Review of Asheville Fringe Festival: Fringe in a (Black)box

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.

Click here for a photo gallery from Jonathan Welch. Here’s a slideshow from local photographer Jerry Nelson.


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13 thoughts on “Review of Asheville Fringe Festival: Fringe in a (Black)box

  1. boxlunch

    Asheville is a 24/7 Fringe Festival. Pushing the boundaries here would be getting everybody in town to wear a suit and tie or Talbot’s attire and dine at the J&S Cafeteria on the country style steak and mash potatoes and gravy. Not that it hasn’t already been done….from 1935 to the present people have been saying goodbye to their belts forever. Come join us next Sunday. We will provide the clip on tie and funny stories.

  2. Theatre Goer

    The Fringe doesn’t seem to be about creating art with technique and virtuosity or even original and penetrating ideas but more about art as “self-expression.” From the videos of some of the performances, it appears that the audiences are looking mostly to laugh and the performers are going mostly for laughs. As the reviewer points out, not many boundaries appear to be stretched or crossed, again judging by the videos and the reviewers’ descriptions. There’s a almost retro-50s-60s “Happenings” feel to it or even a little late-19th century “Decadence”-épater le bourgeois quality to it. Or 1920s-30s German cabaret. Sally Bowles would have felt at home. Looks like good and even “clean” fun for the performers and the audiences.

  3. Avid Dramatist

    Yeah. Two comments:

    1. Art is hard and should be left to the professionals who never cease to create or tire of coming up with ways to entertain, enthrall, and inspire an audience.

    2. I’m afraid “Fringe Festival” has come to mean “no set, one table and a couple mismatched chairs.”

  4. On the Fringe

    While I appreciate this review as I was unable to attend the Fringe Festival this year, I did have the opportunity to witness one of the reviewed skits at a recent Vaudeville show. “Quit Your Day Job” is certainly is a sexually thematic skit, though I personally did not hear any dialogue which could liken it to a gay joke. Vulgar? yes. Sexually explicit? Obviously. As someone who is sensitive to the stigmas of sexuality in our conservative society I appreciate opportunities to cringe, and laugh away uncomfortableness that has been socially set. Thanks to the artists who push us to the fringe, and for our unique reactions to that which challenges the everyday.

  5. BM

    “one of three performance venues/shows, largely tread on safe ground, and as a result felt distinctively less fringe-y than one might expect.”
    Is the “unsafe” skit the Butler skit? I’m a little confused as to what the reviewer was looking for with these performances. Two weren’t edgy enough to one was too edgy?
    Either way, I saw Butler’s sketch performed at Asheville Vaudeville, where it was very well received. The intention is to make people laugh and to make them a little uncomfortable, not to be homophobic. By pointing out that the skit was a “long gay joke” only reinforces the idea that heterosexual relations are the norm and homosexuality is outside of that acceptance. During the entire skit, homosexuality is the set standard and I don’t recall it being pointed at as the crux of the joke. If anything, it was an extended joke about incompetence.
    My point is that during this skit it never occurred to me that it might be making fun of gays, and I think it says a lot about the author of this article and their perceptions about homosexuality. If they found it more uncomfortable than humorous, then that is fair, but I don’t think calling out the writer is the best way to handle that.

  6. nickles

    brilliant avid dramatist,

    yes, let’s limit people who want to do art. Let’s alienate them until they only care about accounting. Bravo. What a better world you envision. It’s called trying. And if someone fails while trying, and you smack them for it…well, then you’re kind of phallic.

  7. Theatre Goer

    I’m interested in nickles comment: “yes, let’s limit people who want to do art. Let’s alienate them until they only care about accounting.”

    Why do we assume that anyone can do art, no skill, no training, no talent necessary, and we should accept all the results as equally valid?

    Turn the sentence around, “Yes, let’s limit people who want to do accounting. Let’s alienate them until they only care about art.”

    Or, “let’s not limit the people who want to do scientific experiments with chemicals to people with training and a knowledge of chemistry. If people want to express themselves with chemicals or surgery even, why should we hold them back?”

    This attitude of “anyone can do art, no requirements, no criteria necessary,” is denigrating to art and artists. It’s not a distinction between “professional” and “amateur.” It’s a distinction between levels of accomplishment. We need more people like Florence Foster Jenkins, a real artist of the people.

    If you were to say, “Well, chemicals and surgery can hurt people . . .,” you’re really saying, “Art is harmless.”

  8. IvanPhotography

    I enjoyed this year’s Fringe very much, but have to agree with the reviewer on the pushing of boundaries. I only saw the Bebe show this time around and found the performances to be amusing but not quite as “out there” as one might expect from Asheville Fringe Festival (Greenville Fringe perhaps).

    As for the perceived homophobia throughout the show, as a gay man I can hoenstly say I was not turned off by the show’s gay jokes at all. In fact, I’m still laughing from some of them. I began to suspect that the authors were gay themselves which, if that’s the case, shows the reviewer to be taking part in that all-to-common “stand up for the gays because they can’t stand up for themself and I take myself to seriously” attitude.

    At any rate: good work organizers and performers. Next time get mroe poetic and freakier!

  9. nickles

    When your accountant is bad, you find your taxes and business finances are mismanaged. When your contractor is bad, your new deck kills your relatives. When your surgeon is bad, your kneecaps are replaced with bonesaws.

    When your artist is bad… you didn’t like their art… and someone else most likely did.

    Find me the totally devoid of worth expression that serves nothing and degrades all art, goer, and you and I can burn it together in the streets… but who is making the judgment call on worth?

    Should we judge by ticket sales? That’s not very artistic.

    Critical accolades? From who? What critics am I supposed to respect or trust without question?

    The resumes of those involved? I’ve seen what I consider to be terrible work from the town’s most accomplished artists, and I’ve also seen great work from people I had safely relegated to an artistic Siberia.

    I agree with the above original review. *f you see a play or a work of art and wish to criticize it then do so as specifically and constructively as possible. It’s sweeping generalizations that tend to get us in trouble. Art isn’t bad for everyone just because you and everyone in your dorm room have voted unanimously that it was so.

    It’s similar to seeing a bad jazz act. You can leave thinking about how you didn’t like it, or you can leave thinking about the decline of jazz in its entirety. The latter makes you feel a bit more important, and does a great disservice to several acts you haven’t bothered to see or that same act the next night they perform.

    I can’t think of anyone in the Asheville area constantly putting up art while having been appreciated by no one (please do not take that as an inquiry for suggestions). Florence Foster Jenkins is the exception to the rule (in just about everyone’s modern opinion). The exception has to be kept around sometimes so that we don’t peel the rule away like an onion as we search for some purity that really translates to “what the onion peeler personally finds most appealing”.

  10. Theatre Goer

    ” . . .When your surgeon is bad, your kneecaps are replaced with bonesaws.
    When your artist is bad… you didn’t like their art… and someone else most likely did. . . ”

    I agree, and that confirms the point I made: Art is harmless.

    I was talking about standards in art, not judgments. Either the musician is on key and in tempo or he/she is not. The ballet dancer either executives the move correctly or he/she does not. Some singers can hit the high note, some cannot. Most of us can tell, whether we are trained or not. And most of us can’t play music accurately or perform dance correctly if we are not trained and well-practiced. But can we all tell when an actor is off-key, out of tempo, and doesn’t hit the right notes?

    I can write poetry and even perform it, and if I say it’s poetry, it’s poetry, even if I meet no critical standards for writing or performing. What critical standards are the artists of the Fringe and the audiences of the Fringe applying other than, “If do it, it’s art, if I like it, it’s art.”

    In your example, I couldn’t leave a jazz act and know whether it was good or bad. I don’t have any idea of what standards of jazz are.

    If the standard is, everyone his or her own artist, everyone his or own critic of art, that’s fine too. I was just trying to point out, that we apply standards in some fields (science, math, medicine, some business fields – not all!) and we don’t in art. I was suggesting that’s why “art” is not taken seriously by most people not in the arts.

    I don’t wish to keep anyone from having fun with art. I like to play the piano, even though I can’t hit the notes correctly and can’t keep a tempo to save my life.

    You ask, “What critics am I supposed to respect or trust without question?” So I ask you, What standards do you apply to those critics you do trust?” Do the critics here at MX meet your standards? If so, why? If not, why not?

  11. Avid Dramatist

    Dear Theatre Goer and nickels,

    Thanks you for continuing this debate. It’s worthy. As an artist I ask myself these questions everyday…literally.

    My point being is that there are such a beings as professional actors and I think we’re kidding ourselves when we say that they are more difficult to judge than professional musicians or dancers. Even on Broadway there are persons in the theatre less than professional but I think you’ll find the New York reviewers constantly calling them out and then you never hear from them again. I assume they all go away and become CPAs and accountants. By the way, my accountant is a damn fine violinist!

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