Hanging Fringe on the Arch: St. Louis Starts Fringe Festival

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{All photos from the St. Lou Fringe Facebook page.}

Note: this article will be published in the June 2012 issue of KC Stage Magazine.

Emily Piro, the executive director of the new St. Louis Fringe Festival, actually had the idea for something similar back in 2007. “I’m from Seattle originally and I moved to St. Louis, and really started getting involved in the art scene here, especially the performing arts and theatre scene,” Piro says. “What really struck me is the really unique tone that every theatre company here has. You really can’t interchange one show for the next, you know? When you go to see a company show, you really kind of know how it’s going to feel, how it’s going to work, what kind of work’s going to be there. And that was something that was really exciting to me, and I wondered if all the audiences that are in St. Louis know about the really incredible diversity of work and all the different types of work that are here. There’s really something for everybody. So, I had this idea: what if we had this festival where all these different companies could really showcase what they do really well and then we get a sense of the type of work that’s already going on in this city.”

At the time, no one she talked to really jumped on the idea. Worries about sharing resources and space were predominant, and Piro shelved the idea – but never really gave up on it. “I didn’t have the name ‘fringe’ yet, but the idea had always stuck in the back of my mind,” she says.

However, in 2011, a series of events started with a discussion with the New York playwright of the show Piro was touring – she worked for the Seattle Fringe Festival and remembered Piro’s show. “I was like, ‘You worked for the Seattle Fringe – tell me more about that,'” Piro continues. “And she said, ‘You know, it was just something that a group of people started because they felt the city really needed it.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think St. Louis really needs it.’ That’s all it takes – that notion to be able to say that it’s something the city needs.

“And this time when I started floating the idea around again, different people in the community instead of being, ‘no, that will never work’, they were, ‘Yes, we need it, we want it. This is something really necessary right now and if you’re going to put the work into it, we’ll back you 100%.’ I don’t know if this is happening in the rest of the country, but I know in St. Louis definitely there’s been this incredible wave of the creative culture, and this real hunger for things that are new and things that are visceral and things that really push the status quo and really challenge what is it to make art and what is it to have a distinct culture and what is it that we have that defines that. And there’s a lot of passion that already exists in the city. So being able to tap into that has been huge.”

Piro intentionally gave herself a relatively short deadline. “I know in the creative world people can often fall into the trap of planning, planning, planning – having all these wonderful ideas and then they never flesh out. And setting that short term deadline partly had to do with this wave of creativity that is going on right now and this wave of cultural thriving, and it also had to do with just recognizing if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it now, we’re going to do it right, and we’re going to commit to it.”

She delved headfirst into researching the fringe model, which brought her in contact with the Chicago Fringe Festival, now in its third year. She sat down with the organizers to pick their brains, and they in turn suggested she go to the conference for United States Association of Fringe Festivals, which in turn led her to connect with Cheryl Kimmi of the Kansas City Fringe Festival. “I contacted the director of [the Association of Fringe Festivals], and asked her about it, and she mentioned, ‘Well, there’s a fringe festival already going on in Kansas City, which is reasonably close to St. Louis – are you sure you want to do this?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes.’ But Kansas City is not that close to St. Louis. I mean, I’ve never been to Kansas City actually. But when I got to the conference, I made a point to talk to Cheryl and the other folks that were there representing Kansas City Fringe, and asked them, ‘Is this okay? I mean, we’re both in Missouri.’ But they totally agreed with us – they were like, ‘All this is going to do is help the fringe theme. We’re here to support each other.’ And Cheryl – she really lives the whole mission of fringe. She’s so giving and so supportive of new ventures and totally accessible and always ready for a word of advice. The mentorship that we’ve gotten from Kansas City – I mean, without it, I don’t know what we would’ve done. It would’ve been a lot harder.”

For their first year, the St. Louis Fringe Festival is five days long with 30 groups – and, as is typical, the process was unjuried. “We intentionally did 20 local artists and 10 national artists,” Piro says. “We could’ve filled up entirely with local artists if we had not set that restriction. We filled up our local slots within five minutes of opening them up. It was really surprising.” Of those national artists, one is Kansas City native Brother John. Unlike the KC Fringe Festival, it’s primarily focused on performing arts. “But we’ve defined performing arts by the artists’ definition,” Piro says. “I said, ‘If you can make a case that it’s performing arts, it’s going in.’ So, it’s not just theatre, which I know some fringes can be heavily theatre based. Ours is actually a really good balance between theatre, dance, experimental, performance art, slam poetry, storytelling, kind of vaudeville – we’ve got a really, really wide range of work, which is really good.”

For the first year, Piro’s main goal is to just connect with St. Louis audiences. “Our tagline is ‘Brave Artists, Bold Audiences’,” she says, “and what I’ve said is that if we have an audience member come to see one show, maybe the same company that they already know or to see a friend in the show or something like that, and they see their show, and they think, ‘You know, as long as I’m here, and as long as I have this little button, maybe I’ll stick around and see something else.’ And they stick around and they see something that they never, ever would have gone and they enjoy it, then we’ve done our job.”

As to why people are behind it now when there didn’t seem to be much support in 2007, Piro is sure that the economy is a big factor. “Whereas people before really didn’t want to share their resources, now they have to and they’re learning that that’s okay,” she says with a laugh. However, she also attributes the support to the Kevin Kline Awards, a local theatre award program. “We get all excited about them,” she continues, “and that led to just an explosion of the theatre scene here. And it’s the people getting mutually excited about something that they can share, you know? It’s surprising, because you think that it would make people more competitive, and of course in some ways it has. But at the same time, it’s also given people something to share and a reason to engage with each other and to communicate with each other and to really look at what are we producing and why are we producing it and what we’re bringing to the community.”

It’s that community connection that really draws Piro to the concept of fringe, which connects to what draws her to theatre itself and her ‘day job’ of working with social services. “Having that background in social service: my main focus is on what does culture have to do with impacting the community and impacting people’s ability to live a good life, which I think fringe fits in really well for. I really see it more as a community development tool than as an arts thing, if that makes sense, because culture is community – the arts very much make up culture, and making those arts accessible is what gives people a sense of community identity and cultural identity.”

The St. Lou Fringe is a five day festival from June 21 – 25, with three venues and over 100 performances in midtown St. Louis. For more information, visit www.stlfringe.com or call 314-643-STLF.