SLU grad Em Piro thought it was a shame St. Louis had no annual fringe festival. Say hello to St. Lou Fringe!

SLU grad Em Piro thought it was a shame St. Louis had no annual fringe festival. Say hello to St. Lou Fringe!
Jennifer Silverberg
Em Piro, executive director of St. Lou Fringe Festival

Fringe festival: A performing-arts festival in which acts pay a modest entry fee and are admitted on a first-come, first-served basis. Established in 1947 in Edinburgh, Scotland, after the town's theater festival refused to let locals perform. In rebellion, they set up their own festival on the fringes of the main event. Since then, other cities throughout the world have established their own fringe festivals. [Click here to view a schedule for this year's Fringe festival.]

Fringe-y: Anything that goes wrong or doesn't turn out as previously imagined. Coined 2012 by Em Piro, Billy Croghan and Tara Daniels, organizers of St. Lou Fringe, scheduled to run June 21-25 on Locust Street in midtown.

Birth of a Fringe (An Oral History)

Dancers from Ashleyliane Dance Company:  Michelle Bohn, Jake Henke and Ashley Tate.
Jennifer Silverberg
Dancers from Ashleyliane Dance Company: Michelle Bohn, Jake Henke and Ashley Tate.
St. Louis Osuwa Taiko members Andrew Thacheimer and Eddie Pelikan.
Jennifer Silverberg
St. Louis Osuwa Taiko members Andrew Thacheimer and Eddie Pelikan.

Em Piro, age 26, executive director, St. Lou Fringe: In 2004 I was in a play in the Seattle Fringe Festival. I was very excited. Afterward I watched the other plays. They were dramatically different from ours. There was no organizing principle or theme. People were doing stuff because they had a desire to do it. It was transformative.

I graduated from Saint Louis University in 2007 and got involved with some local theater companies: J, Slightly Askew, the Washington Avenue Players. They all have distinct approaches to theater and ways of telling stories. I thought it would be cool if it all came together. People were like, "Em, that is the worst idea ever." They said no one would ever want to share and cooperate. I found out that Ed Reggi had done a fringe festival in the early 2000s. He said it was great, but it didn't work.

Ed Reggi, actor, producer and marriage-equality advocate: It started as an improv fest around 1999 or 2000. It was small, local and invitation-only. From that, people began to contact me to ask if we would include other one-man and one-woman shows and scripted material. We teamed up with some local artists, and it became a fringe festival. It was very challenging. We needed a couple of venues, because one theater doesn't fit all shows. It was costly. I ended up paying between $5,000 and $10,000 out of pocket. We did it for two or three years, but it became a lot of work. Finally my best friend and partner said to me, "Ed, it's like you're throwing a party for $10,000 every year." In 2005 or 2006, it went on hiatus.

St. Louis wasn't ready. This isn't a putdown. The fringe festival didn't hit critical mass. People didn't recognize the word. Or they thought it wouldn't be family-friendly or average-Joe-friendly. They thought it would be high art and not accessible — which is the opposite of what fringe is about.

Robin Gillette, executive director, Minnesota Fringe and member, United States Association of Fringe Festivals: There has been an amazing burst of fringes. The official USAFF membership is fifteen, but this year there are a dozen start-up fringes across the country. They're everywhere. It's a cool way to do experimental theater. People who don't do theater for a living can do theater without breaking the bank.

Toni Roper, grant writer, St. Lou Fringe: Anything Emily wants you to be a part of, you say yes. And you know it'll be great. So when she told me about the festival, I said, "Of course, you're Emily Piro!"

Tara Daniels, age 25, associate director, St. Lou Fringe: At first there were about 30 people involved, but a lot of them left. Some of them had their own stuff to do. We also realized that a huge meeting is not productive. So now there's a small core group of about five of us.

Tom Martin, director and theater professor, SLU: It's an organization not driven by job descriptions. It takes the shape of the people in it. There's a problem, who wants to deal with it?

Billy Croghan, age 26, associate director, St. Lou Fringe: Emily, by and large, is doing more than most of us. She works on this 40 hours a week in addition to her full-time job [as a counselor at the St. Patrick Center homeless shelter]. I went to college with Em at SLU. This past fall she posted something on Facebook about how she needed face paints from Halloween. I had some, so we met up, and she bought me a beer. She told me about Fringe — what it was and what she was looking for.

Piro: He said something that struck me. He's a musician, and he said, "I've supported so many people in the theater community, gone to their shows, and no one has ever come to any of my shows. The active arts community should support each other." I never thought about that, working on becoming a community, but it became evident.

Reggi: I have a theory that it all reflects back to all the municipalities here. The arts are just as fragmented. To do a fringe, you need a lot of local groups supporting it. It's a bigger picture than something isolated and new.

Travis Howser, director of events and theaters, Grand Center: I did not know what a fringe festival was. I researched it. I thought it was attractive because of all the theaters within our district. We were eager for a new festival to develop, and in our neighborhood. They bring in a different crowd than we traditionally have. I find myself using "Fringe" as an explanation a lot. These are alternative performances. We have a lot of large institutions here. This is a small, grassroots festival.

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