Shenandoah Fringe Festival

Interview by Thomas Hendricks
Issue 38 • April 2016 • Staunton

What happens when an army of experimental performance artists takes over a quiet little country town? This vaudevillian mastermind intends to find out.

Shenandoah Fringe Festival | Filmography by Lark Media

Staunton is known as a charming town full of historic architecture; it’s also home to the Frontier Culture Museum, the Stonewall Jackson Hotel, and it’s the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson. There’s not a lot of hustle and bustle and the locals generally like it that way. If you took a stroll through the community, you might expect to see certain things: a family playing in the park, a group of friends catching a play, or an elderly couple wandering down a quiet sidestreet. What you might not expect to see are things like burlesque dancers, jugglers, magicians, cabaret performers, and an entire vaudeville sideshow. Were you to stumble upon such sights unexpectedly, you might think you were in a dream, far removed from your everyday life. But this April, the dream will become reality as the inaugural Shenandoah Fringe Festival rolls into town.

Fringe festivals typically feature a smörgåsbord of experimental performance acts. Often centered around a vaudeville theme, the costumes are elaborate and the risqué is welcome. They also normally take place in large metropolitan areas with urban audiences who’ve likely seen their fair share of oddities, so the Shenandoah Fringe Festival (or ShenFringe for short) is a departure from the normal backdrop.

Carmel Clavin

Despite this unconventional pairing, festival director Carmel Clavin said local businesses, officials, and residents alike have been nothing but supportive. The nearest thing of its kind is D.C.’s Capital Fringe, so this past fall when she was tossing around the idea of starting a fringe festival for the valley, the response was a decisive, “Yes! God, yes! Oh my god, that would be so cool!” Clavin said that friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and even complete strangers immediately wanted to join in and help the project succeed.

It turns out that being so off the wall is a major draw for fringe festivals. These events offer a chance for people to put aside their normal worries and step into another world. Clavin is seeking to create a home for artists to be their authentic selves without compromise. ShenFringe is a place to unleash your weirdness and let your freak flag fly. “If you’ve always wanted to tie balloon animals with your toes, but you can’t do that in the normal kids birthday party circuit that you usually work, and you want to do that while someone sings ‘Ave Maria’ in the background – cool, you can do that here,” said Clavin.

“It’s been a gift that so many people are interested and trust us to come and present the weird.”

Carmel Clavin

But more than just pure showmanship, ShenFringe is a chance for artists to present their work and be compensated for it. In an effort to keep the communal aspect of the event, all ticket revenues are split 60/40 between the festival and the artist. Many of the performers punch the clock at a day job, work online, or hustle nights in the service industry and often suffer from nagging self-doubt, wondering if their efforts amount to nothing more than a time-consuming hobby; ShenFringe offers a chance for professional validation. As Clavin explained, it’s a chance for artists “to take risks and not blow their rent –” to not only make art, but make a profit, too.

And they come from near and far to do just that, with applicants hailing from all over Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. In total, Clavin received over 50 applications with many coming from acts she had never heard of before, a huge relief for someone who half expected to have only her friends sign up. When the dust had settled, what was originally expected to be an evening’s worth of programming had expanded into two full days. The abundance of options allowed Clavin and her team to curate the perfect lineup for the inaugural festival. She added, “It’s been a gift that so many people are interested and trust us to come and present the weird.”

The lineup features a wide range of enticing curiosities including cabaret duos, shadow puppet theatre, experimental art shows, a film premier, and even an aerialist in a church. Clavin laughed over the challenges scheduling that last one, saying, “We had to find a place with 30-foot ceilings.” Clavin herself will be performing in the festival as a shifting tableau during a projection and live scoring of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the classic horror film from 1920. Her production company, Spectacle & Mirth, will also host a vaudeville cabaret featuring sword dancers, belly dancers, and burlesque dancers. The whole thing takes place at a handful of venues in downtown Staunton, all within a five-minute walk of each other.

For artists who can’t participate in the festival, there’s a way to extend the ShenFringe community beyond the weekend. Clavin is starting a series of Fringe Salons, workshops for artists and makers to gather and discuss ideas for new projects. These are not performances or art shows and no audiences are involved. Rather, these Fringe Salon sessions aim to foster a sense of community among the area’s artists and allow them to present works-in-progress to their peers.

When asked about plans for future installments of the festival, Clavin insisted that her focus is on making sure that this first one is a success. She has to balance her year-round Spectacle & Mirth responsibilities with the intense workload of the festival, something she lovingly referred to as the “monster that must be fed.” As such, she promises to keep ShenFringe a “rationally-sized event.” Clavin sees the festival as a test for the Staunton arts community, recognizing that it’s full of risky work that may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, she’s confident going forward. As she put it, “For less than the price of a movie, you can get something original, something live, something beautiful. What’s better than that?”

The Shenandoah Fringe Festival will be held in downtown Staunton on Sunday, April 10 and Monday, April 11. For the full schedule and tickets, visit shenfringe.com.

Photography by Brandy Somers

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