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New theater festival puts St. Louis on the Fringe

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 16, 2011 - In a tremendous boost for the local performing arts scene, St. Louis will debut its own Fringe Festival next summer.

Local actor and festival executive director Emily Piro announced Thursday that a five-day St. Lou Fringe will take place June 21-25. "Connecting brave artists with bold audiences" is the concept behind the more than 100 performances to take place along the intersection of the Grand Center and Locust Business District areas.

Piro first floated the idea in 2007, but she was met with deep skepticism when she shared it with others involved in local theater.

"I would say, 'Wouldn't it be great if we engaged with other companies with different styles and we had a big festival where all these things came together and we could share ideas?'" Piro said. "And people said, 'Emily, this is the worst idea ever; no one is going to want to share their resources'."

But last spring, when she broached the subject again, the response was far more positive.

"This time, it was, 'Yes, we need it; we're ready for it'," Piro said.

Word traveled fast and Piro was pleasantly surprised when Grand Center approached her about being involved.

"Vince Schoemehl just showed up at our first meeting," Piro said. "It seems to be a win-win-win situation all the way around." Schoemehl is head of the Grand Center organization.

Stepping Away From Convention

St. Lou Fringe will bring a much-needed infusion of creativity into the local theater scene, according to Joe Hanrahan, Midnight Theatre's artistic director.

"It's an amazing, immediate platform as far as artistic expression in all the performing arts areas," Hanrahan  said. "You're mainlining experimental theater over the course of a few days. I think it steps out of a fairly conventional approach we have to almost all theater here."

This is not the first time St. Louis has had an event called Fringe Festival. In 2000, local actor Ed Reggi started an improv Fringe Festival, which grew to include some sketches and a few one-person shows. It was "more of a hybrid" and not a true Fringe, Reggi said. After it lost money in 2006, he cancelled the annual event.

About six months ago, when Piro approached Reggi with her idea, he gave her his full support.

"Emily is the right person to do this; she has the right energy, the right spirit and the right team," Reggi said.

Several factors make the concept more viable today than five years ago, Reggi said. He credits the Kevin Kline Awards and the recession for enhancing a team-spirit mentality in the theater community.

"It used to be that people would hoard, but they've become far more more collaborative because of the economy; they're sharing theater space, rehearsal space, actors and dancers," Reggi said.

Another element is that many more St. Louis theater-goers are now familiar with, or have attended, Fringe Festivals in other cities. Local residents have also grown more accustomed to the idea of specific, avant-garde street fairs such as Dancing in the Streets and First Night.

"When I used to promote the Fringe Festival, I would say that it's sort of like First Night for series of nights, Reggi said. "You go out and you don't know what you're going to see."

All Proposals Welcome; First Come, First Served

The Locust Business District, Circus Flora and Fractured Atlas have also joined Grand Center in the St. Lou Fringe partnership. Though Piro has a small amount of seed money, she and her planning committee are looking for more support.

Venues will be created inside vacant storefronts along Locust. Three should be enough to house all the performances, she said, which will run from afternoon through evening Thursday and Friday, and all day and at night Saturday and Sunday. Monday will be a "hangover day" with a light schedule.

St. Louis joins New York, Los Angeles, Kansas City and other cities in the U.S. and around the world in holding a Fringe Festival. Each city has its own way of presenting the mostly new work featuring unorthodox thinking that characterizes the Fringe; there are no festival rules governing size or ticket prices.

Festivals do have some common features. Most tend to present shorter plays or other performances with smaller casts, and theater-goers can see as many as a half-dozen shows in one night.

A button costing $4 or $5 will get you into St. Lou Fringe area over all the days of the festival. Tickets for performances will be no more than $12 each. A "Fringe Control" space will be set up for ticket sales, networking and a closing party on the last day.

The Festival will provide about 30 accepted artists with technicians, venue space, marketing and a ready-made audience for their productions. While participating can cost up to $800 in other cities, Piro plans to keep the price for artists here to $85 for two shows, $115 for two and $124 for four.

Proposals are accepted on a first-come-first-served basis with no jury process.

"Our role is not to judge; it's to empower artists to create work," Piro said. "If they want to produce it, it's in. It could be an all-equity cast; it could be Target employees."

Performance ideas don't have to anywhere near fully formed.

"They the could have 'TBD' as the title of the show and figure it out as they go along," Piro said. "And it's not just theater, it's dance, cabaret, burlesque, vaudeville, standup comedy, improv; if they can justify it as a performance art, we'll put it in."

The festival may draw some talent agents as well as a mix of local and national actors, producers and playwrights. The first submission will be accepted when the clock strikes 12 midnight during a Jan. 14-15 party, which Piro hopes will inspire on-the-spot collaboration.

"If you have even a hair of an idea that you want to produce a show, you should come see if someone else also wants someone to produce with," Piro said.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.