Against all odds, adversity created an ideal setting for Fringe.
In 2007, I was a young whippersnapper plunging into St. Louis from my semi-cloistered undergraduate life. Eyes bright, tail bushy, I saw opportunity everywhere in a city full of cultural prospects. The possibility for creative growth was palpable; boarded-up buildings sprung to life with paintings of jubilant figures, and festivals literally had people dancing in the streets. The urban landscape was transforming before my very eyes.
At that time, it seemed the greatest need to be filled was simply sharing the wealth of creative culture. Theater is my art of choice. There aren't many big flashy production houses, but there are a plethora of small theater companies. Each company has a markedly unique tone, as similar in style as Tarantino is to Spielberg. I was enamored and wanted this cultural identity, so distinctly “St Louis,” to thrive. I imagined a scenario where artists could present their distinct work to a shared audience, exposing potential patrons to the rich diversity of the local performing arts scene.
Though I didn’t have the name “Fringe” yet, I tossed the idea to some established artist friends—what about a festival that allowed theater companies to showcase “what they do” with technically simple performances to demo the work for enthusiastic audiences?
My seasoned friends tenderly let me know the implausibility of my scheme. “It's a noble idea. It'll never work.”
People in this town don't like to share, I was told. They guard their resources. They don't want to take risks. They have their comfort zone—the same designers, performers, and audiences that they always work with—and they don't want to venture outside the zone.
Well, all right, I thought. After all, I'm a new face in town. What did I know?
Fast-forward a few years. The idea still lurked in the back of my mind. The city seemed to be growing ever riper for Fringe. In the summer of 2011, I tentatively floated the idea again.
“Yes, Em. Yes. We want it, we're ready for it. If you've got the energy to put behind it, then we're behind you one hundred percent.”
It was time. I did my homework, and that fall I organized a from-scratch plan and a team, we set our date for the following summer, and with six months lead time, successfully hosted the inaugural St Lou Fringe Festival.
Alright, enough back story. Why did it work? What were the signs that St. Louis was ready? And what had changed in that four-year gap?
FRINGE WILL SHAKE THINGS UP
Fringe was born sixty-five years ago in Scotland as a response to an exclusive arts festival—it was the theater equivalent of “Occupy Edinburgh.” They are traditionally unjuried and uncensored—anyone who wants to can produce whatever show they like. In the United States, each city is given discretion to determine its own rules and standards. Very generally, the Fringe fuels excitement, innovation, and attention on the performing arts—and sometimes its unpredictability can shake things up in a community.
St. Louis is a treasure of a city—but it has issues. Yet much of what can be considered St. Louis' most frustrating characteristics were some of the strongest indicators that Fringe might be just the cultural stimulant needed.
Issue 1: Most Racist City in the United States
St. Louis is a city of extremes. There's a social culture in which the answer to “Where’d you go to high school?” carries significant implications. Four (often acrimonious) counties make up the greater metropolitan area. Blocks of multi-million dollar mansions sit adjacent to the projects. Deep resentments mean that communities attempting to integrate are often met with aggressive hostility. It's not that we're a city of constant hate crimes, but stubbornly held grudges are the ever-present elephant in the neighborhood, and old standing perceptions threaten to undermine urban development efforts. We're a city of rich versus poor, black versus white, county versus city, and old versus new.
There is a thriving artistic community in St. Louis, but, like everything else, it is deeply compartmentalized. The biggest danger in St. Louis is apathy. And how can we expect the greater community to embrace working artists, if artists can’t embrace each other?
In a community of constant artistic activity saddled with audiences (both artists and civilians) who fear to cross borders, gigs like Fringe shake the waters. The open forum attracts diligent artists drawn to the daring, unconventional environment. In the pressure-cooker of activity, artists and audiences are encouraged (in fact, they have little choice) to bust out of their comfort zone and check out something new. Artists network. Theater fans discover slam poetry collectives. The best part is, all the riches that are already boiling away in their own comfy little saucepans are dumped together in a great big melting pot of artistic joy. And for St. Louisans, they begin to trust that a nice zesty gumbo beats even the best stand-alone okra any day.
Issue 2: Stuck in the Rut
If anything, St. Louis is old school, like a crotchety old geezer. Prescribed definitions (sociocultural, regional, and artistic) are comfortable. Change comes slow, and the performing arts are no exception. Some of the self-proclaimed “cutting edge” theater companies manage to produce the most conventional stagings of work that begs to defy convention. It becomes tragically formulaic. Want to produce a musical? Badda-bing, here's how you do it. Dance company? Lights-costumes-iPod-you're-good-to-go. Ready to go with the same old, same old.
While change is slow, it does come eventually, and Fringe establishes a forum that encourages risk taking in a protected environment. The local companies who are trying new things fit right in, and the less daring groups can toe their way into new ventures. Locals work side-by-side with national performers who push the status quo by bringing exotic approaches to the work. Audiences come expecting to see something different, so that artists are encouraged to gently ease their way out of the proverbial box, in a safe, structured, professional setting.
Issue 3: Ghost Structures and a Declining Urban Landscape
At one point, St. Louis was a bustling hub of commerce. By midcentury it was the eighth largest US city. But suburban flight hit the city hard. Economic hardship and racism slowly drained the urban area, so that by 2000 it suffered a shocking population decline of over sixty percent. Left behind were beautiful, rotting, vacant buildings—dubbed “ghost structures.”
The local arts hub, Grand Center (self-dubbed “The Intersection of Art and Life”) is teeming with galleries and stages but surrounded by foreboding empty buildings and vacant streets. Following the lead of international movements spearheaded by visionary groups like 3Space and Renew Australia, we pitched the festival to a nearby business district, advocating that our artistic infiltration into the plentiful “found spaces” would (over time) decrease crime, increase property value, fuel local enterprise, defy urban fear, and foster public awareness. The idea was that the festival would thrive on the literal fringes of St. Louis' intersection of art and life.
It’s all well and good to make a case for Fringe developing a blighted urban environment. But the issues cited above have been long standing and were certainly prevalent in ’07. So, what changed the tune of the artists so dramatically?
WHY WAS ST. LOUIS READY TO BE FRINGE OCCUPIED?
Factor 1: Everyone's Favorite Pivot Point—The Great Recession
Nothing brings a community together like shared disparity. As we've all experienced by now, economic hardship has an incredibly deep impact on virtually every aspect of modern society. Culturally, local artists now find themselves more open to sharing resources. When I'd first been floating the Fringe in '07, there was little need to share. The recession left little choice. Suddenly a low-cost production in an externally managed environment, even if it does stray from the comfort zone a little, doesn't seem like such a risky idea.
Factor 2: The Professional Theatre Counsel of St. Louis
In 2004, a local actor, frustrated by the lack of attention to professional theater in the city, founded the Professional Theatre Counsel. The organization adjudicates local productions and produces an annual black-tie awards ceremony, celebrating exceptional work and professionals.
The Counsel quickly brought a whole new level of attention to professional artists in the city. Within a year, a dozen new theater companies had sprung up. The theater community had a unifying entity, a single event that got everyone talking, raised the standard of professional theater, and got all the usual suspects together for a glitzy night of glam, booze, and stories. And with our own little Tony Awards, the performing arts were in the spotlight.
Unfortunately, plagued by financial struggles and controversy, the Counsel folded a week before St Lou Fringe’s inaugural festival. But with the buzz about a new major event filling the niche, the performing arts could keep our little hold in the public's heart.
Factor 3: “CITY”
The miracle of the Yurpie. It is unlike the Yuppie (Young Urban Professional), a creature who in this region was more likely a Young Suburban Professional. However, the Yurpies (Young Urban Restoration Professionals) have embraced St. Louis and all its bluesy glory. They are both homegrown and transplants. They flee from sprawl and enliven disparate neighborhoods. They don stickers proclaiming “CITY: Proud to Live in St. Louis.” They get tattoos of the Fleur des Lis and images of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
In general, they love all things local. Events like Fringe that boast supporting local artists, growing the cultural scene, partnerships with local businesses, and urban growth are right up their alley.
Factor 4: The Visceral Wave
As with the Great Depression, the recession has found consumers more cautious about their spending. The rise of popular ventures like LivingSocial imply that we want quality for our dimes spent, and (also like the depression) attention has turned to valuable experiences rather than material things. Out with the Joneses, in with Groupon!
Audiences want to feel alive when they interact with art. They load in for raunchy, high-energy, and often absurd productions. In St. Louis, the audiences for burlesque and vaudeville-style shows have exploded. While the art forms are growing in popularity nationwide, the consistent demand in St. Louis has drawn esteemed performers from around the country to relocate here. Small business owners commission graffiti artists to fill their vacant brick walls with delightfully bizarre paintings. Elaborately ordained bicycle herds raid the streets. It's subtle; a fire dancer appears on a street corner. A drum line echoes from the distance. Boobie tassles twirl in a hazy restaurant window. I credit the phenomenon as The Visceral Wave. It can’t easily be quantified or defined, but it is certainly an experience, an investment in the city, the culture, and the people. It’s very “Fringey,” and it’s happening right now.
In many ways, describing the evolving cultural climate in St. Louis, and how Fringe fits, is a can of worms. Every single issue and factor described here could be a dedicated subject of study. I also don’t want to downplay the hard work, organization, and deeply thorough, intentional design of St Lou Fringe that primed it for success. And I must emphasize that, while St Lou Fringe to gained a great deal of positive attention, partnerships, and support from artists and the community, we have a lot of room to grow. St. Louis still has issues, and our organization is far from perfect. But the spirit is willing, the season is ripe, and the Fringe tool is a powerful thing. It's a noble idea, and it can work. Here in St Lou Fringeland, our noses are to the grindstone, and we're hoping for the best.