Variety show spotlights local artists and benefits Our VOICE

SKILL SET: Musicians, comedians and dancers aside, “My favorite thing about last year was the sense of community that came together all of a sudden,” says ‘Talent! A Show’ co-producer Mandy Gardner. The 10-plus acts performing at this year’s event include twerk dancer Josh McClure, left, and aerialist Lauren Napoli. Photos courtesy of the artists

For weeks following the inaugural Talent! A Show, event co-producer Mandy Gardner would overhear people telling friends, “I went to this awesome thing. There was juggling and Tina & Her Pony …” Others would come up to her and co-creator Leah Shapiro to volunteer their skills for the next iteration.

The show in question is a benefit for Our VOICE. The second iteration is slated for Monday, April 22, at The Mothlight. This year’s roster of performers (with some new acts and many returning artists) includes musicians Chris Rodrigues and Abby the Spoon Lady, Laura Blackley and Tina & Her Pony; jugglers Forty Fingers & a Missing Tooth; comedian Hilliary Begley; comedian/thereminist Tom Peters; dancer Josh McClure of Jus Twerk; pole dancer Kathleen Hahn of Danceclub Asheville; poet Kevin Evans; and aerialist Lauren Napoli of Aerial Space. Gardner and Shapiro will emcee.

The idea for Talent! A Show originated with parties in Gardner’s backyard where “I’d invite people to come over and bring whatever their talent was,” she recalls. “I had everything from hula-hooping to people reciting Beowulf in Old English. … I loved the variety show format.”

One day, Gardner said to Shapiro (who was then volunteering as a crisis advocate for Our VOICE and is now on the board of directors), “We could do this.” The idea of creating such a show as a fundraiser for the local organization that serves victims and supports survivors of rape and sexual assault seemed perfect to both — though neither Gardner nor Shapiro had produced an event before.

The lack of experience wasn’t a problem. The friends (who are also co-workers at JB Media Group) tapped their network to perform and promote. They also reached out to local businesses to donate items for the loud (read: not silent) auction. “Everyone said yes,” says Gardner. “Everyone knows somebody who’s been affected by sexual violence. … People are grateful to Our VOICE because they know someone who has benefited from the service.” The Mothlight, the venue last year as well, even donated the cost of space rental.

The inaugural Talent! A Show raised more than $1,400 for Our VOICE after compensating the performers — something that’s important to both Gardner and Shapiro. Many artists, in return, donated their share of the proceeds back to the fundraiser. Shapiro points out, “We know that we could pay people more if we charged at the door, and we might do that in the future. But it feels like part of this is spreading awareness about [Our VOICE’s] prevention, education and outreach programs.” So, for now, attendees donate what they can at the door.

The loud auction, which started as a way to fill in onstage between acts, also generates money. Gardner and Shapiro are grouping items in themed baskets (the hangover helper is one) and Shapiro has been watching YouTube videos to hone her auctioneering skills.

But it’s the entertainers who draw the crowd. “New this year is comedy, a twerk performer and a trapeze artist,” Shapiro says. Among the returning artists, Evans “has a couple pieces he’s excited about performing for this event.”

Those poems are “both challenging in subject matter but also liberating when regarding repression, oppression, miscommunication, historical trauma, denial and unaddressed/unchecked pain,” Evans said in a statement.

Pointing to the inspiration she took away from the recent talk given by #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke, as part of Our VOICE’s Break the Silence Speaker Series, Gardner says, “She had an amazing message about how the movement [requires] understanding of survivors of sexual violence as people who are not only grappling with pain but can also experience joy as well.” Our VOICE is an organization undertaking serious work while Talent! A Show “is a fun event, but it’s really important to learn to encompass joy and sorrow and process it all through art — that’s the good stuff.”

Gardner continues, “Add in the extra layer of community, and that’s just beautiful.”

In fact, with the discontinuation of the local annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes challenge, Talent! A Show’s financial contribution to Our VOICE becomes more imperative. April “is sexual assault awareness month, so there [will be] a ton of grassroots events happening,” to help increase awareness and raise additional funds, says Shapiro.

Will any of those other undertakings involve a portable dancing pole, though? Or juggling? Or The Spoon Lady? Not to mention elaborate attire. For those who recall Shapiro’s and Gardner’s Bjork-tribute swan dresses from last year’s show, the two emcees have another feat of apparel planned for April 22. Apparently, they have a joke between them that Shapiro always makes a slightly wonky version of the couple’s costume for Gardner.

“Leah’s swan was gorgeous. It had this silky soft fur, and it was beautiful,” Gardner explains. “Mine was literally made out of a tube sock, and it had goggly eyes, and one was bigger than the other.”

“This year we’re aiming for an equally entertaining …” Shapiro begins.

“… humiliating,” Gardner interjects.

“Duo,” they finish in tandem.

WHAT: Talent! A Show, avl.mx/5v7
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Monday, April 22, 7 p.m. By donation

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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