and Jim Julian, artistic co-directors of Asheville Fringe Arts Festival, face each year when planning the local event.
“Artist development is part of our mission, so we have a lot of artists who are either trying out new pieces or are novice performers,” says Reese. “We want to create a space for that because we feel like that’s one of the artistic needs Asheville has — a space for either brand-new work that hasn’t been road tested yet or for an artist who [doesn’t] have the resources to book their own venue and deal with all the promo. The Fringes become the place for them to launch something new.”
Other Fringe festivals focus more on tested works, “but we are starting to get more out-of-town folks who … feel like this is an opportunity to try out a piece that they’re thinking of taking to other festivals,” says Julian. “We’re not a very expensive festival to get into … and we’re fairly friendly. They can try it out here in January [because] a lot of the Fringe festivals throughout the United States and Canada are usually in the summer and fall.”
The Fringe network also presents an opportunity for local artists to get their start at the Asheville festival and then take their show to other Fringe events. Poetry Cabaret, a regular performance troupe at Asheville Fringe, did just that, presenting its production at the 2017 Capital Fringe Festival in Washington, D.C.
Another strength of the local festival is its ability to bring audiences to venues that might not be as likely to host a one-off fringe-type performance. This year’s festival included, among 15 locations, The Magnetic Theatre, The Mothlight, Sly Grog and The BeBe Theater. The latter, at 20 Commerce St., owned by Susan and Giles Collard and the performance space for their Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, has been “the little workhorse that has provided a home for everything from The Montford Park Players during the winter [to] some of the small theater and dance companies,” says Julian.
“And it’s not a bar, so it’s not about how much beer will they sell,” points out Reese — though the brewery-and-artist combo can work in some cases, such as a recent partnership between the Asheville Improv Collective and Habitat Tavern and Commons. But, back at The Bebe Theatre, the Collards’ aesthetic is aligned with what Julian describes as “the weirder stuff.”
Julian is also a member of Asheville Vaudeville, which, since the shuttering of Toy Boat, is trying out various venues in hopes of finding a good fit. A recent performance took place at Isis Music Hall.
Improv comedy troupe Reasonably Priced Babies, displaced by the closure of The Altamont Theatre when the owners of the venue’s Church Street building decided to renovate the music hall into short-term rental condominiums, moved to the newly opened venue Ambrose West on Haywood Road.
While performance venues are a major need for fringe and nonmainstream arts endeavors, so is rehearsal space. “We aren’t necessarily trying to nurture the next big star,” says Alex Alford, who manages Colourfield, a shared creative space at 54 Ravenscroft Drive. “Some people, we’re just trying to give them the outlet, give them the safe space where they can be, in their own mind, the next [renowned dancer and choreographer] Merce Cunningham. And if that’s as far as it goes, that’s just fine.”
Already more has happened at Colourfield than mere private performances. The building, formerly used by Reeds Uniforms, now houses Alford’s studio (he’s a visual artist) as well as a theater rental studio overseen by Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective (but available for rent to local theater companies), a dance rehearsal studio, drawing classes and office space for wellness professionals.
“In a perfect world, you will eventually find your audience,” says Alford, so Colourfield aims to provide places for burgeoning artists (and established creatives with limited budgets) to hone their crafts.
“How can anyone ask why we need people who can’t afford to do art, to do art?” asks Alford. “Art being created through the need for creation, and art [made out of] the need for sustenance are two very different kinds of art.”
Based in Western North Carolina for more than 20 years, Alford — who was, at one point, involved with an attempt to restart the experimental arts institution Black Mountain College — says he feels generally positive about the area’s growth. But, “I’m sad to see certain places close because their rents are going through the roof,” he notes. The opportunity presented by Colourfield, which he moved into 3 1/2 years ago, meant he could share space with other artists.
“The goal all along has been not to charge as much as I could get, but as little as I could get away with,” says Alford, who has only raised prices once in his time at the location. By offering low-cost rehearsal space (the dance studio currently goes for $15 per hour), he hoped those who rented from him would pass the savings onto their students — and that’s exactly what has happened.
“We all have to make money, obviously, but there’s [got to be a way] where everyone wins,” Alford says. While balancing the books remains a challenge, he’s making it work.
Plus, Colourfield offers perks that can’t be commodified: “When I’m working in here and there’s a theater rehearsal going on and there’s dance going on, just the laughter,” says Alford. “The things happening. It permeates the walls and it elevates everything going on here.”
The need for fringe, experimental and incubator spaces is not new to Asheville — neither is the loss of such places. Gone but not forgotten are The Green Door on Carolina Lane, where Asheville’s 1990s-era slam poetry team performed; the short-lived but inspirational Apothecary, in the YMI building, which provided space for sound and visual art installations; Future of Tradition, located in the River Arts District, which taught dance and circus arts; and visual arts venues the Courtyard Galley and Zone 1, among others.
The Big Idea on Carolina Lane was launched by Trulee Hall around 2001. “The community of people in Asheville at that time was superamazing,” she recalls. “My friends were a wide range [of] gutter punks, computer geeks, farmers, ex-military, circus freaks, opera singers, dungeon goths, sex workers, noise musicians, outsider artists, academics, hippies, etc.”
Never intended as a moneymaking venture, The Big Idea’s suggested cover charge went to the artists. A friend of Hall’s made homebrew in the basement. Performances ran the gamut of musical genres as well as film screenings, puppet shows and cabaret-style variety shows. “My favorite,” says Hall, “was a prisoner’s art show raising money for people in jail, along with a Prison Books drive.”
And, “We hosted a dance recital which was totally crazy. I made a zine and spread it around as an open call for whoever wanted to participate. The only ‘rule’ was that each dance had to be embarrassing.”
Hall eventually left The Big Idea because, she says, “It took over my life.” Her roommates kept it going for a year or two. Still enmeshed in the arts, Hall is currently based in Los Angeles, where she’s planning a solo show for the winter.
Local playwright, actor, director, radio personality and Xpress contributor Jeff Messer also launched a performance space in the early 2000s. Area 45, on Wall Street, took its name from its address (the location now houses offices for the Wall Street parking deck) and the 45 secondhand theater seats that Messer and his partners sourced for their black-box space.
Part theater, part pub, “The grand scheme was ‘it’s going to be an arts incubator space, it’s going to be a creativity lab,’” Messer remembers. “So it was almost always open.”
“The policy was, ‘If you’ve got an idea, come and talk to us, and we’ll see if there’s a place on the calendar,’” Messer says. “Some were successful, and some were not so successful.” That “yes to everything” approach led to the founding of improv troupe The Oxymorons, an open mic music night and poetry slams. Area 45 staged 33 productions during its run.
“It was very small, so only certain shows would work there,” Messer remembers. “You had to cater what you did to the space to make it work. … We felt like we were the theater rebels in town, out there on the fringe. It was a lot of fun because of that.”
Area 45 came into being when Messer met a benefactor interested in contributing to the local art scene. “Asheville was rapidly changing, and we didn’t know what it was going to become, but there was a strong sense that growth was coming,” Messer says. He’d read an article in the late ’90s about the arts incubator concept and thought it was a good fit for Asheville. The investor agreed to back the endeavor.
The theater started producing in June 2002 and ran to December 2003. By that time, Messer’s son had been born, and the nonstop schedule was taking its toll. But the memories linger, including one unprovable legend of an elderly gentleman dropping in during an open mic session who later was revealed to be Leonard Cohen.
“If Area 45 had been allowed to grow it, it would probably be something like what Magnetic Theatre is now,” Messer says. “When we went away, a lot of people lamented that. Years later, someone said, ‘Man, you guys had such a good idea. You just had it too soon.’”
It’s likely the same will be said, in a not-too-distant future, about some of today’s venues and performers.
But just because a fringe arts space or troupe or initiative is down doesn’t mean it should be counted out. Hartley, for example, says Anam Cara is taking a year to regroup but plans to come back strong. What does the future hold? Instead of competing with other local theater companies that operate along more mainstream models, Hartley hopes to pursue the lesser-known scripts and experimental works that inspired her in the first place.
“We’d rather do fewer shows that have a lot of heart,” she says. “Anam Cara still exists. We’re very driven to continue and make things happen.”