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Fringe Festival Nudges the Boundaries of Asheville Weird

Isaac Harrel

There are t-shirts and bumper stickers, and no doubt city politicians have run on the campaign slogan -- Keep Asheville Weird.

“Asheville walks that fine line of being proud to be weird, but some people are also like ‘But I don’t want weird,’ you know?” said Jocelyn Reese, talking about the city’s annual bow to unabashed weirdness called the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival. Reese and her partner Jim Julien are co-directors.

The festival is four nights of theater, dance, eye candy and experimental mishmashes at a handful of Asheville venues--all of it original, some coming from far outside this area and none of it created for middle-of-the-road tastes. The festival, founded in 2002, runs Jan. 25-28.

“We always say we’re creating work for culturally adventurous audiences,” Reese said.

There’s a show blending Southern Gothic aesthetics with dance, theater and music to “investigate ecstatic states that unfold in Holiness Pentecostal church services.” There’s social justice theater, a poetry cabaret, an abstract operatic sound performance piece and an improvised B-movie sci-fi comic thriller.

“You may go see a piece and you may love it and might still go away saying ‘I have no idea what I just saw,’” Reese said. “And that is ok.”

Keith Schubert is longtime local puppeteer who performs all over the country. He’s creating a new show for this Fringe starring a subterranean interdimensional troll called a Chaos Wizard.

“I’m hoping to make one of the strangest things I’ve made, maybe ever,” Schubert said. “I want it to be sort of surreal but very open-ended, so there’s a lot of moments in the show where the audience goes ‘What was that?’”

Claire Dima is a former competitive martial artist who found her way to belly dancing. She described the Fringe as an alternative theater.

“Most people coming to stage show are looking for a pleasure experience, something uplifting or aesthetically pleasing,” Dima said. “The Fringe is a good place for emotional exploration and the audience is usually pretty willing to come with you to a weird or unattractive place, or a place of discomfort and help you explore it.”

There are Fringe Festivals in 29 cities across the U.S. Some invite shows in by lottery drawing. Asheville and other Fringes use a jury to select shows from a wider pool of applicants, which is at least some relative assurance of quality.

“We select what we think are the Fringiest of our applications--the weirder, if you will,” Reese said.

The Asheville Fringe is on the smaller side. It’s entirely run by volunteers and attendance is modest -- only about 1,000 people saw Fringe shows last year. And because most productions see only two performances, it’s next to impossible for them to develop any word-of-mouth buzz.

That hasn’t deterred producers who spend months developing their Fringe shows. Dima uses the festival to test new work before performing it in wider circles.

“I’m incredibly grateful to Fringe audiences to go in the places I’ve gone because I’ve lynched myself on stage for them, I’ve put myself on sword blades for them,” Dima said. “They’ve come and talked to me about their responses and given me their hearts back, and I really appreciate that.”

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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