Asheville’s FringeArts Festival was started in 2003 in an effort to provide “artists with opportunities to explore the edges of their work, collaborate across genres and bring new and innovative performances to culturally adventurous audiences,” according to the festival’s Web site. Such a statement inspires expectations of boundaries being tested and audiences being confronted with the unexpected, and perhaps even daring. However, this year’s Fringe in a Blackbox, one of three performance venues/shows, largely tread on safe ground, and as a result felt distinctively less fringe-y than one might expect.
In the theatrical realm, there were three pieces that were of a traditional dramatic structure. “Quit Your Day Job” was essentially a skit in three parts, written by Thomas Butler, and though it had a few charming moments of surprise and strong comedic acting, ended up feeling like mostly an extended gay joke. In fact, there were multiple jokes over the course of the show in different pieces by different companies/groups that referenced male homosexuality in such a way that one couldn’t help wondering what the real joke was.
“Hypochondria,” a short play by the Lymphatic Players that evolved beyond skit status due to the more complete exploration of the characters and themes, was a comedic journey into hypochondria complete with beanbags and a disaffected but supportive boyfriend.
“The fragmentation of collaborative processing in the new Democracy (Phase IV)” appeared to be a loosely improvised, thrown together joke on the planning process of dancers about to be in the FringeArts festival, a sort of meta-meal with the three dancers on stage eating and discussing just what will they do next week for Fringe in a Blackbox.This skit was surprisingly enjoyable for the casual apathy and obvious enjoyment of the performers at subjecting the audience to the difficulty of having to come up with the art everybody expects to enjoy. However, like the other pieces that fell in the dramatic category, “(Phase IV)” felt like an afterthought and seemed out of place in a context that was supposed to be challenging the expectations of the audience.
Julian Vorus, a local writer and poet known for his intense, almost violent performances, stood in for a programmatic cancellation and was a welcome addition to the roster. Vorus is always an engaging, challenging performer to watch, and though his tendency to scream may be off-putting for those more delicate, his sheer artistry with language and ability to merge the mundane with the profane inevitably leaves his audience certain they have just had an experience.
In the movement realm, Camerin Allgood McKinnon merged spoken word and movement to explore her personal perspective of white privilege. While McKinnon is an adept performer, especially with her ability to speak clearly and expressively while simultaneously dancing, the material ultimately came across as a conversational autobiographical essay about white guilt, rather than exploring new territory about race and advantage.
A piece by The Naked Stark Dance Company that was described as “exploring efficiency,” managed to be visually intriguing, especially with the addition of a laptop counting down the seconds in the background, and the completion of the piece and exit of the performers with props as the last second ticked by was a feat of timing.
The most successful piece of the evening was TBD, by the dance group Moving Women. The group really pushed itself and the audience into new territory, quite literally. At the top of the show, the dancers came out and had audience participants choose items from a trunk to inspire a work they would immediately begin creating while the rest of the show continued. They returned before intermission to show what they had started, and then had audience members choose three different changes (written on pieces of paper in a basket) they would then apply to the choreography process. In the second half of the show, the dancers returned with costume pieces and music options for the audience to choose, and finally arrived onstage to perform the newly created work to music they heard for the first time while they danced. TBD put the dancers in a vulnerable, hardworking state, and allowed the audience to participate and become invested in the process as well as the outcome, which was surprisingly elegant and polished for such a short gestation period.
If the goal of Asheville FringeArts Festival is to provide artists with an opportunity to push themselves, the artists must be willing to do the pushing and have higher standards of what constitutes innovation. Though there were a few bright spots of transformative creativity and surprise, overall, the Blackbox portion of this year’s FringeArts Festival felt more like a collection of short works by local performers treading water in familiar pools. Perhaps next year artists will take the opportunity to really challenge themselves seriously and show Asheville something really new and daring.