Here, a look at some of the performers who are helping develop and cultivate Asheville's fringe field.
The scene has come a long way since Michael Sheldon, aka brash, bawdy, loved-crazed Cookie LaRue, left Asheville in 1992 for the greener, wetter pastures of the Pacific Northwest. Sheldon's Asheville had been one of serious drag beauty pageants, and serious drag lip-syncing in bars. Cookie began with lip-sync, but Sheldon and Cookie were too funny to fit. Sheldon found an alternative in some of the clubs of the day, but got pigeonholed as a performance artist. And Sheldon hates being pigeonholed.
A decade later, he returned from Seattle to an Asheville so much more accommodating, he got his own place — LaRue's Backdoor — and now performs with Asheville Vaudeville, too. Shortly, another dream will come true: Sheldon will play it straight as Seymour in Asheville Community Theatre's Little Shop of Horrors.
What has happened to move the scene forward during these years?
Jim Julien — an off-the-wall performer in every available venue — arrived from Chicago in 1997. Engaged in performance-based artwork since the early '70s, he was pretty pleased with what he found here: The economic upturn and downtown revival had begun, and Julien got a kick out of the crazy caravans that passed through — the Bindlestiff Family Circus and Yard Dogs Roadshow — sowing seeds of circus and performance fun. But what really knocked him out was local "tribal" performances: belly dancers, fire spinners, trance musicians, even hula-hoop artists. There were lifestyle performances, too, like The Freakers' Ball. And then there was the Surreal Sirkus Arts Festival and Neo-Pagan Psychedelic Tent Revival …
Until she saw the Surreal Sirkus, performance was the last thing on the mind of Ambra Lionstone, now of Seduction Sideshow, when she came to Asheville from Clearwater, Fla., in late 2000. Lionstone knew all about performing, having been engaged with community theater and dance since childhood, and with studies of circus and aerial arts ("not enough") at Florida State. But Lionstone never enjoyed being "a pawn in someone else's dream." She had a degree in early childhood education and only intended to stay in Asheville six months.
Then Lionstone found Asheville's underground and "my creative voice." She felt drawn to the belly dance and trance communities, the private worlds of Pandoor & Moon's dance parties and the black-light rituals of Orange Brand Unlimited, but the key was the Surreal Sirkus. Mounted originally in 1995, it provided a homegrown, freak-filled, pre-Halloween performance annually at the Vance Monument in Pack Square, giving a shot to outré performers and helping forge a community. Lionstone fell under the sway of its "spiritual journeys" and its audience — "our community of friends: very fringe-y." Sensing an organic growth opportunity, she oversold her aerial abilities, and in its open-hearted way, the Surreal Sirkus took her in.
Sneaky McFly, also of Seduction Sideshow, arrived two years after Lionstone, but was slow to find the Sirkus. Born in Montgomery, Ala., he'd been involved with music, theater and freestyle bicycling from an early age; asked to play drums for Birmingham's Modern Gypsy Sideshow Circus, he became a magician, a sword swallower and a fire breather. He, too, gravitated to Asheville's underground community, especially the Mothership, a party/arts studio in the River Arts District.
When Transform Venus, an all-female troupe of fire spinners founded at the turn of the century, caught McFly's eye, he convinced them to let him join. They became Djinntana, and then Unifire Theatre, only one of the troupes with which McFly performs.
When he finally discovered the Surreal Sirkus, he became a regular, and stayed right through the troupe's 2005 self-immolation.
Why did the Surreal Sirkus have to die? Lionstone blames a structure too loose, and organizational demands too great, for the more-seasoned performers. The memorable public wake ended, intentionally or not, with fire.
Meantime, other fringe-y groups had established themselves. 2003 was noteworthy: The Goth-oriented 5th Circle began its five-year run of parties; Susan and Giles Collard, of Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre, inaugurated the Asheville Fringe Arts Festival and the legendary Rebelles mounted their first show.
You can't talk about Asheville vaudeville/cabaret/burlesque for five minutes without referencing The Rebelles. With an idiosyncratic blend of politics, storytelling and stripping, they represented "a sea change," according to Jim Julien. Michael Sheldon found them inspiring in the "Let's put on a show!" way. Women found them empowering, and two women important in today's scene — Cherry Oh! and Corky Bordeaux, of Bootstraps Burlesque — had their lives changed by seeing Rebelles' posters.
Cherry Oh!, from Hillsborough, N.C., had always enjoyed dressing up, making costumes and parading around (anime was an early influence). She still regrets not seeing the Rebelles when they appeared in her hometown, but she was underage. Even after enrolling at UNCA in 2004, she couldn't attend, because Rebelles' shows were always sold out. But the poster she'd seen in Hillsborough told her all she needed to know: Cherry needed to do burlesque.
Born in Fort Mill, S.C., Corky Bordeaux came to Asheville as a teen in 1998 and did theater in high school, but in college was "a straight science nerd." In 2005, she saw the Rebelles' poster featuring Josephine Baker and was lucky enough to score a ticket. Stunned by the Rebelles' sensuality, femininity, and energy, and by the comfort, confidence, and power they evinced, she decided to audition for them.
Unfortunately, for personal reasons, the Rebelles folded at the end of 2007. Many in the community mourn the loss still, but their departure spurred others on.
The instigators of Seduction Sideshow defined their own aesthetic and began performances in 2007. Then Bootstraps Burlesque was born, and held its first sold-out show at the Rocket Club in May 2008. At Halloween 2008, another troupe with burlesque roots, Bombs Away Cabaret, received a warm welcome. (See sidebar, "Best of the Breast.")
Also in 2008, purveyors of circus and aerial arts seized new opportunities, with the emergence of Runaway Circus & The Loose Cabooses and Asheville Aerial Artists and The Libravado Sisters aerial troupes. But perhaps the most significant step in putting the whole fringe-y scene on the map was taken late last year, with the premiere of Asheville Vaudeville.
Emcee Baron von Sneeden — aka Brian Sneeden, from Wilmington — came to town seven years back as a student and theater technician, and was lucky enough to snag a gig as technical director for the Rebelles. A chance encounter with Scapegoat Theatre Collective's first outdoor vaudeville — until recently staged once a year in Pritchard Park or the courtyard of the New French Bar — inflamed his imagination: The informal affair allowed anyone interested to perform, and in the second year Sneeden became co-producer. Several years later, burned-out Sneeden left for an extended trip to Europe, where he saw a great deal of street theater. Revitalized, he began to dream of returning to meld all of his theatrical impulses, including charitable ones.
Co-producer Thomas Butler, who moved to Asheville from St. Augustine, Fla., in 2006, also happened upon a Scapegoat performance, then wrote a short play for their last outdoor show and "just loved" it. Last August, he and Sneeden began putting together what their manifesto calls "a multi-alented collective of playwrights, jugglers, magicians, puppeteers, musicians, dancers, and more ... who follow in the traditions of these historic arts … our purpose [is] to revive through innovation … to provide 500 meals to hungry members of our community for every sold-out show." Upon opening for monthly appearances in November, they sold out the BeBe Theater, then added a late show and one-offs around town.
Their trajectory is upward, and why not? Asheville Vaudeville provides a stage for street-hardened performers — Tom the Magician; Madison J. Cripps' Strings Attached Marionettes; the Carolina Music Band — and a collaborative atmosphere for those established otherwise. Britta Felter and Cherry Oh! of Bootstraps Burlesque have appeared with Asheville Vaudeville, as have the jugglers 40 Fingers and a Missing Tooth, among many more.
Cookie LaRue is a regular, and Asheville Vaudeville has raised the stakes on him and everyone else by insisting on all-new material each month. Sheldon both praises and complains about this policy: complains, because he's "lazy"; praises, because he's forced to push himself. In fact, thanks to Asheville Vaudeville, he recently invented and introduced a new character: Cookie's second cousin, Lorna Doone, a country-music star almost blinded by the spotlight…
There's buzz about Asheville's vaudeville/cabaret/burlesque scene, and there are generous, "forgiving" audiences (as Sneaky McFly says). But the difficulties are as great as the opportunities. Most of these shows are collectively directed, fostering artistic freedom, but fueling the stress and arguments typical of communal efforts. Venues can be problematic: low ceilings and limited seating in some; excess capacity and no proper seating in others. Companies like Seduction Sideshow and Bootstraps Burlesque spend six months developing a show for one or two performances, putting earning a living out of reach. (McFly calculates Unifire Theatre members make roughly 40 cents an hour.) And the performers do everything themselves: write, design, construct, rent theaters, market, place posters, run Web sites and social-network pages, handle the books, etc. And then, of course, there are their primary occupations.
"Keep your day job," expert juggler Walter Beals counsels, and they do: Lionstone is a chef in a culinary program for at-risk youth; Butler dabbles in Florida real estate; Bordeaux is a recovery room nurse. Beals works the front desk in the public defender's office, yet still manages to be one of the town's busiest showmen.
A member of 40 Fingers and A Missing Tooth, Beals designs and builds sets, props, puppets and masks. He has an animal act ("Sophie the Wonder Dog"). He appears with Asheville Vaudeville and Runaway Circus & The Loose Cabooses, has opened for 23 Skidoo and played the half-time show for the Blue Ridge RollerGirls at the Civic Center, and he became the emcee for Bootstraps Burlesque on Valentine's Day last year. But the toll of all his moonlighting forced Beals to withdraw from Bootstraps after their latest extravaganza.
Beals is not alone in wearing too many hats. But what's a poor Asheville artist to do?
The problem for performers of any stripe is that training and rehearsing won't cut it; performers need extensive time in front of audiences to achieve greatness. But performance opportunities in a city this small are limited, and chances to play on the road, though welcome, are few and insufficiently remunerative. Besides, you can't keep your day job on the road.
Some on the fringe are content as things are, and even those who wish they could devote full time to their art acknowledge reality. "It's not gonna pay," McFly says, "so we might as well do something good." Which helps explain why these artists perform in so many benefit events and frequently devote at least a portion of show proceeds to charity.
Right now, though, the weak economy threatens the scene's development. Cherry Oh! knows Bootstraps is riding a trend and sometimes feels overwhelmed by ever-emerging competition. Lionstone also worries about "market saturation."
But vaudeville/cabaret/burlesque could continue to grow in Asheville, if producers emerge to assume the managerial burden; if regular, longer runs are attempted, to take advantage of word of mouth; if a higher percentage of the population opens itself to the unexpected; and if Asheville's hottest scene makes a big enough noise to begin attracting tourists. After all, Asheville loves local, but to survive and thrive, its fringe-y artists must bring outside audiences in.