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Em Piro at the 2014 St. Lou Fringe Press Preview

Em Piro at the 2014 St. Lou Fringe Press Preview

The 2014 St. Lou Fringe Festival opens this week after much planning and visionary thinking by Executive Director Em Piro and her team. Piro, who is originally from Seattle, is a St. Louis University graduate and veteran performer and director with various local theatre companies, including New Jewish Theatre, Upstream Theatre, and Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble. With an energetic personality and love for the performing arts in many various forms, Piro is both a visionary and an entrepreneur, having founded the Fringe Festival and then  managing  its growth and momentum over the past three years. I met with her at a cafe in Grand Center a few weeks ago to talk all things Fringe, focusing mostly on her thoughts about artistic development and the Fringe’s role in the revitalization of the city of St. Louis and its various neighborhoods. Here are some highlights of our conversation:

Michelle–How did the Fringe develop?

Em–[My friend and fellow former SATE member] Dianna Thomas and I had been producing a small theatre company together, GlassMonsters, a very almost anarchist, DIY, grassroots, interactive [project]. We just wanted to do this kind of more guerrilla style theatre. But then she and I had talked a lot about, what if we do this festival thing? We need some kind of setting where these artists can collaborate together. Theatre companies can produce together in this critical mass of activity, with tons of shows going on, and then patrons could easily find them. Then patrons will meet these artists, or meet these theatre companies at this event and then go and see them throughout the year. Well, there’s a lot of infrastructure that goes along with that, which is one of things I’ve learned. And the other thing that I’ve learned is the potential that this holds for having a really tangible impact on building the cultural identity of our whole city.

M–So, you found a lot of people quickly that wanted to do this with you? You seem to have a pretty good team.

E–Yeah. I kind of just roped people in. And there’s definitely a constant influx of people who are kind of fascinated by this work,. It’s hard because it’s still all volunteer. So, there’s only so much that people can do with only so many resources, and so much time in the day and so much experience themselves. It’s a very complicated network to work within, and there are just different ins and outs and personalities and ways that neighborhoods work that you kind of need to understand. You can have a wonderful thing happening, but if no one knows about it, it’s pointless. And then if the people who are involved aren’t really clear on what they’re doing, it’s pointless. So there’s so many intricacies and, this is why things like this don’t happen all the time.

M–The one thing that I found myself wishing last year was that it were bigger, and that you took over this whole neighborhood and there were people everywhere.

E–I know. And that’s what we want to see happen. It’s remarkably difficult. And it’s funny because, we’re tied in with all the Fringes from around the country, and we bring up this question all the time about marketing, and for a lot of other Fringes, it’s kind of a non-issue. I really think this is a St. Louis thing. There is not a culture of patronage here the same way that there is in other cities. There’s not really an impulsiveness about going to events. People don’t tend to go to new things that they haven’t heard of before unless a hundred of their friends are going. And we’ve had an incredible amount of publicity. There’s still not a central course of information. Even though this word is starting to percolate, there’s still a real challenge to get people from thinking “that sounds interesting” to “I can’t miss this”. But that’s the story of the game for every theatre company in town. There are so many shows that happen that should be sold out, and they’re not.

M–I’ve been to plays where there were only about six people in the audience.

E–Yeah. I’ve seen stunningly beautiful pieces of theatre where there’s only six people in the audience. There are things with just the overall communications structure for our city. It still is a very segregated city, and people are so afraid of feeling out of place. And so for some people, even if they want to go to a show, it’s like, well, will I fit in there? For some people, they make that first step of “I want to go see a play. You know it’s a little bit outside of my norm.” Because, you know, when people go to theatre here, when they’re growing up with it, they typically go to the Fox or the Muny. Maybe the Rep.

M–Yeah.

E–And so this whole world of mid- or small-sized theatre companies is outside of their paradigm. They don’t even know about it. So, let’s say they do make the decision, like “Oh, yeah, I do kind of want to see a show.” Where do they go then? And if you’re in the network, you can say oh, you can go to KDHX, or you can go to ArtsZipper, or you can go to this, but if you’re the average patron who’s not already networked into that world… I’m in the world, and it can be hard to find what’s going on. I do think there is a need for centralizing a cultured patronage, and I think that our Fringe will grow. I think it really will get to be that point where the whole neighborhood is full all weekend, and every show is sold out.

There’s just a lot of work that needs to be done to build that patronage, and just let people know that they can come here. This area [Grand Center] still carries a stigma, so we always have to fight that. Something we’ve learned too is that “if you build it, they will come” is a false notion.. Our first year we booked all these street performers, and we had all these activities going on in the streets, and there just weren’t audiences there to take it in. And then the performers feel insecure. If you’re a performer performing for no audience, it’s not the same. And it’s not what people are performers for.

M–That’s how I feel when I’m at a play and there are only 5 or 6 people in the audience. I wonder what the actors think.

E–Yeah. I mean, for me, even an audience of one is a valuable audience, but an audience of none is kind of tough. So it’s been a balancing act for us.

M–So did you have to scale back some for the second year?

E–We did. Well, we just were smarter about it. We’ve streamlined it. So for example, instead of trying to fill up our whole grounds, we’re doing more programming at key foot traffic times in Strauss Park.

When people go to the Fox, they valet or they park in the garage, they walk in and they walk out. It’s just not in people’s vocabulary [to stay]. It’s nothing wrong, but it’s going to take a lot of education to train people, and teach them, you can duck into a new place. You can check out something new and different. You don’t have to just come [to a show] and leave. Even five years ago in this neighborhood, there wasn’t as much going on as there is now, so you can’t blame people. It used to be there was nothing to do, and so that’s why that behavior developed. But people are slow to change, so teaching them that you can wander the neighborhood, you can bring a lunch, you can stay in the park, you can stay with friends and things like that, is going to take a lot of patience and education.

M–What goes into organizing everything?

E–(Laughs) How much time do we have? (More laughing) It’s a huge effort.

M–Does it basically take the whole year to plan for the next one?

E–Yeah. Just take the festival itself. On the production end of things, there’s recruitment, there’s applications, there’s processing applications, there’s communicating with all of the people who apply to make sure that they have the right expectations of what they’re going to be presented with when we come to the festival. There’s building production teams. There’s contracting with six venues. There’s staffing those venues. There’s building schedules, seeing how many shows you can accommodate with how many performances. Then with those shows, collecting technical information, and assessing all the technical information for all 35 shows, to see which venue they’re going to be the strongest fit in. After that, making sure the performers have the skills they need to be successful. So coordinating a professional development series is something we’ve introduced. Raising money is also a huge part of it. It costs about $100,000 to produce the festival. It’s a pretty massive endeavor. There’s just gaining trust from the community, and with other arts organizations and theatre companies, and building trust and friendships.

M–It seems like it helps to have this outgoing personality that you have.

E–(Laughs) I don’t think it hurts. And one of the biggest challenges is just having the name “Fringe”, which is advantageous because we have an international network, and so they know exactly what that means. But it’s a new term for our community. There’s a lot of just following up with people, and talking to them and explaining the bigger significance of [it], like, yes this is a theatre festival. It’s fun, it’s quirky, it’s exciting, but it also has the potential to have a tangible impact on the quality of life for people in St. Louis. And I want to see this wonderful, beautiful, historic city be healthy, and to break down some of those socially perceived barriers, and some of those economic barriers, and some of those artistic barriers, and all of that.

M–Going back to your background for a minute, you’re talking about the city and you grew up in Seattle, but you’ve always had a St. Louis connection. How did you end up in St. Louis?

E–I ended up going to school here [at SLU] and I’m so grateful for it. I grew up in a city that very kind of naturally is conducive to the arts, and to the point that it can be pretentious, and St. Louis is a city that has survived such incredible strife, and continues to battle that. And it’s a city of many different viewpoints, and many different personalities. It gave me such a broad perspective of humanity. And I think if I had gone to some little swanky liberal arts school, or stayed on the West Coast or anything like that, I can’t even imagine who I would be.

M–Or if you’d gone to New York or something.

E–Yeah. And there’s things that are very exciting and attractive about communities like that, but there is a modesty that I have been faced with and had to learn being here, that I feel like has made me a better person.

M–What struck me about St. Louis when I moved here, coming from the East Coast [the Washington, DC area], where everybody is rushing everywhere and everything’s a lot more guarded, is that everything is a lot more laid-back here. And not as polished.

E–Exactly. And there’s something that’s very exciting to me about that. It’s a city of opportunity. It’s a city where you can really be yourself. And to me, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. You can be in a city like New York or Chicago or Seattle that already has this strong arts community, and St. Louis has that strong community–it is all potential. All of the pieces are there. All of the puzzle pieces are there. They’re just not in the right order. And so all it takes is a few people to really be like “you talk to this person” and “what do you think about doing this?’ And people, I think, are so grateful to see healing happen. It’s a good city with good people.

M–This seems like something that seems to be geared a lot towards appealing to the younger generation. I’ve noticed that some theatre companies, like the Rep, in St. Louis seem to draw older audiences and others draw younger audiences. Are you trying to bridge the different elements of the theatrical community?

E–I think that we actually draw an incredible spectrum. I mean, this year in the festival, we’re going to have a super left-wing political theatre piece and a super right-wing political theatre piece.

M–Interesting!

E–Yeah. And I can’t speak to the quality of either of those. I haven’t seen them. I don’t know them, but I think the fact that they can be in the same setting, each with their own voice, is a really incredible thing. You know, we have companies that formed to do the Fringe Festival, and we’ve had companies that have had a hundred seasons under their belt. We had a company last year that was a septuagenarian producing a show about the Civil War. And our audiences, they’re not as mature I’ll say as the Rep and things like that, but it’s not just a bunch of twenty-somethings. I think the Fringe is becoming what we really want it to be, which is a central watering hole for people who love culture, whether they’re 20 or whether they’re 80. I think that the thing that is unifying is because it’s vibrant, and it’s passion-fueled. And I think people of all ages and backgrounds appreciate that and are grateful for it. And we had people from the city, we had people from the county. We had people from pretty much every age bracket. It’s incredible how many more people every year just kind of come out of the woodwork. You know, people you never would have known were theatregoers.

M–You basically have a range of people and ages and backgrounds and income levels.

E–Exactly. We try to keep things accessible, so we hope that some of the folks that have capacity appreciate the low ticket prices and the accessibility, and will choose to support the festival, because it is an expensive venture, but it’s important to us to be a unifying center that remains accessible.

M–So, what’s new this year? Are you doing anything different, or is it just the same but bigger?

E–We’re actually doing a couple things. I think there’s four big things. Our box office is going to be outdoors this year. It will be in Strauss Park, so hopefully… Because the last couple of years, like you said you wouldn’t see a lot of activity on the streets, but there could be hundreds of people on the grounds. They would just all be in venues, or in restaurants. At most Fringes, it’s like a film festival. At most film festivals, there’s not like people flooding the street. There’s people in venues and in shows, and when you’re out on the street you see maybe like a hint of it here and there. But we have found that people want that kind of vibrancy, so we’re focusing more of our outdoor programming into Strauss Park, which is a little bit more of a manageable footprint for us. It will be like a central place where everybody knows to go, to then tentacle out to wherever else they want to go. And then once they’re done with that, they can come back.

M–It can kind of be like a combination box office and sort of gathering spot.

E–Yeah. And we’ve tried to do that in the past, but people haven’t identified with it that way. It’s been in a vacant storefront, so I think people were like “Oh, am I supposed to stay here, or am I not?” This will be designed with performers and things like that, so people will know, “oh OK, I can stay”. There’s patio furniture and everything. So that’s one big thing.  And we’re doing a partnership with the Gateway Burners, so they’re going to be building structures and stuff on the grounds as well, in that park.

M–What is the Gateway Burners?

E–It’s like the local chapter of Burning Man. They do big beautiful installations. They all kind of like just pop up and come down, you know, they’re not permanent. So, that’s going to be sweet.

M–So is that going to be in that same area?

E–Yeah. It will be at points along all of our grounds, mostly in Strauss Park but then maybe you’ll see a pocket here and a pocket there,just trying to create this kind of magical world. We’re adding a new venue this year, so that’s big news.

M–And where is that?

E–KDHX.

M–And that’s right by where all the stuff is going to be happening in the middle anyway.

E–Exactly. It’s a perfect location. We love KDHX. They’re so aligned with us in terms of mission, and it meant that we were able to add five additional shows this year. We’ve added five local companies, so instead of 30, we have 35 companies this year. And then the third is that a big part of our festival is community building. Our tagline is “Brave Artists and Bold Audiences”. We want those artists to connect with each other. We want the audiences to connect with each other. We want the audiences and artists to connect. And so, we’ve had After Parties every night for the last two years, and the people have been like “well, maybe I’ll go and maybe I won’t”. We really want people to go, because people who play together work together well. It’s part of building a community and making new friends. It’s really important. And we want to create an accessible walking environment for that. So, we are really trying to focus on meeting people’s needs and what they want from the special events and the After Parties and things like that. We have parties Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Also, in the past we were Thursday to Monday, because Monday is the traditional dark night, so we were like “oh, we’ll have this big closing party on Monday”. But then everyone was, what we say, “Fringe fried”, so they didn’t really want to come on Monday. So we’re actually moving it so we’re going to have the big opening kick-off on Wednesday. There are no shows on Wednesday, but we’ll have a big party in Strauss Park, and then people can plan their whole festival weekend at that party. And then Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday day we’ll have shows and then Sunday evening we’ll have a closing ceremony. So we’re learning as the years go on, and trying to build the festival in way that will complement everything and do everything it needs to do. I’m excited about all those things.

M–Yeah. What about future plans? Do you have any thoughts of where this is going in the future?

E–What I really want to see happen starting next year.. we’re still building our capacity, and we would love to be able to support a staff person to be able to do this year-round. We’d love to be able to support two staff people to do this year round. Because you can just do so much more when you have someone who can really dedicate their attention to it.

M–How big is your team?

E–It’s all volunteers. When people are available, they help. But one of the things that we want to get into in the next season is off-season producing. There’s a lot of logistics there that we don’t have yet, that we need to work out. But I think it’s the natural next step. It’s like we have this festival that’s a big smorgasbord of activity, that’s open access and everybody can come and do whatever they want, and then from that we can curate people who we think demonstrate particular artistic integrity, particular professionalism, who we think are good reflections of the cultural voice of the city that we want to see more of.

M–OK, that leads to my last topic. You’ve actually answered this a little bit here and there, but what are your overall thoughts on the St. Louis theatre and arts scene?

E–I think it’s an incredible and vibrant and passionate community. I think the community is at an 8, which is great. I think it can be at a 12. I think a lot of that is just giving people permission.  I think there needs to be a lot of support of people’s creative ventures, and there’s some. I think there could be more, especially when it comes to risk-taking. To me, if the art doesn’t take a risk, it’s boring. For me. That’s just one person’s opinion. But for me as a patron and an artist, that’s something I want, so it’s something I try to support with my words, actions, resources, money, whatever. I also think, as we talked earlier about, we could have a much more centralized access point for patrons. So if you have someone who says on a Thursday night, or a Friday or Saturday or whatever, “you know, I want to go see a show tonight”, that we have a way for them to do that, and just go. I think that’s how you build new audiences and patronage. Of course the Muny, and Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, and the Fox, they grow every year because they’re household names.

M–Yes. And it’s not like a city like London or New York where there are over 30 different shows playing every day and you can just go pick one.

E–Right. We were talking about New York, and there’s a central ticket kiosk where it’s like “I don’t know what I’m going to see, but I’m going to come here, and that looks like a good thing, I’ll see that.” It’s like a menu. We don’t have that. It doesn’t exist. So I think that is a huge next step that we need to take as a community–figuring out how to share those audiences, how to have that open conversation with audiences, how to work with the media, and how to work with the infrastructure, the neighborhoods, to build that culture and community for everyone.

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 For more information about the 2014 St. Lou Fringe Festival, including a schedule of programming, check out the St. Lou Fringe website

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