First on the Fringe

Dozens of "fringe festivals" around the world are known for pushing the artistic envelope with mostly unknown performers.

Well, Tucson has had no such fringe festival—until now.

You may have seen Yassi Jahanmir trolling the city streets in her white 1968 Cadillac convertible, selling Tucson Fringe Festival tickets out of the trunk.

"You never know where the road will take you," she said.

Jahanmir's own road has taken her from a childhood in Tucson, to New York University, and now back to Tucson. She believes downtown is on the brink of a revival; she's also a fan of fringe festivals, and Jahanmir wanted to be a part of downtown's resurgence by bringing an annual festival to downtown Tucson.

Featuring performances including a rock opera, one-person shows and other entertainment, the four-day festival will host six acts that were—quite literally—picked out of a hat.

After receiving 12 performance proposals from various artists, Jahanmir and Tucson Fringe Festival co-founder Sara Habib chose six at random.

"We really wanted it unjuried. We didn't want it to be diluted for the first year," Jahanmir said. "We've really got a great mix."

Although many of the artists are lesser-known, one of the festival's acts will be award-winning Tucson stage actress Lesley Abrams.

Abrams has done mainstream touring around the country, but said fringe festivals will always be special to her, as they allow artists to test out new things on audiences.

"You can really get your hands dirty with a new piece," she said. "I know (the Tucson Fringe Festival) will take off. There is this great range of performances."

Abrams will perform her one-woman show, Where There's Smoke, an act that chronicles the struggles and self-realizations that she experienced following the destruction of her home in a fire. She described the show as seriocomic, highlighting both the serious and comedic effects of the true-life event.

She said that prior to a tragic event, people can do "everything right and take all the precautions," yet still fall victim to circumstances. When you accept that you have no ultimate control over your life, you live a happier and fuller existence, she said.

"The piece is largely about the things we are afraid of. Any life event does need to have that mix (of tragedy and comedy)," Abrams said. "It's very human, and anything that's human is very funny."

Where There's Smoke began as a form of therapy for Abrams. While dealing with the anger and confusion she felt following the fire, she turned the emotion and individuality of the event into something universal that she could share with an audience, Abrams said.

While she tries to engage with the audience, Abrams said she avoids deliberately applying a specific "message" to her shows, adding that spectators do not need to "learn" anything to attend live performances.

"I tell people, 'It's not a message. It's a human experience,'" Abrams said.

That human-experience factor is exactly what Jahanmir and Habib had in mind when they sought to bring a fringe festival to Southern Arizona—and the performers won't likely disappoint. That means the pressure will involve getting an audience to show up, Jahanmir said.

"We're trying to set reasonable goals. Tucson's a last-minute town," she said. "If we get 1,000 people, that will be a success."

Jahanmir says that she hopes the Tucson Fringe Festival reflects the beginnings of Phoenix's festival, which started out relatively small but gained momentum after the first few years.

While Jahanmir and Habib fully intend to make the festival an annual event, the organizers will be careful not to expand the festival beyond what the audience wants as an avant-garde event, Jahanmir said.

The Tucson Fringe Festival will always reflect the ultimate goal of helping to make the world more welcoming to artists, she said.

"The more places we make hospitable, the more theater can be available on a worldwide scale," Jahanmir said. "These live performances should thrive."

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