The Asheville Fringe Arts Festival returns for its 16th year

LEND A HAND: At The Asheville Fringe Arts Festival, dancers, from left, Melissa Wilhoit, Mikhale Sherrill, Shari Azar, Kathleen Meyers Leiner and Elizabeth Huntley, will perform in 'Open-Handed,' an installation and movement performance. Photo by Tom Leiner

Entering its 16th year, The Asheville Fringe Arts Festival is experiencing a growth spurt. “We have eight ticketed venue locations, which is more than we’ve ever had,” says Jocelyn Reece, the festival’s artistic co-director. This includes its new Fringe Central location at the LaZoom Room, 76 Biltmore Ave. The festival has also doubled its number of random acts (a series of free installations, workshops and performances scattered throughout the multiday happening). Along with this, the Fringe team has expanded to include new managing director Katie Jones.

Its mission, however, remains the same. The four-day multidisciplinary arts festival, which runs Thursday through Sunday, Jan. 25-28, is a place for artists to showcase new, innovative works. Subthemes for this year’s Fringe include experimental art, fringey fun, raw emotion, social justice and the wildly weird.

Reece says guests who have attended previous performances know to expect the unexpected. But for those in the community who are new to the scene or on the fence about unconventional works, Reece encourages an open mind. “Just be present,” she says. “Be curious. It may be completely different than what you expected but still wonderful in its own way.”

Not just for kids

For veteran Fringe artist Keith Shubert, his 20-year career as a puppeteer is the direct result of a lifetime spent embracing his inner child. “I never stopped playing with toys,” he says. To this day, the Asheville artist remains an avid collector of playthings, only now, that’s part of his profession. His childhood fascination with action figures has developed into an award-winning career with performances throughout the country.

The Asheville Fringe, however, remains special for Shubert. It’s where he debuts new work. This year’s show, Total WTF, takes place at The Magnetic Theatre on Friday, Jan. 26, and Sunday, Jan. 28. The story chronicles a subterranean interdimensional troll who awakens after years of hibernation under a dormant volcano. Energized by its extended rest, the troll seeks to become the galaxy’s greatest chaos wizard.

HANDY WORK: Keith Shubert calls puppetry a limitless art form that incorporates a multitude of mediums, including set design, acting, animation and dance. Photo by Jennifer Bennett
HANDY WORK: Keith Shubert calls puppetry a limitless art form that incorporates a multitude of mediums, including set design, acting, animation and dance. Photo by Jennifer Bennett

Shubert admits that in writing Total WTF, he strived to create something truly bizarre. “My intention was to make the weirdest thing that I’ve ever done,” he says. “Something that people will literally walk out of and be like, ‘What the f*ck was that?’”

Beyond its shock value, the show is also a reaction to the times. “Trump is the president of the United States of America,” Shubert says. “Things could not be more bizarre or surreal.” After a year of outrageous tweets and ongoing scandals, Total WTF is Shubert’s attempt to process the current, strange state of the union.

At the same time, Total WTF is part of Shubert’s ongoing effort to transform people’s perception of puppetry. He believes the popularity of shows like “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” has limited audiences’ understanding of the art. “People sort of put puppetry in this box,” he says. “But there’s so much variety, and there’s so much that can be done.”

From marionettes to shadow puppetry, from rod and hand puppets to ventriloquism and Bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theater), Shubert considers the possibilities within the medium limitless. “The struggle is getting people to come,” he concedes. “But once they’re there … you’ve got them for life. They’re transformed. They realize: ‘Wow, puppetry is something that’s not just for kids.’”

A wall that unites

Multimedia artist Kathleen Meyers Leiner‘s Open-Handed is another piece at this year’s Fringe that deals with fingers and fists. But, unlike Shubert’s show, Leiner’s work does not include puppets. Instead, the 16-year Fringe veteran says she is creating an installation and movement performance that uses images and phrases related to hands as a way to examine both unification and division.

The work evolved out of Leiner’s frustration with the current political climate and the conflicts it has generated. The installation portion of her piece will include a wall created from photographs of hands. Leiner calls it a wall of connections. Brief stories will be included beneath each picture. People who attend will also be encouraged to share their own accounts of unity by way of the written word or by recording themselves. This portion of the show is free and open to the public, Friday-Sunday, Jan. 26-28, at Henco Reprographics.

Meanwhile, the movement performance — a collaboration between Leiner and dancers Shari Azar, Elizabeth Huntley, Melissa Wilhoit and Mikhale Sherrill — will take place at the same location. This component of Open-Handed is a ticketed event. It, too, grapples with and explores the issues of unity and division. Along with personal anecdotes, Leiner says the choreographed movements are inspired by idioms such as “hand in glove,” “hand over fist,” and “bite the hand that feeds.”

Leiner hopes the performances and installations at this year’s Asheville Fringe will bring together people from all walks of life. The festival’s offerings include works from Xpress staffers Alli Marshall (as part of the Literary Circus) and Heather Taylor. So often, Leiner says, those who shy away from experimental art do so out of fear. “You don’t have to get it,” she says. “I never liked that: [People] thinking that they have to get it. You’re just stepping into an experience.”

The benefit of doing so, she believes, has the potential to be life-altering. “It is huge for the arts and for people to recognize diversity,” she says. “That’s what I like most about the Fringe. This is a creative atmosphere where you’re going to see diverse voices. … And by experiencing that, I really feel like you’re opening yourself up to new things. It’s a way to build our empathy.”

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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