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

Em Piro, executive director of St. Lou Fringe Festival
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)

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.

Piro: The Locust Business District was the first place I approached [to host the festival]. I like the architecture. There's lots of little alleys, space that can be transformed into performance space. There are a lot of businesses and foot traffic. I'm a huge admirer of Grand Center, the way it revitalized the neighborhood. I liked the idea of a fringe festival on the fringe of St. Louis' arts center. We want it to be an insurgence and take over the area.

Some festivals have $1 million budgets. Ours is less than $25,000. It's the first year, and we wanted to see how it went. Also, I like the challenge to be creative about where to get resources. Schlafly has agreed to sponsor us, and KDHX, Metropolitan Artist Lofts, Pride St. Louis, Fountain on Locust, Grand Center, the Locust Business District. I have feelers out for more.

Croghan: We've borrowed our 501(c)(3) from Grand Center [so we can accept tax-deductible donations]. It takes time and money and resources and lawyers to get a 501(c)(3) of our own. We have an employee ID number and are registered with the IRS. But the 501(c)(3) is a separate entity. The breakneck speed with which we organized this — I get the feeling other fringe festivals spend more than a year organizing their first year. It takes time to get grants. We're doing this with no grant funding.

Howser: The challenge is not getting money. It's getting things for free.

Obstacle One: Attracting Acts

Piro: The festival will have twenty local performers and ten national. (It's important to have the national shows. It helps to highlight our community to visiting artists.) We're doing this festival really, really cheap. The maximum cost to performers is $150. In comparable cities, the production fees are $600, $850. The $150 gets you marketing, a venue and tech, light and sound. The performers get to price their own [admission], between $1 and $12 in dollar increments, depending on how much they think the show is worth. They keep 60 percent of the ticket sales. The other 40 percent pays artists behind the scenes (the technicians).

We had a party on January 14, and then people started signing up at midnight. People who signed up in the first 30 seconds of 12:05 got in, and people in the second 30 seconds of 12:05 ended up on the wait list.

Bryson Gerard, St. Lou Fringe performer: I looked at the website and saw that was happening, the scope of it, and said, "Sign me up!" I could see it had what I love about amateur performance art and professional performance art. In terms of quality, the quality of everyone involved was at a professional level of showmanship and technique. But it was amateur in terms of being cutting edge and inventive. I saw it as a great platform and a chance to be part of something bigger.

Piro: We're trying to think of ways to get the wait list involved.

Croghan: Em and I went to FRIGID New York, the winter fringe festival.

Piro: I volunteered the whole time. He just wandered around.

Croghan: Fringe in New York was wild, but ours is going to be cooler, I've decided. They don't have street-level performers. Everything is all up in theaters. It was lame. They failed to capitalize on a huge market. We're going to have Fringe d'Fringe on the street. Anyone on the wait list can do an outdoor show for free, and then pass the hat. We'll have musicians and buskers and hula-hoopers and the Ladue High School improv troupe. We're also hoping for fire dancers.

Do you know any fire dancers?

Obstacle Two: Finding Venues

We hope to have the venues nailed down by the end of January.
— Em Piro, January 17, 2012


[Setting: February 17. The Locust Business District office, a nondescript conference room overlooking Locust Street.]

Piro: Martin Casas is letting us use his campaign office as an office and box office. We still don't have venues. Travis from Grand Center reserved the black-box theater and cabaret in the Kranzberg Arts Center for us. I was hoping for a "found" space so the focus would be on the performers, not the venue, but it's much better than nothing. The meeting with the Centene Center did not go well. Fubar freaked out about us using their space. They were OK with four days, but we have to tech. We need thirty hours. (Three hours per act, ten acts per venue.) Plus the four days of the festival.

John Armstrong, St. Lou Fringe adviser and former managing director, HotCity Theatre: Asking for seven days scares people. Could you go down to two hours for the tech runs?

Piro: I'd rather be comfortable and stay on schedule. The ideal is an hour and a half to tech, some time to breathe and then 50 minutes for a final run-through. Maybe two hours could still work.

Croghan: We could put all the two-day people in one venue. Maybe have four venues instead of three?

Piro: I'm nervous. I'm relying on my thought process. I looked at the upstairs of 3000 Locust. It's a cool space. But it's against code. It's got no heat.

Armstrong: Would that matter in June?

Piro: It's got no cooling either. It's got no restrooms, no power. All it's really got is awesome.


[Setting: April 2. Staff meeting at Fringe HQ, a.k.a. Fringeland. A white tent emblazoned with the Locust Business District logo and decorated with original artwork has been erected in a corner of the enormous ground-level loft that serves as the base for Martin Casas' campaign for state representative. (A projection screen toward the rear of the space is evidence of Casas' other role: director of Frontyard Features, a migrating outdoor film festival.) Fringe's furniture consists of a couch (formerly Piro's), a table, folding chairs and a single bucket seat from a van. All the seating space is occupied; the table is covered with art supplies and personalized postcards and magnets.

Piro sits at the head of the table, in the only chair with arms. Her chihuahua, Dexter, is tethered to a table leg. Dexter is the unofficial St. Lou Fringe mascot. Over the next few months, he will eat rat poison, suffer an attack of hives and injure his trachea by straining against his harness. He will survive these mishaps and periodically disrupt meetings by jumping into people's laps.]

Piro: I was very impressed with the building next door to the Urban Chestnut [Brewing Company], but then I discovered it was ridden with asbestos. I had to do a cost/benefit analysis: It's an awesome space. But it could be poisoning our audience.

I met with Robert [Fancher] at Fubar again. He's under the impression that we are incredibly wealthy because we are an arts organization. I was hoping he would let us use the space for free, and then we could give him a couple hundred bucks. I'm going to ask Tom Martin to talk with him.

Croghan: Tom's old and has gray hair.

Roper: And he can be scary.


[Setting: April 9. Staff meeting. Fringeland. Dexter sits in Piro's lap.]

Piro: OK, we have less than a week before we're supposed to meet with the artists and tell them where they're going to go. I booked the Kranzberg black box and cabaret. But we're still two venues short.

Croghan: Let me wrap my head around this. One and two are the Kranzberg. We can have the Centene for two days if we pretend it's Prison Performing Arts putting on the fringe festival. We can use the Locust Business District office. And here.

Piro: I talked to Tom Brady. He's a performance artist, and his organization, Satori, is here on Locust. I asked if we could use a small space. He gave me a verbal yes and then no. We're not allowed to use the space because the festival is unjuried. We're running into that a lot, but it's what a fringe festival is.

Daniels: A lot of people have gotten freaked out about the unjuried thing. They think the quality isn't going to be as great, because since we're not picking what goes in there's going to be a lot of crap. But if we say, "We don't know you because you don't have a lot of experience," we might be missing out on the best show.

Piro: The first year is where we prove ourselves. But it's a Catch-22. We can't prove ourselves without having better space. The Grandel offered us a very contrived option. We can use their lobby, but not while the Black Rep is performing. They've got a show that weekend. That means we can't use it anytime between 7 and 10.

Daniels: No.

Piro: We can have the garage at the Castle Ballroom. But it's eight blocks from the Kranzberg.

Daniels: No.

Martin: I'd suggest dumping the Centene. It's off the beaten path, and it's leaving you open for heartache and trouble. Focus on finding venues on Locust. If you get Fubar, you'd have this whole block.

Piro: We can have the Nu-Art [Metropolitan Gallery] for $500 a day. But I'm concerned about spending money on Nu-Art when it's not equipped, and we're getting the Kranzberg for free. I want to tell them, "We'll be bringing thousands of people into your space."

Croghan: There was no friendly banter with that guy. We have a hard-and-fast deadline. We have to get the performance schedule laid out before Sunday.

Piro: We talked to at least thirty potential spaces for four venues. I've been working on this daily since December. The artists need to know where they're going to be. We've been acting on the principle that things will fall into place, but they haven't been.


[Setting: April 11. Tech meeting at Fringeland. A large piece of butcher paper is on the floor, covered with Post-it notes. Dexter noses the Post-its with interest.]

Piro: I booked the Nash Motor Company. It's part of Automobile Row. It used to be an automobile manufacturer, then it was a hat-form manufacturer, and now it's empty. I looked at it a long time ago, in December, and I didn't think it would work because I was focusing on the upstairs, where pigeons roam free. But it turns out the downstairs office is climate-controlled, and we can use it. It has an enormous pillar in the middle that we'll have to work around.

Phillip Allen Coan, St. Lou Fringe venue director: It's a very "found" space.

Kerrie Mondy, St. Lou Fringe venue director: It intrigues me. We can put stuff in it.

Piro: They're letting us use it for free. And I have a verbal commitment from Fubar to be a three-day venue, which should be finalized in two days. I'm still tentative about them. They could sweep this out from under our feet. For a backup, we can use this space. Billy can rig the walls so the Casas campaign stays open. We're also talking to Nu-Art, but with rehearsal time, we'd have to pay them $2,500. I'm hoping one of these spaces will work out.

Coan: It's the first year, so people are worried about what it will be like. Afterwards it will be about what the festival is.

Piro [indicates butcher paper]: I've laid out the schedule, based on the questionnaires we sent the artists about their production needs. I'm still trying to figure out where we can put the aerial acts. Fubar claims it can handle aerial.

Mondy: It cracks me up that Fubar's not sure they want us to use their space, but they're OK about aerial rigging. It's difficult to commit people to spaces they can't do their shows in. It would've been nice to have the spaces determined before people started to request things.

Coan: All the companies know that they can walk in and request something, and we can say they can't have that. The question should be, "How close can I give you to what you want? How close can we get to your vision? Why do you need a spotlight?"

[A knock on the front window. Dexter yaps. Mondy answers the door. A stranger hands her a bottle of wine and a stack of plastic cups and disappears into the night. Mondy turns back to Coan and Piro and shrugs.]

Mondy: Well, I'll take it.


[Setting: April 13. Fringeland.]

Piro: I got Fubar by begging fervently and being pitiful. [Dexter climbs on the table and begs.]

I said we were poor artists and that they would be offering a very, very generous donation. I hope we're not being selfish in our endeavors. We're bringing good things everywhere we go. I hope we're giving as much as we're taking.

The Acts: A Sampling

Robin Gillette: Each fringe tends to represent the culture of its city. New Orleans is less burlesque-y and more circus-y, with acrobats and masks. Minnesota is sci-fi/mystery/geek-dorkery.

Piro: I think the St. Lou Fringe identity will emerge. I don't know what the feel is in St. Louis. My friend says St. Louis performers are nomadic. They don't have a single place. In St. Louis anything can pop up anywhere.

[Setting: March 15. Ides of Fringe event at the Fountain on Locust, an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor. Fringe performers on hand will be given 60 seconds apiece to introduce themselves. Outside the first thunderstorm of the year rolls in. Inside people are eating dinner and ice-cream sundaes. At precisely 9 p.m. Piro jumps onstage.]

Piro: This siren will go off if you go over 60 seconds. A great uproarious ruckus will ensue, like such [the audience yells and whistles obligingly] until you get offstage. The artists have our unquestioned support of their work. If they think it's good and want to perform, then we won't interfere.

[A thin young man climbs onstage and starts to juggle five small balls. As he turns in a circle, still juggling, the crowd cheers. Silent up till now, he speaks.]

Young Man #1: We're Coty's Circus Variety Show.

Young Man #2: I'm Toby. I've never met Daniel Shar...or had sex with him. No one has. Daniel will be here to do a one-man show about his sexual ineptitude and arrested development.

Young Woman #1: We're Easelmuse. Every night we'll have a different musician interpret the same musical motif. Other artists are invited to join in the creative play and novel experience by creating a piece of art or just listening to the music. We'll also have open space for dancing! [Some members of the audience appear puzzled.]

[Bryson Gerard of the musical act Lux Ascension kneels onstage and plays a minute-long original composition on the bouzouki, a stringed instrument that looks like the body of a ukulele attached to the neck of a guitar. The sound it makes is high-pitched and eerie. (Gerard will subsequently describe his musical style as "electric doom metal bouzouki.")]

Young Woman #2: I'm Ashley Tate of the Ashleyliane Dance Company. We do hip-hop, jazz and improv. [She demonstrates. Her movements are graceful and precise.]

Older Man: The Washington Avenue Players will be performing Danny and the Deep Blue Sea by John Patrick Shanley. This production was originally intended for a high school performance, but the students couldn't use the F-word. So we're bringing it here, and we're bringing the F-word in.

[Croghan appears, sweaty and disheveled, clutching a can of Pabst.]

Croghan: I think this turned out well. I'm always nervous before we do an event. It's good to see people doing what they're going to be doing.

Obstacle Three: Spreading the Word (A Montage)

It's a pain in the ass. Maybe next year there will be more interest in a street team. This year we don't have anybody.
— Em Piro, June 3, 2012

Piro:For the past several weeks, Billy, Tara and I have been going to all sorts of events in silly costumes. I'm the stilt-walking skeleton. [Piro daubs sparkly blue paint around her eye sockets, draws bones on her arms and clavicle, pulls on a vest and pirate pants and climbs onto a pair of stilts.] Tara's Lady Lou Connor, the Cigarette Girl. [Daniels wears shorts and knee socks and straps an open suitcase around her neck. There are no cigarettes in the suitcase; there's a laptop cued up to the St. Lou Fringe website and a stack of fringe postcards and magnets.] And Billy's the Cupcake Cowboy. [Croghan, decked out in a ten-gallon hat, neckerchief, boots and spurs, with a holster and a pair of handcuffs dangling from his belt, carries a tray of cupcakes.]

At every event we've done, the response has been really different. At Show-Me Burlesque we met people who had been at other fringe festivals. [Burlesque dancers shake their tailfeathers and swap stories.] At Midwest Mayhem people took our pictures. [Random partygoer stands between Daniels and Croghan; Piro towers behind them. A camera flash goes off.] The next night we were at Grand Center Art Walk, and people pretended not to see us. [Elegantly dressed couple walks by, ignoring Daniels when she tries to hand out a postcard.] We went to IndiHop, and people had heard of it. [A couple of dudes carrying cups of beer slap hands with Croghan.] We're starting to get recognized. [A passerby waves.] We're like, "Yes! It's working!" [Passerby accepts a postcard and a magnet.] I have a vision of making everything by hand. The handmade component is important. I want it to feel visceral. Everything will have that homemade feel.

The Future (An Oral Prehistory)

Daniels: I met Em last year at trapeze classes at Bumbershoot. Billy and I just met. We've never had any problems. We mesh well together. If I have an idea, and they don't like it, it's OK. I've been to a lot of meetings where there've been a lot of ego issues. We don't have that. Next year when we become really famous, it will all change. [Laughs.] We'll buy the Castle Ballroom and get someone to pay to fix it up for us, and we'll have our offices and the festival there. It'll be awesome.

Piro: I have no interest in producing my own show for the festival. A couple of times people have asked me, "What are you doing for the festival?" I say, "Putting it together." Producing the festival is my show. But the other day we got announcement cards for the New Orleans festival, and I thought, I'd like to put together a show and go there. I love that city.

St. Louis theater is very conventional. Even the weirdest show will be done in the neatest little box. There will either be an explosion of really, really innovative work, or we'll have one of the more conventional fringes. I hope this will give people the opportunity to stretch their legs and take risks. A migrating fringe is my dream. We'd travel all over the city with the different community cultures as a uniting factor.

Croghan: Our credo is: Something for everyone, kids or adults. It's ambitious. There are days when I wake up really early, like at 6:30, because I have thoughts about it. It gets me up in the morning. The last couple of years have been odd for me. My dad died. He jumped off a bridge. I was out of it for a good year after that. Every day I was sleeping till noon. It was a struggle. I got myself together. I was ready for something. Then I talked to Em about this. It was perfect. It's something to kick butt for.

Piro: Tara and I had a plan that after fringe we'll take till the end of June off. But I'm not tired. I'm not burned out. This is energizing. I think I'm going to be starting on 2013 as soon as the closing party's over.

Coda: A Fringe Jingle

[Setting: Fubar. May 15. It's the Fringe Tease, when eight of the acts perform short snippets of the shows they're producing for the festival. Croghan steps onstage, dressed as the Cupcake Cowboy.]

Croghan: I'm going to sing a song. [He taps out a rhythm with his boot.] Can you clap along? [The audience claps along.] OK! [Sings] Meet me where the waters collide, at the St. Lou Fringe!

[He grins expectantly out at the audience. Confused, they continue to clap.]

That's it!