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Who the Fringe is Em Piro?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 20, 2012 - Both the theater and St. Louis seem reluctant to let go of Em Piro.

When the St. Lou Fringe founder left Seattle for Saint Louis University in 2004, the idea of theater was a fading image in her rearview mirror.

“I was very involved in the performing arts in high school. But I thought, ‘I’m going to put this theater thing aside and try new things',” Piro said.

But looking to fit in, Piro turned to a familiar place: the stage. SLU was casting for a presentation of “Far Away” by farcical, feminist British playwright Caryl Churchill, and Piro hoped for even a small part.

“I thought I’d be an extra. But I ended up being cast as the lead,” Piro said.

After graduating in 2007 with a sociology/international studies major, Piro, now 26, bought a one-way ticket back to Seattle. Again, theater intervened. Because of her heartfelt utterance of a single line -- “I could kill you” -- she was unexpectedly cast in New Jewish Theatre’s “Kindertransport.”

In returning to St. Louis for rehearsals and in subsequent interactions, Piro began to forge strong connections in the local theater scene and within community outreach organizations including St. Patrick Center, home of her day job.

Five years later, she’s still here.

"I credit that moment in that audition for everthing that's followed in my career," Piro said.

‘Precocious, adorable visionary’

As Piro moved deeper and deeper into local theater -- directing “Top Girls” and working on other projects with Slightly Askew Theatre, co-founding Glass Monsters arts collective -- she envisioned a kind of Fringe Festival in St. Louis. Inspired by the matriarch of the Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland, she floated the idea, initially to naysayers.

Six months ago, the concept began to gain traction. Since then, Piro and about two dozen volunteers have secured eight partnerships (including the Beacon Festival) and sponsors, four indoor and three outdoor venues, and 30 acts ranging from experimental works from local theaters to a Bob Marley impersonator to a man-eating balloon. Outside the regular venues for the June21-25 event, Fringe-goers will see jugglers and other entertainers along the 10-minute walk between the two furthest points.

Pulling Fringe together has added 40 more hours to Piro’s already 40-hour work week as a community resources counselor for St. Patrick. Through the Center, Piro occasionally dabbles in the arts -- or on the periphery of the arts as a case manager -- while satisfying her passion for community development in events such the collaboration in February between The Pulitzer andPrison Performing Arts, “Staging Reflections of the Buddha.”

A “precocious, adorable visionary,” is the phrase SLU theater professor Tom Martin, a Fringe organizer, uses to describe Piro. Martin first encountered Piro, and found a kindred spirit, when she exhibited a rare, deep knowledge of playwright Caryl Churchill at the audition eight years ago.

“What I saw then was a someone who had vision and wanted to push the boundaries of the arts,” Martin said. “She was more of an actor than a leader then; the leader aspect is something she accumulated over the years.”

Illustrating her burgeoning leadership skills is the sheer determination with which Piro birthed St. Lou Fringe into reality, according to Travis Howser, director of events at Grand Center, a Fringe partner.“I’ve sat in many meetings with people who said, ‘You can’t do this,' and she says, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and usually, she does,” Howser said.

Out-fringing PrideFest

As Piro and other volunteers count down the days until Fringe’s Thursday start date, there’s one aspect they don’t have a handle on: attendance. Without advance sales, there’s no way to predict how many people will show up.

Two days of the Fringe take place the same weekend as another formerly fringe-y occasion: St. Louis PrideFest. The three-decades-old festival of LGBT pride has evolved into a mainstream happening, drawing more than 80,000 people and families of all stripes to Tower Grove Park.

The last weekend of Circus Flora, the first Muny weekend of the season and the Komen Race for the Cure may also compete for Fringe attention. There is no home Cardinals game, however, and the Chinese Lantern Festival is on view for two more months at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

But if the buzz factor and offers of help are any measure, Piro expects a good crowd.

“I’ve been really surprised how many people have sought us out. People want to be part of it,” Piro said.

And what about next year? Piro’s definitely in it for the long haul and applying to make St. Lou Fringe a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

“I see it as more than an event,” Piro said. “I see it as something that can nourish and foster a subcultural wave that’s going on, that the Fringe encapsulates very well.”

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