On Saturday, January 17th I, accompanied by three of my actors, witnessed the midnight showcase at the Be-Be Theatre of the Second Annual Asheville Fringe Festival. This is not to be confused with the Asheville Film Festival, which graced several of our downtown venues this past fall. The Fringe Festival did not include rumored sightings of Bill Macy and Paul Newman, nor did it draw traveling film festivarians from across the country. Rather, our aptly-named, hometown Fringe Festy played to an exclusively local crowd and featured (among other things) fire twirlers, performance art, dance pieces and a healthy 60/40 mix of nudity and vanilla pudding. I also had the privilege of being personally involved in this Festival from an artistic standpoint. Earlier in the evening, my cast had performed our weekly live sit-com, The Manor Daze, as part of the primetime showcase at the North Carolina Stage Company Theatre. NC Stage joined the Be-Be as one of five downtown locations that hosted this three-day event. The other, smaller venues were Future of Tradition (an artist’s commune/warehouse on Roberts St. near the Grey Eagle), The Big Idea (formerly The Green Door on Carolina Lane) and 35Below (underneath Asheville Community Theatre).
Each space provided a wide variety of local artists the chance to present an eclectic array of pieces. Spanish language Readers Theatre was juxtaposed with circus tricks. Traditional Butoh dance pieces complemented free-wheeling “alley art”. Fully scripted, postmodern shock theatre ran crudely adjacent to our aforementioned sitcom—an improvisationally developed serial weekly. Most importantly, this festival made public acknowledgement of the artists in our area who do their work not for profit but rather for reasons more intrinsically linked to the inherent vitality of community art. I would contend that such commendation of this work by the denizens of Asheville belies the typicality of our egregious capitalist society, whereby worth is given only to those works of art that stand to make a profit.
Since the dawn of the twentieth century, and especially since the advent of WWII, the United States has become a world leader in terms of military strength, economic clout and, by default, moral imposition, authority and superiority. Within our own country greed has supplanted social responsibility. The decisions we make as a nation are based on economic concerns, rarely to be tempered by considerations of social import. Even in those instances where social issues take center stage, the opinions of individuals inevitably hinge upon their own economic standing. Anything that challenges one’s nest, one’s security, one’s ability to increase one’s net worth is suspect and better off censored and removed from the public’s attention.
The rhetoric of our current administration is a perfect example of this tendency. We are told that the Patriot Act is necessary in our country in order to protect the standard of life we have achieved from the marauding “evil-doers”—people whom are unlike the “typical” American in thought, word, deed, dress, religion and nationality. In the past, federal organizations such as the NEA have denied funding to worthy artists on the grounds that their morally offensive work would keep paying customers from patronizing the museums of our country. Near the end of the existence of the USSR, Mikhael Gorbachev writes in Perestroika of one of the causes for the decline of his society: “All honest people saw with bitterness that people were losing interest in social affairs…that people, especially the young, were after profit at all cost.”
Reaching back to the ancient Greeks, art has always been an essential means by which society has been able to hold a live debate with itself. The artists are responsible for expanding their community’s outlook on life and the moral relativism by which an individual judges one’s situation and surroundings. This work is necessarily influenced by the artist’s own predilections in terms of their political viewpoints, life experience, level of artistic expertise and the like. This was absolutely true in regards to the Fringe Festival.
The majority of the pieces of the Be-Be reflected the work of the couple that run the space, Giles and Susan Collard. As directors of the Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre (in residence at the Be-Be) Giles and Susan filled the evening’s line-up with a wide variety of dance numbers. In turns I was impressed by the diversity of styles, while at the same time a bit dispirited by the one-dimensionality displayed in some of the thematic content. Form necessarily communicates content. In the less compelling pieces of the evening I found the primary semiotic systems of language, image and sound to be overly devoted to generalized political statements such as “Big Brother is Watching” and “Save the Wolves”. Yet even in these less complex pieces I found myself engaged by the concentration of attention of the performers in an almost impossibly intimate space. Crawling around naked in a nylon body stocking to make a point about the intrusiveness of public security cameras in downtown Asheville can be an intimidating experience. I applaud Heather De in particular for her inspiring performance in such—but I will say that the totality of the piece’s effect tended toward the bromidic and rather obvious.
My disappointment in this respect is necessarily tied to my previous observations about the tendency of most Americans to sacrifice social responsibility for concerns of economic security. We can suppose that the majority of our population would tend to disregard art that is not spoon-fed to them through the mass media. This is, I believe, a fair assessment that follows from our tendency as individuals to depart from an active, community-centered social life. Instead, our proclivity (and one that seems to be sold on its merits by media agents throughout the country) is to segregate ourselves from our neighbors. Our evening entertainment no longer includes walking down the street and chatting with others who wish to support a sense of community. Rather, we pick up a mass produced video from Blockbuster, pull into our automatically, remotely accessible garages, inundate ourselves with appropriate sound-bytes from mass media sources regarding outside threats to our status quo, complain about the high cost of living while shopping on-line at mass distributorships, eat our food bought from either a fast food chain or prepared from a selection purchased at another mass distributorship, watch our video inevitably declaiming the importance of the individual in society and go to sleep with the inner satisfaction of having lived up to the American ideal of the right way to lead one’s life.
Socio-political rant notwithstanding, the truth is that the Asheville Fringe Festival embraced none of these ideals. The audience was composed of individuals who believe that art should speak to our community and stand on a set of morals not typically embraced by mainstream culture. In this respect, to dumb down the performances by focusing overmuch on one specific political issue seems, in my mind, to be a disservice to the true importance of the festival’s overall effect. I would much rather experience complex, thoughtful art. Art that inspires me to think about things outside my everyday interactions and then infer for myself connections with the state of my society as I experience it in my own life. To this end I would like to speak briefly about a performer that captured this essence of the festival with his beautiful choreography and performance.
Nelson Reyes is a classically trained professional dancer and choreographer from Cuba. He has been working with ACDT for a little over a year. His talent is a well-kept secret in this community. On this evening he presented two original works and collaborated on an additional pair. The most effective was his solo number, “The Skirt Does Not Make the Man”. Performed to the sounds of a sultry saxophone samba, Reyes dominated the space in heavy clogs and a flowing, opaque skirt that rippled through the air on the currents of an industrial fan set at one end of the stage. His frustration with the sexual status quo in our society rang true in the ferocity of his foot stamps. The inimitable fixity of an artist willing to take on an entire culture was borne in Reyes’ brutal demeanor and darkly flashing eyes. The final moment when the air currents finally overcame the fragile skirt and the dancer was left alone and naked, washed in a deep red light, brought the audience to its feet as one emotional, symbiotic organism. The artist nourished a ravenous collection of observers desirous of complex artistic execution--and they responded in kind by lavishing Reyes with their applause. It was, by far, the highlight of the evening’s festivities.
As we left the theatre at well past midnight my compatriots and I found ourselves overwhelmed, exhausted and exhilarated. Each of us felt deeply compelled by a sense of necessary action that permeated the evening. It was as if the dormancy of the winter months had fled, shamefaced, from our mountain home. The complacent quiescence that normally washes through my generation was nowhere to be found. The daring of the performers and their willingness to sacrifice for their art was an inspiration to each of us. None of these people were paid for their time and energy. Our society, in general, does not consider the arts a priority. The par in the 21st century is to evaluate worth in terms of moral subjectivity and the ability of a person or product to contribute to a capitalist system. Yet on this evening we found ourselves part of a group that is outside this model and making their voice heard. We are taking an active part in the continuation of a paradigm that is becoming lost in our country. We are railing against the status quo and refusing to buy into the media-driven opinions of our obsequious general populace. It is a revolution every bit as monumental as any political movement in history.
If perception truly shapes reality, then I say the arts are alive and well in Asheville, NC.