top of page

Asheville Keeps it Weird with the Return of ABSFest

Tim W. Jackson

May 8, 2023

Leave your inhibitions at the door

To all of our alternatively weird and perfect friends here in the South, this one’s for you!


Long an annual staple of the Asheville, North Carolina scene, the Asheville Burlesque and Sideshow Festival, also known as ABSFest, makes its glorious return after a brief hiatus. Festivalgoers are in for a wild ride over Memorial Day weekend as ABSFest rolls into town for its 14th year.

Coming up May 25-27, 2023, ABSFest events will be hosted by Asheville Raven & Crone, The Grey Eagle, and The Orange Peel, and promises to bring together provocative performers from far and wide. It's a celebration of the strange, the unconventional, and the sometimes bizarre—but all in a super fun way with lots of love in the room.


The event is the creation of Madame Onça, aka Lauren O'Leary, an entertainer, touring performer, author, artist, and—obviously—an event producer.


ABSFest was a natural outgrowth of her life at the time as co-founder and director of the Future of Tradition Center for Folkloric Arts from 1999 to 2006 in Asheville. It was home to the fire, circus, and world dance arts, all of which were growing in popularity. 


Now living in Virginia, Onça is happy to bring the festival back after a COVID hiatus.


“I was quite surprised to be—as everyone was—thrown from the organizational horse,” Onça says about having to cancel this and other festivals during the initial pandemic shutdown. “We haven't had it until this year because, from the point of view of long-term planning, there's a lot of people in the village artistically and administratively that make the festival happen.”

Onça says it seemed they were maybe in stasis forever, just waiting for the right time to return.

“This year, once everybody had made their decisions about how they were gonna handle their relationship with vaccinations and so forth and the venues went back to a more standard situation, we felt like we could plan. So, we're on.”

To ease back into this first year, though, Onça says she’s made it an invitation-only festival rather than by application.

“Usually we invite a few headliners, and then we invite artists to apply from all over the country. But because we knew we were coming out of a period of absolute uncertainty and into a period of still wild uncertainty, I was like, ‘Why don't we just work with folks who have done the festival with us before?’” 

Nonetheless, Onça and her crew have brought a world-class collection of performers for this first year back. Just a small selection includes “The Cocoa Barbie” May Hemmer (featured on cover image), “Queen of Subtle-Tease” Talloolah Love, death-defying jester Paolo Garbanzo, comedian and “professional pickpocket” Les S. Moore, belly dancer Sarah Joy, sideshow performer Opal Lechmanski, and Vaudevillian Carmel Clavin.

death-defying jester Paolo Garbanzo (credit: Dave Parrish)

sideshow performer Opal Lechmanski (credit: Isaac Harrell)

Musical guests are friends of Mixed Alternative Magazine, Charming Disaster!

credit: Charming Disaster

Charming Disaster will perform Friday, May 26 for the Speakeasy Séance, which says is, “like an acoustic rock opera with ghosts and pasties!” You certainly won't want to miss their performance ... or any of the performances, really.


The event is all about pushing boundaries and celebrating the wonderfully weird, with workshops such as songwriting, burlesque, and making events welcome to marginalized performers who are also part of the festival. It also includes an array of vendors and a raffle, as the festival’s charity partner this year is Asheville’s feral kitten rescue, Sister Kitten.


ABSfest is all about breaking down barriers and having a good time, but perhaps the most exciting thing about the event is the sense of community that it creates. This is a festival for people who might not fit into the mainstream. It's a place where you can be yourself, no matter how strange or unconventional that might be.


“I’m so looking forward to being together with these wonderful people again, “Onça says, “and just feeling the energy and vibrancy of this event again.”


So, if you're ready to explore the edgier side of life, if you're ready to push your boundaries and embrace the alternative, then ABSFest 2023 is the event for you. Just be prepared to leave your inhibitions at the door.


Here’s a look at the array of events:


World Spirit Tarot with Madame Onça

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Asheville Raven & Crone

640 Merrimon Ave., Suite 207, Asheville NC

5 p.m.

courtesy Madame Onça

ABSFest Speakeasy Burlesque & Live Music Show

Friday, May 26, 2023

Grey Eagle Music Hall

185 Clingman Ave, Asheville, NC

7 p.m. - VIP Doors Open

7:30 pm - General Admission Doors Open

8 p.m. - Burlesque Murder Mystery with all live music played by New York City’s goth folk duo Charming Disaster


ABSFest Workshops

Saturday, May 27, through the day

The Orange Peel

101 Biltmore Ave, Asheville, NC 

ABSFest offers burlesque, circus, and business workshops. Train with artists from around the country in the ABSFest Sexy Seminary in stagecraft, circus arts, fire performance, burlesque, and more. Open to all levels.


ABSFest’s Big Night – Saturday Spectacular

Saturday, May 27, 2023

The Orange Peel

101 Biltmore Ave, Asheville, NC

7 p.m. - VIP Doors Open

7:30 p.m. - General Admission Doors Open

8 p.m. - Saturday Spectacular, hosted by Washington, DC’s sorceress of stand-up, Violet Gray


For further information, visit


Want your festival to be featured in this magazine? Email the editor at



Tim Jackson is a seasoned journalist and author with a penchant for all things dark, macabre, and somewhat sinister. He lives in Tuscumbia, Ala., with his artist wife and their remote-chewing dog, Maple.

bottom of page